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Divorce, Custody, and the Phrase, "Putting the Children First"

Updated on May 12, 2014
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

When "Putting the Children First" is Nothing More than Lip Service

In divorce situations, the phrase, "putting children first," is the phrase everyone seems to use. Most people agree with the idea of putting the children first - in theory. In practice, whether or not anyone really puts the children first is an entirely different matter. In reality, the phrase, "putting the children first," is often nothing more than a joke that isn't at all funny

There are, of course, divorcing couples who will work together to place the children's needs first, but many divorcing parents won't or can't work together toward that aim. In some cases, one parent may be completely committed to putting the children first, but the other is not.

Even before a couple decides to divorce there's a good chance one or both partners were not putting the children first, because if they were they may have been more willing to work together to save the marriage. There are, of course, completely one-sided marriages, and there are abusive situations; both of which may be the fault of only one unwilling, uncooperative, or unreasonable partner.

Parents who show disrespect to the other parent in front of the children, and parents who fights in front of other children, are not putting the children first.

In divorce it is not putting the children first when one parent underestimates the relationship the other good, loving, parent has with the children. On the other hand, when one parent is not a good, loving, parent it is s/he who is not putting the children first by being the kind of parent s/he ought to be. Parents who underestimate the other's parent's relationship with the children don't even know they're doing it. They believe they're putting the children first.

The same applies to parents who underestimate the character or mental stability of the other parent. Again, parents don't always realize that when they try to keep their children away from an ex-spouse about whom they don't think very highly, there's at least the chance that - in the ugliness of divorce - they are wrong about the other parent (and wrong in trying to limit his/her time with the children). Under circumstances in which neither parent is negligent or abusive, any time either parent is willing to allow too little time with, or too much distance from, the other parent, s/he is not putting the children first.

When parents are able to be reasonable enough to put aside their differences and try to do what will be best for the children, their loving, parental, good sense can be undermined when the divorce actually ends up in court. In "Child Custody Guidelines: Suggestions from One Judge"

(The Family Law Advisor, Volume 6, Issue 3, Sept. 2002, Divorcenet.com) it is noted that retired judge, Edward Ginsburg (Massachusetts) shared his views in the August 5, 2002 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. As of the 2002 The Family Law Advisor writing, the former judge's views are described as follows: "Judge Ginsburg opposes placating parents by awarding shared physical custody or even allowing joint decision-making. He contends that leads to on-going conflict after divorce.".  The judge was said to have invited colleagues to avoid delay in deciding custody cases by deciding within six to nine months. This, of course, implies that a time limit is more important that the facts of the cases or the children's best interest. 

The Family Law Advisor noted about this one judge, " ...undoubtedly critics will challenge the Judge's notion that there should be a primary residential parent with the noncustodial parent visiting every other weekend and one evening a week. Another quote from The Family Law Advisor's piece on child custody and divorce is that the judge is "dismissive of parent coordinators who end up 'serving as a parent to the parents'. He goes on to argue that courts should take back control of the decision-making process to protect children, the 'innocent victims of divorce.'" People with an understanding of what it really means to put children first, and with any understanding of children, themselves, would not see any hint of putting children first demonstrated by the views of a judge like this.   While many divorcing parents are not, I’m sure, the most reasonable; the fact that is overlooked by judges with this attitude is that there are many capable, good, parents who are far better equipped to make decisions about what is in their own children’s best interest than a stranger is (judge or not).  Sometimes those “innocent victims of divorce” are innocent victims of judges and others in The System.  In fact, it may be that this is more often the case than not.

This judge's views are only the views of one judge, but this individual is not the only one (and certainly not the only judge) who views custody cases this way. "The courts should take back control of the decision-making process to protect children..." - when has it ever been putting the children first to have courts "take control" over divorces that, in many cases, could have been worked out between the two parents. Even when that's not possible, when is it ever putting the children first if the court completely usurps control when exercising such control on only an "as needed" basis might do the job?

Perhaps judges know more about putting children first than the rest of us do. After all, it happens that the former judge mentioned above presided over the notorious Fagan case, a custody case that took place

more than 20 years ago, in which some claim the judge disregarded "copious evidence" that mother was not capable of caring for the couple’s two daughters. The father then brought the little girls to Florida, changed his and their names, told them their mother was dead, and lived a new life until he was caught by authorities. Whether Judge Ginsburg disregarded evidence about the most capable parent or failed to protect the girls from a father who would take them away as he did may not be something the public can know for certain.  Either way, such a failure by any judge should give us pause when it comes to believing that any court ever really puts the children or their well-being first.

Some judges may also be reluctant to modify custody orders after the initial ruling just because they believe there must be an end to custody battles, and the children need stability.  One question, however, whether unwillingness to modify custody orders in the interest of “stability” is ever blind commitment to what may have been insufficient facts when the first custody order was put in place.  More importantly, one might question whether this is always in the best interest of the children.

Fathers' Rights groups all across the country voice anger over the treatment of fathers. It isn't just fathers who are "kicked to the curb" by the court system. There are cases when women leave their husbands for reasons family members don't know, and end up being brought to mental health facilities as a result. How many of those women end up staying for a few days or weeks before anyone figures out the truth is something this author doesn't know. What is known, however, is that once these mothers' mental health has been questioned the court process may not include getting to the truth that would help put the children first.

When a couple divorces even members of extended family may be guilty of not really putting the children first. Angry parents-in-law and siblings-in-law may refuse to talk to one of the parents. They may say, "I care about the kids, and I'll do what's right for the kids - but that's it." These are people who may try to do any number of things for their grandchildren or nieces and nephews; but the one thing they won't do, and the one thing that would put the children first, may be being supportive of, and civil to, both of the children's parents.

Anything and anyone who undermines children's relationships with their parents is not putting the children first. Neither is it putting the children first when anyone or anything takes any action that hinders either parent's ability to parent, to financially support, and/or to emotionally support his/her children.

"Putting the children first": It's a phrase everybody seems to use. It's an idea so many people believe they embrace. In reality, it may be a rare person who even tries to put the children first; and it may be an even rarer person who manages to do that in spite of the legal system.

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    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Anonymous, thank you for sharing your own situation here. I suspect that far more families have situations such as what you've described than anyone knows. I know that when I went for divorce the lawyer made the comment a couple of times, "Whatever you do, you can't appear to be trying to infringe on the other parent's rights." The "joke" (for lack of a better word to describe it) is that this is what lawyers and "everybody else" says - and yets lawyers and courts go about infringing on the rights of good parents all the time, when they're unwilling to, or incapable of, recognizing the very common phenomenon you've described for what it is.

      Right or wrong, wise or un-wise; when the courts made a mess in my kids' lives I'd tell them all the time, "The people to blame for this are the 'court people', because they're the ones who are supposed to get things right and do what's right." It didn't help make them any happier, and it didn't "straighten this out" (the way they'd describe it), but I figured it put the blame exactly where it belonged).

      You're right. Too few people even recognize emotional abuse for what it is. The court system, itself, was far, far, more emotionally abusive to my three kids (but also, in ways, to me and their father) than any spouse could ever be.

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      Anonymous 6 years ago

      You commented on the only time a parent's right should be terminated is when he/she is so abusive the child is really better off without him/her. This is what research shows (Jack Straton - "What is Fair for Children of Abusive Men?"). Even my own kids have told me that "some people are just not meant to be parents" referring to their own father. In the name of not alienating him (which his lawyer has accused me of), I could never say much. In fact, I had often been accused by them of defending an unfit parent who abuses his own children.

      The problem is that violent men rarely present as such. His friends who are groomed and manipulated (especially the men) don't see it. He has even hoodwinked his psychiatrist so he doesn't see any personality disorders when it is clear to those who know him that he is disordered.

      In spite of his history of domestic violence and child abuse, I expect that he will be given time by the court. I haven't been able to mediate because it is impossible to mediate with him. Meanwhile my children continue to suffer and if I stop them from seeing him, I can imagine him gaining sole, if not shared custody. So, damned if I do, damned if don't. The only thing I know is that my poor kids will one day have intense therapy and ask me why I allowed him to continue his abuse after divorce, and I will have tell him because the courts expect children to see their fathers, no matter how dangerous they are to their own family.

      (He is not physically abusive anymore, but very few people recognize that the worst form of abuse is emotional.)

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Dada_Phil, thanks for contributing to the discussion here. I can't say I agree with the thinking that the government (courts or anyone associated with the courts) ought to have a right to refuse to grant a divorce to someone who wants one.

      When I left my marriage (after years of hoping things would improve), the first thing we ended up facing was a counselor who said we were having that meeting "to see if a divorce really has to come down". (First, I had to ask him what we really meant, because, to me, "come down" wasn't the talk of a professional.) As a close-to-40-year-old adult, who had been paying attention to how the marriage was for over five years before even thinking about leaving; I thought this individual (and the court that required him to be involved) was way over-stepping his bounds.

      My thing was, "Look, Buddy. If I say I've decided I need a divorce I expect that to be respected, since I'm an adult and since it is, to me, unthinkable that anyone would presume to try to keep someone trapped in a bad situation when the person in question knew in her heart that she wasn't making a hasty decision, and that staying in the marriage was unhealthy for her children (and husband, for that matter).

    • Dada_Phil profile image

      Dada_Phil 6 years ago from Texas

      There is someone I can agree with. The law is pretty clear but rarely understood (imagine that) here in Texas. The policy of the state promotes marriage for the childrens' interest but the lawyers never disclose this and never argue towards this at trial or oppose the claim for divorce. Putting the child's interest first when it comes to either granting or denying the divorce should be but never is done.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Parenting Plans, thank you for the positive feedback and additional thoughts. Having a mutual, amicable, agreement is ideal. Unfortunately, all it takes is one of the spouses to make that impossible. Also, unfortunately, sometimes courts/attorneys overstep their bounds no matter what kind of amicable agreement couples would like to arrange; and divorcing couples have no choice but to go through the court system. All it takes is an arrogant judge who thinks he knows better than anyone else how custody cases should be handled, and who has develops his own "one-size-fits-all" way to handle things.

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      Parenting Plans  7 years ago

      A comprehensive and well-written article!

      Most of the time, the parents should be blamed for horrible divorces. Most children, with warring divorced parents, develop low self esteem and are more vulnerable to drugs and vices.

      There are lot of issues concerning child custody, and divorcing couples leave the verdict to the court. Nevertheless, this final judgment has often resulted to constant brawls among divorced couples

      If couples had only agreed amicably, then there would be no problem at all. I believe that children know what's best for them, neither the court nor the parents cannot decide what's best for children.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      maymong, thanks. I agree.

    • mayhmong profile image

      mayhmong 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Not happening in some cases I've been through. Glad you brought this up. Makes sense to place the child in the right care.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Justine76, thanks. I agree. Even those of us who generally don't read, or refer to, The Bible are familiar with the story about King Solomon and the two women who claimed to be an infant's mother. Of course, then too, much of the time people just don't really know what's truly in the best interests of children. It can be a matter of misguided opinion.

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      Justine76 7 years ago

      I think, often times, family and extended family forget that the "other" parent is so important to the child, and that by ignoring or even worse, bad mouthing, that parent, they are hurting the child. Truly putting the children first, means...putting yourself aside...

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Lisa HW, the big difference between sole custody and termination of parental rights is that until and unless the rights of the other parent are terminated, then he/she can always come back and sue for full custody. It's never over for either parent, because it's also true that the custodial parent can sue to increase child support. The door to the court house is always open -- and sometimes it's a revolving door that people go through everytime there is a small change in their standard of living, income or living arrangements.

      You don't have to tell a small child that parental rights have been terminated. You can allow whatever contact you deem is best for the child. The big difference is that you, the one and only legal parent, get to decide -- not the court!

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Aya, I may just not understand the all the "details" or reasons for terminating a parent's rights (only to have the parent remain in the child's life); but it still seems to me that sole custody would accomplish the same thing, without having a parent sign away all parental rights.

      I agree (most people do) that an infant starts out with the strongest bond with the mother and then later grows close to his/her father. That's pretty much the natural process and natural state-of-affairs when it comes to parents. That doesn't make the parent with the not-quite-so-intense bond less than a good parent. I believe the bond with both parents is important, and I believe custody should go to the parent with whom the child is most bonded. Having a not-so-intense bond with the child, however, doesn't seem to me to warrant termination of a parent's rights.

      Children do have all kinds of adults in their lives, but (at least when a child has two good, loving, parents; as I was fortunate enough to have) how a child feels about his mother and father is very different from all those other loving relationships. I pretty much believe if I my father had signed away his rights as a parent and said (essentially) "I'm not going to have a say in your medical or educational or other issues; and I'm not going to be providing support for you any longer," that would have been crushing to me. I do believe there would have been serious, serious, consequences to the emotional part of the relationship. Again, I don't see the benefit or reason to terminate parental rights when sole custody will accomplish the aim of not having to contact "Peru" if the doctor says the child needs tubes in his ears.

      I don't think children need to know when their parents go to court over some custody or parenting-related issue. I think the right thing for parents to do is not to fight over custody or child support within earshot of the child. If the parents are too stupid to know not to fight in front the children then I have no problem with a judge or social worker pointing out the error or their ways to them.

      I do think there should be a giant stigma to people signing away their parental rights when there are other ways to accomplish what's in the child's interest. I don't think parents should try to get out of their financial obligations to their child via this route. Good parents wouldn't want to. In a sole-custody arrangement someone like a father could tell the child, "I'm still your father, but I've signed papers to let your mother make school and medical decisions so people like doctors and teachers don't have to wait until they can get in touch with me."

      The parent who signs away his rights and wants to still be in the child's life essentially wants it both ways - and that, I think, isn't just confusing to a child (or worse), but it's not a great example of what parents should be/do.

      Terminating parental rights to avoid possible legal disputes is, to me, like cutting off both legs at the hips in order to make sure I never have to deal with arthritis in the knees. It sounds bizarre. The way to deal with the possibility of future arthritis in the knees would be to first see if it develops, then deal with if it does, and if it gets really bad deal with whatever decisions there are to deal with if/when the need arises. Can I be assured I'll never get arthritis in the knees? No. Still, am I better off taking the "head-it-off-by-cutting-them-off" approach? I don't think so.

      Maybe I'm missing some big difference between sole custody and termination of all parental rights. That's a possibility, I know.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Lisa HW, no, I did not mean that a parent agreed to a sole custody arrangement. I meant a real termination of parental rights, so that only one of the original parents has the rights of a parent and the obligations of a parent. This does not mean, necessarily, that the parent whose rights have been terminated has to disappear from the child's world, never to be seen again.

      Even in the best of marriages, and with good decent people involved, a child is seldom equally attached to both parents. In many cases one parent goes out and works outside the home. Another stays with the child. You can argue all you want that they both are doing a good job of parenting, but an infant doesn't know that. The infant is bonded with the one who is there, and may not even be aware of the other one. As the child grows older, more awareness of the less involved parent may come about. There may be playing together and talking and lots of love. But a child can also love an uncle or an aunt or grandmother, and maintain good bonds with them, even though they have no parental rights or obligations.

      Terminating parental rights has a bad stigma now. But think about it: all it means is that the parent no longer has decision making rights and support obligations. It doesn't say anything about the child's emotional relationship with that parent.

      If divorced parents no longer had legal entanglements, there would be a lot less strife, and much more likelihood of peace in the child's life. No more custody fights. No more quarrels about child support.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Aya, I think it may clarification of terms (and/or possibly differences in state laws) that are issues here.

      "Termination of parental rights" is what takes place, voluntarily or involuntarily, before a child is freed for adoption. It means the original parent is no longer the child's parent whatsoever in the eyes of the law.

      Then there is "sole custody" under which the custodial parent makes decisions about the child's welfare (educational, medical, etc.) alone; while the non-custodial parent retains rights and responsibilities as a parent with regard to things such as time to be with the child (I'm not a fan of the term, "visitation", when referring to a child's other parent). Sole custody leaves room for either parent to ask the courts to modify the arrangement.

      To the best of my understanding, if the child were hospitalized and only allowed to have immediate family as visitors, in a sole custody arrangement the good-but- non-custodial parent (as allowed to a parent against whom there's a court order that says otherwise) will be allowed in, while the parent with "parental rights terminated" would not.

      Also, to the best of my understanding, in a sole-custody situation if the custodial parent were to die or become incapacited somehow, the non-custodial parent still has a right to ask the court to modify the custody order. If parental rights are terminated and the custodial parent dies the other parent isn't even factored in/considered by the court; and the options as to who gets custody and gets to make decisions can be between the state and the child's crazy "Aunt Helen". The non-custodial parent in a sole-custody situation retains the right to show up in court and ask for custody (whether that would be physical custody or just the right to begin making decisions about what goes on with the child).

      If what you meant was a parent voluntarily agreeing to a sole-custody arrangement for reasons such as not living nearby, that I can certainly agree with you about in some circumstances. I have to say, though, that my personal belief is once someone has a child somewhere the best parent would not move far away from his child in a divorce situation (no matter how much he then decides he'd like to, for example, move back to his home country and live near family. After all, he moved away from family once, got into a relationship somewhere, and brought a child into the world. I think if parents are truly properly attached/bonded with the child there is no way they would even consider moving too far away from that child. By virtue of being willing to do so, that parent could be showing signs of not being appropriate attached to the child (which would, of course, make signing away decision-making rights the best thing for the child).

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Lisa HW, I wasn't talking about involuntary termination of parental rights, which can be a terrible thing, and sometimes even happens to both parents when the state decides to take the children away.

      I was talking about voluntary termination, where one of the parents realized it would be better to step away and let the other take over the parental role, since they could not work together. This need not involve telling the child that the other parent doesn't care. On the contrary, one can explain that the other parent cares so much that he (or she) gave up rights in the interest of letting the child have an uncomplicated and less troubling life. It also does not mean that the child and the other parent cannot meet or maintain a relationship. All it means is that the terminated parent has no decision making powers over the child and no obligations for support. The other parent becomes like any other adult in the child's life. Other adults come and go, but they don't make the rules and they don't have the commitment of a parent to see the child through to successful adulthood.

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 8 years ago from Massachusetts

      R.G., thanks for contributing these thoughts. I very much agree. Courts seem to disregard the family as a whole and often disregard the need to for both parents to remain "whole" (rather than being kicked to the curb if they're the ones who don't have custody). Doing either of these things amounts to not doing what is best for the children. Children gain their sense of security from knowing their parents are the same capable, functioning, people they've always been even if they had to divorce. Leaving one parent to live in his car is leaving children with far more trauma than is necessary. Courts make it so one parent has difficulty being a parent by tying his hands; and then the "experts" in the court and everybody else says, "What a horrible parent he is. He doesn't do what fathers are supposed to do for their children."

    • Lisa HW profile image
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      Lisa HW 8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Aya, thanks for contributing. This is just my opinion, but I have to say the only time I think terminating parental rights is ever at all the right thing to do is when parents are so abusive they aren't fit to be parents and don't deserve to retain their parental rights. The other situation would be if one or both parents absolutely don't want the child and give up parental rights.

      At the time of divorce children are either attached to both parents already or not. If children are over a certain age and have had both good parents in their lives they'll likely be attached. My thing as a parent is that I would ever move far away from my child. Having said that, though, if there's no choice and an attached parent must move; I'd think the child would be better off to be told (for example), "Daddy needs to go to x country to see his mother and father, but he'll talk to you on the computer." After Daddy was gone for a while the child would get used to not having him around; and maybe he could be told something like, "Daddy would like to be with you, but he's not able to." Some distance would grow as the father wasn't around, but the child would know who the father is, talk to him, have to accept that he wasn't all that close to him, and - yes - have to adjust to knowing his father couldn't be with him. There wouldn't be any "Why did he give me away?"; and in the meantime, the child would still remain attached to his mother and be free to form attachments with another father figure. Lots of people grow up not being close to their father and having someone else they feel closer to.

      The larger part of being attached occurs when a parent is with the child and cares for him on a daily basis. In the case of a child who hasn't his father around there wouldn't be "equal attachment" to him as to the mother. The child would already be used to not having him around; but I still think knowing who is, where he is, and being in touch through mail or over the computer is still better nothing. These days many people believe open is adoption is best just because they believe a child's knowing who/where is biological mother is is better than having that person a mystery.

      The older children are the more solid there attachment will be to both good parents (if both good parents have raised them). I just think it's way too much to terminate rights when a child is over a certain age. If the child is under the age when attachments are solid and well established then there won't be equal attachment if the child is separated from one parent by something like distance; but in the case, the child will grow up just knowing that "Daddy needs to be in Peru with his mother and father and can't come here, but even though I don't know him very well he cares about me and wishes he could be with me." I can't help but think that's better than, "Well, they say Daddy loves me, but he signed away his parental rights because someone thought I couldn't love Step-Daddy if I kept getting letters from Daddy." I can't help but think it's better if the parent can say to the child, "I love you, and I'm so sorry I can't be with you, but I'll always be your Dad, even if we can't be as close as I wish we could. I'm so glad Step-Dad is there, so you can have someone who can do 'Dad things' with you."

      So, I'd think since the attached parent has to leave anyway, the child will go through that loss. At least knowing he could still keep in touch and that the parent "wishes they could be together" would be, I'd think, less traumatic than having an attached parent sign away rights forever. With the non-attached/distant parent, having him move far away wouldn't be much of a loss to the child; but I still think knowing who is father is and where is, and talking to him once in a while would still be better than nothing. To the best of my understanding, sole custody gives the custodial parent the right to make school and medical decisions without the consent of the other, so that issue would, I'd think, be solved through sole custody while still "establishing" that the non-custodial parent remained the parent (who doesn't happen to make decisions).

      "Terminating parental rights", as you know (but as readers may not) means "establishing" that the parent is no longer the child's parent. I don't think any good and loving parent should sign over his rights because of something like needing to move to another country for some reason.

      As a parent, I would never have wanted my children's father to sign away his parental rights. If my children's father had had to move to "Peru" or somewhere, I would rather put in the effort to figure out how to help them still know him, and how to help them understand that he still loved them and would be with them if he could be.

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      R.G. San Ramon 8 years ago

      Lisa HW: "In reality, it may be a rare person who even tries to put the children first; and it may be an even rarer person who manages to do that in spite of the legal system."

      Very well-said. I can relate to this hub (although divorce is not applied here in the Philippines, yet many families are sadly illegally broken and marriages annulled).

      However, just a thought: Putting the children first could also mean putting one's self second (or third) and one's partner third (or second). Maybe it would have been better if the legal system puts the family first, starts thinking collectively than individually. What the children and the parents can benefit individually may not sum up if the whole family is taken together. Just as the Germans say, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Lisa, there is a lot of truth to what you write, and I saw it first hand when I was doing divorces. The phrase they used at the time was "in the best interest of the child." Rarely was anything anybody did in the best interest of the child, least of all the courts.

      I did find, though, that in those cases where both parents agreed that it would be best to terminate the parental rights of one of them, that the best interest of the child in the long run was served, even if it was painful in the short run.

      It is not in the best interest of the child to be equally attached to two people who are not going to be living in the same state or even the same country, even if they are both good people who love the child. It is in the best interest of the child to maintain a stable attachment with a person who is going to be there for the entire duration of childhood.