Michigan kids who were jailed: The whole miserable saga, & the simplest solution.

OK, not the whole truth, but the wholest truth I've ever seen in one place in a child custody case, is in the guardian ad litem report (via Michigan international family lawyer Jeanne Hannah; may no longer be online) These GAL reports are generally not made public, but any damage from that is minor compared to what all members of this family have inflicted on themselves for the past five years. 

[UPDATE: The court later did exactly what the GAL report, and this blog post, suggested! Here's the latest:  "Dad in bitter divorce wants mom blocked from contact", Detroit News, 9/9/15]

The GAL report DOES NOT recommend jailing the children. It recommends a far simpler and more direct solution: immediately giving the father visitation with each of them separately, one on one. Supervised, but reluctantly and only to protect the father from accusations. The court in this case has imposed endless shows of governmental force and therapy on these children, who were not impressed by any of it. But in my experience, what really works is placing them directly with the other parent, and in many cases, changing custody permanently. Many children in divorces will go to extremes to do what they think pleases and aligns with the parent who appears to have the power and control. And when that control changes, they can turn on a dime.

Almost every experienced family lawyer has had several cases like this. Something to remember when we are told that the government and society should not care whether a marriage can be saved.

(There has been a lot of very informed discussion on family lawyers' discussion forums, including very prominent leaders in the profession, and they almost all sympathize with the father although they don't support jailing the kids. I "red shirted" this posting while I got permission to quote some of the best comments from the lawyers' listserv. But that effort has languished what with new family law news coming along, and a whole lot of work on an upcoming custody trial, an appeal brief, a book revision and preparing materials for a continuing-ed seminar. I hope to post them in the future the next time this is in the news.)

 Meanwhile, Maryland family lawyer and family law professor Dawn Elaine Bowie, an early local advocate of Collaborative Divorce, makes a similar point, but not exactly the same, in wonderfully brief and to-the point fashion:

Let's All Sit In A Circle, Hold Hands, and Sing KumbayaParental Alienation and Court Involvement

By , Owner and Managing Partner, Maryland Family Law Firm, L.L.C. -- Sep 6, 2015


Study: 50-50 custody far less stressful for kids than sole custody. Here's why, and how to make it work.

"This Divorce Arrangement Stresses Kids Out Most", by Mandy Oaklander in TIME Magazine, summarizes a new study: Based on  national data on almost 150,000 12- and 15-year-olds' psychosomatic health problems, including sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, headaches, stomachaches and feeling tense, sad or dizzy; "Kids in nuclear families reported the fewest psychosomatic problems, but the more interesting finding was that students who lived with both of their separated parents reported significantly fewer problems than kids who lived with only one parent."

Study author Malin Bergström, PhD, said: “We think that having everyday contact with both parents seems to be more important, in terms of stress, than living in two different homes.”  “It may be difficult to keep up on engaged parenting if you only see your child every second weekend.” Having two parents also tends to double the number of resources a kid is exposed to, including social circles, family and material goods like money. “Only having access to half of that may make children more vulnerable or stressed than having it from both parents, even though they don’t live together.” 

Based on my 20 years of work in divorce and child custody, another major reason also seems obvious to me. All the inconveniences of "shuttling" between two homes, as real and bothersome as they are for many kids, are trivial compared to the disadvantages, pain and insecurity that comes from losing one parent from a fully parental role in the child's life. And when one parent take a lesser role, "he that hath little shall lose what little he hath," as the separated parents' competing employment needs, relocations and new relationships increasingly conflict with, and take priority over, co-parenting.

 That is why I support 50-50 joint custody when it's possible. I don't think it's necessarily the best, most enjoyable, day-to-day arrangement for most children: in our current social arrangements, in the U.S., most mothers "naturally" do more of the parenting and are more attuned to the children's needs. But in my own experience and in the statistics, so many divorces lead to a parent completely disappearing from the child's life, and many more see one parent marginalized, vilified, infantilized, and/or disempowered.  And children perceive that loss of a parent who can actually act as a parent, and of course it causes major stress for them. I think the 50-50 form is probably the most stable because, in it, neither parent assumes they have the unilateral power to make the changes which in turn make it practically necessary to reduce the other parent's role -- such as moving to a different school district or a faraway state.

But I am repelled by anyone who gushes that 50-50 joint custody, or any other custody arrangement, is just wonderful for kids. Any custody arrangement is a poor substitute for an intact family. 

The study is Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children? (28 Apr 2015) by Malin BergströmEmma FranssonBitte ModinMarie BerlinPer A Gustafsson, and Anders HjernJ Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2014-205058

But it still takes work. "9 Rules to Make Joint Child Custody Work" by Kate Bayless on parents.com gives really good, tough-minded advice that would have prevented a lot of my clients' problems. Most of it is about how to act when working out a custody agreement, not how to implement it. Excerpts of each of the 9 Rules:

  1. "Badmouthing the ex will be internalized by the child because they are made up of both you and your ex."
  2. The divorce was about you, but custody is about the kids ... not about getting exactly what you want, or even demanding equity at any cost. ... "what is best for the child is not always what feels good for you as a parent."
  3. Be realistic about your own schedule and commitments.
  4. Choose a custody arrangement that accommodates your children's ages, activities, and needs.
  5. A bad spouse doesn't equal a bad parent. Almost always,  "it is unquestionably best for children to have frequent and continuous contact with both parents."
  6. Find a method of communication that works for you and your ex.
  7. Pick your battles. "School choices, vacations, and parenting time are worth the fight. Things like food choices ... are not worth the fight." Save your energy and good will with your ex and the courts for those things that do matter.
  8. Let your children feel heard. But also make the best decision for their well being.
  9. From time to time, review the arrangement and adjust as needed.

If you work with families or have one, learn about Discernment Counseling March 18!

I'm so proud and lucky to be training to work as a divorce lawyer and mediator with couples in discernment counseling. It fills a generations-old need so fundamental that people have turned to all kinds of crummy substitutes over the years with demoralizing results -- marriage counseling that turns into divorce counseling and leaves one spouse feeling that that's what it was all along; "trial separations" that do the same and escalate the divorce conflict, mediations where the spouses and mediator have five different ideas of what they're meeting for. "DC" gives a safe space where people can weigh both options without getting into actions, threats and misunderstanding that drive people apart and quickly make divorce inevitable and nasty. 

March 18th Webinar -  Discernment Counseling for Couples on the Brink with Dr. Bill Doherty!

Learn about an innovation in working with couples on the brink of divorce where one spouse is leaning out of the marriage and the other wants to save it. This is a common presentation to marriage therapists, clergy and divorce lawyers, but there have been few protocols for helping these couples. Discernment counseling is a structured way to help "mixed agenda" couples decide whether to work on preserving their marriage or move toward divorce, based on a deeper understanding of what has happened to their relationship and each person's contributions. Bill Doherty has developed discernment counseling protocols for couples therapists (five sessions) and for clergy (one session and referral), plus an "ambivalence" protocol for family-friendly divorce lawyers and mediators.



  1. Identify the special challenges that mixed agenda couples face when they see helping professionals.
  2. Describe how couples therapist use discernment counseling to help these couples decide on the next step for their relationship.
  3. Describe how clergy use their own version of discernment counseling.
  4. Outline an ambivalence protocol for divorce lawyers and mediators who see mixed agenda couples.

Parents who cut other parent out of child's life are losing custody

In some cases, it's pretty simple. The child will still have two parents if one parent gets primary custody, but not if the other parent does. That factor does not outweigh some even more horrible things that sometimes happen to children, but it outweighs most other factors such as which parent and which home does some parenting tasks better, or is what the child is already used-to. 

The Australian judge and lawyers in the story below described such a move as "drastic". But it's not that drastic, in my experience in the U.S. Changing custody requires first, a relevant, material change of circumstances, and then a wide-open evaluation of what's in the child's best interests under current conditions. That should include: what example do the parents set for the children about how to treat other people and what to prioritize? Should the children learn that alienating, vicious, deceptive borderline-personality behavior works to meet one's goals? Is it healthy for a parent to lie to kids about the other parent to manipulate their emotions? And most important of all, is it better to grow up with two parents, or one manipulative, shortsighted, selfish, immature parent?

One big caveat: When there are abuse accusations, the time to diagnose and counteract parental alienation is AFTER investigating and resolving the abuse issue. And alienation, likewise, should be proven before it's punished. Fortunately, in most cases it's obvious and the alienating parent doesn't try hard to hide it, and may even proclaim it.

Judge takes girl away from selfish mum and gives her to dad in custody battle

Subtitle: SELFISH separated parents who try to stop their children having a relationship with their former partners are having the kids taken off them by courts.
Caption: This is a warning that parents need to be child-focused in every parenting decision they make and not self-focused, says family law specialist Deborah Awyzio.

A cultural public health approach worked for smoking and drowning. How about obesity, marriage and divorce?

"The Obesity Fix", by David L. Katz, MD, MPH, President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, is a very powerful, short, beautifully written article on its own terms. But as a longtime divorce lawyer, I find that everything in it speaks just as powerfully -- cries out just as desperately -- about marriage and divorce. We badly need a prevention-based public health approach, which is being pioneered by just a few small groups, such as Smart Marriages, The Doherty Relationship Institute, The Dibble Institute, the Coalition for Divorce Reform, and the new Marriage Opportunity Council. Katz writes:

If we simply committed to seeing, and treating, health more like wealth- it would go a long way toward fixing obesity, and the metabolic mayhem that follows in its wake. We respect wealth. We aspire to it. We hope to bequeath it to our children. We invest in it, and work for it. We care about it both for our own sake, and the sake of those we love. We recognize most get-rich-quick proposals as scams; we are sensible about money. We don’t spend everything we have today; we think about the future, and save for it. We get financial guidance from genuine experts, not just anybody who had a piggy bank once.

Obesity need not be a disease to be medically legitimate. Drowning is not a disease, and it suffers not at all for want of legitimacy. Drowning victims are reliably treated as the state-of-the-art allows when they show up in our emergency departments.

Nor does drowning invite fractious debate about personal responsibility. Rather, we tacitly acknowledge- by our actions- that personal and public responsibility are complementary, and both required. Parents need to watch their children at the pool’s edge or beach, and are well advised to teach them to swim. But there are lifeguards just the same. There are fences around pools.

And, of course, we don’t focus on the ex-post-facto treatment of drowning. We focus on prevention. Drowning is too common if it happens at all; but it is very much the exception. The rule is prevention, by application of the combined defenses born of personally and publicly responsible action.

If we treated drowning like obesity, we would have no lifeguards at the beach. We would not teach our children to swim. We would allow signage at a shore with notorious rip tides to read: “come on in, the water’s fine!”

If, instead, we treated obesity more like drowning, we would tell the truth about food. We would not market multicolored marshmallows to children as part of a complete breakfast. We would not willfully mislead about the perilous currents in the modern food supply. We would not look on passively as an entire population of non-swimmers started wading in over their heads.

Until or unless we choose to see things differently, McKinsey & Company is quite right: fixing obesity won’t be easy. That’s because the fix is in, and we are all OK with it. We apply the terms “junk” and “food” to the very same ingestibles, adopting a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” coyness- even as formerly adult-onset diabetes engulfs our children. We line up for an endless succession of fad diets, while glibly asserting that our entire country runs, essentially, on donuts.

If we treated wealth like health, we would all be gullible, indigent, and likely homeless. If we treated drowning like obesity, our ERs couldn’t keep up with the demand for resuscitations.

But if, instead, we treated health like wealth, and obesity like drowning- we could fix what ails us. It might even be easy. For in our collective and righteous might, no force could oppose us. Collectively, we are culture.

Instinctual parenting creates healthier kids, sturdier attachment, than scientific manipulation


"It’s striking to consider the attachment implications when parental behavior isn’t really about what it seems to be about, but is in service of a whole other agenda. Yet this is exactly what I hear from diverse groups with statements like “I give my child a hug when he does something well because kudos build self-esteem” or “When she bumped herself, once I realized she wasn’t really hurt, I let her cry because she needs to develop grit” or “We’re strict about keeping schedules because rituals instill emotional security.”

"The usurpation of parenting instincts has serious attachment consequences. For one thing, as brain imaging one day will show, kids can tell the difference between authentic, three-dimensional connection and a two-dimensional parental processing that passes for the real thing.

"We live in a culture immersed in emotional dysregulation -- a kind of nonstop, excessively stimulating too-muchness. This is all fine, as long as you have the ego strength and stability to absorb hyperstimulation without being undone by it. But, as we’re learning, people need secure attachment to develop a sturdy sense of self. And this is exactly where the long-term erosion of effective parental hierarchy, and now the diminution of un-self-conscious parenting, create many new shades of pseudo-attachment."

- Excerpts from "The Rise of the Two-Dimensional Parent: Are Therapists Seeing a New Kind of Attachment?" by  in Psychotherapy Networker.