In my town, “Divorce Court” is in Department 13 of our Superior Court. It is an appropriately numbered, bad luck, sad place. If you believe that rooms and buildings can possess a spirit, then those of Department 13 are tormented, as are so many of the people waiting for their cases to be called.
Where child custody and visitation battles erupt in this courtroom, spectators are far too often treated to a bad situation made worse by lawyers who care only about winning – doing whatever it is that the client wants – and who have no concern for what the children need.
Some family law attorneys pride themselves on never speaking to the children alone. The justification usually given, “Well, I don’t want anyone to accuse me of having told the kids what to say.” This excuse is a convenient way of never hearing what the child wants.
When a client is paying hundreds of dollars per hour and tells you do whatever you can to limit visitation with the other parent, few family law attorneys care about a child who wants to spend more time – or worse yes – wants to live with the other parent.
The foundations of a stable society begin with family. When, in the name of “zealously representing the client,” lawyers simply do as instructed – without regard for what we are doing – then we may harm the children, and even our client in the long run.
Family court should not be a place where it is only a question of: “Whatever my client wants me to do, I’ll do.” But it is that way, often with painful results.
Children have long memories. When they discover the real reason that they only saw Dad once in a while was because Mom set up roadblocks to visitation, guess who gets the blame? Mom and her lawyer.
When they discover that Dad didn’t forget their birthday and that his Christmas presents never made it under the tree, it is Dad who they will seek, as Mom becomes part of their past.
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This past Thanksgiving holiday, just as I was locking up the officer early on Wednesday, a couple - brother and sister in their early 20's – came by the office and asked if I had a minute.
“You probably don’t remember us, but you handled our father’s divorce about 10 years ago. We were about 12 or 13 at the time,” said the woman. “We both vividly remember that Mom didn’t want us to spend much time with our father, and that there was a very loud discussion in the hallway right outside the courtroom.
“You bought us a soda and we talked – just the three of us. We wanted to actually live with our father? But we were afraid to say this in front of her. And you told the other lawyer to talk to us, but he wouldn’t.”
“We weren’t allowed in the courtroom, so we didn’t know then what happened. But we found out years later that she and her lawyer did everything possible to keep us away from Dad. It was only when we got older – and started asking questions of other family members – that we learned just how much she did to keep us away from him.”
“We are spending this Thanksgiving with him. It will be his last, as he’s terminally ill. We just wanted to thank you for talking to us in court and for trying to get us more time with Dad.”
“We won’t talk to our mother anymore. She robbed us of a good relationship with our father. He was a decent man and we needed him. We blame her and her lawyer. If he had just taken the time to talk to us, I can’t help wondering if things would have turned out differently,” her brother said.
In this case and so many others, I have wondered the same thing.