Wednesday, May 27, 2009

School is Out!

I can't believe that school is out, or almost out, already! Where does the time go? While difficult parenting issues don't take a break for the summer, I do. Starting June 10, however, I will try very hard to post every other Wednesday throughout the summer. In September, I will be back every Wednesday with new posts about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting during and after divorce.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Overheard Conversations Entangle Children in Divorce Conflict

Children become entangled in their parents' divorce before the parents even know it. Long before the parents even know divorce is a serious possibility, the children know that there are problems, and often what the problems are.

Parents believe they are being discreet by waiting until the children are out of the room or otherwise occupied to discuss their marital problems with their friends. They believe the children are shielded when they wait until the kids go to bed to have that "discussion" or argument.

Unless the children are out of house, there is no such thing as their being out of earshot. Even children who don't hear you when you ask them to set the table, seem to hear private conversations at the other end of the house and are able to repeat large portions of the overheard information with great accuracy.

Unfortunately, when children overhear private conversations by or between parents, they are often left to interpret the information alone. They know that they were not meant to hear the conversation so they don't feel like they can go to their parents to talk about it. Without really understanding everything they hear, they begin to create their own versions of what's really happening between their parents and to their family. If you've ever played the children's game "telephone" you know just how mixed up messages can get over time and distance.

For the most part, parents try to be careful about exposing the children to their conflict. Many parents swear that, while the children are probably aware that the parents are upset with each other, they do not know or understand the specific arguments or discussions. The truth is, however, that most parents would be truly surprised at what their children know (or think they know) about the parents' marital problems. And they would be shocked at the turmoil and burden the children feel over having this information.

To assure that your children are not entangled in your divorce, please keep all conversations or arguments about finances, extramarital affairs, divorce or the possibility of divorce far away from the children. Don't just wait until you think they're asleep or in the other room; take these conversations out of the children's earshot completely. To minimize involving your children in your conflict, you can:

• set up a time for the children to be with a babysitter while the parents go somewhere else to talk
• arrange for the children to go to a friend's or a relative's house so you can talk freely
• limit your communications to email if the children are around
• talk on the phone about divorce-related issues only when the children are not in the same house, car, or other physical location with you

Words matter. Please shield your children from overhearing divorce-related conversations not meant for them.

© 2009, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center,

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dealing with the legal system in divorce - Enforcement

Parenting plans become orders of the court when the court adopts a plan agreed to by the parents or makes its own plan after a hearing or trial. After an order is in place, however, many parents agree to modify the plan without incident. When parents do agree on changes to the plan from time to time, the best practice is for any changes to be put in writing and signed by both parties so there is no question in the future about what the new agreement is.

Sometimes, after a parenting plan is adopted or ordered by the court, one or both parents stop following the plan. What happens if one parent changes the original plan without the other's agreement? How can you enforce those original orders?

Courts enforce their orders through contempt of court proceedings. Although the exact procedure for seeking enforcement through contempt varies from state to state, the procedure that follows gives you a general picture of the process.

A parent wanting to enforce parenting plan or support orders would file a motion asking the court to issue a contempt citation to the parent who is not following the orders. The motion should provide information about the date of the order, the provision(s) not being followed, and specifics about how and when the other parent disobeyed the order. Some courts or state judicial departments provide check-box and fill-in-the-blank forms for this. If the court finds that there is sufficient information in the motion to show probable cause that the orders have been disobeyed, it will issue a citation to the other parent to appear in court and show cause why he or she should not be found in contempt.

Because one of the possible penalties for being in contempt of court is jail, these proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature. This means that many of the rights defendants have in criminal actions are also given to parents in contempt proceedings. These rights include the right to have an attorney present, to have an attorney appointed by the court if the person cannot afford one, the right to a trial, and the right to confront witnesses.

The elements that have to be proven for the court to find someone in contempt of court are: 1) that there is a valid court order; 2) that the person knew of the court order; 3) that the person did not comply with the court order; 4) and that the person had the ability to comply with the court order, but did not.

The reality is that courts rarely send someone to jail immediately even if the person is found to be in contempt. Because the goal of the whole process is really to get the other person's compliance with the court orders, most courts will order other remedial measures such as make-up parenting time or payment of a portion of the past-due child support before they will resort to jail. Ultimately, however, it is entirely up to the court to decide what the punishment will be for someone found to be in contempt.

The contempt process can be long and frustrating for someone who just wants the original orders to be followed. If you can find other ways to work with the noncompliant parent to encourage their following the court's original orders, you will likely find the end result to be more satisfying than going through the contempt process.

© 2009, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center,