Saturday, March 31, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

            A recurring theme in Family Court is the anger.  It is palpable, you can almost touch it.  It’s everywhere.  Bottled up, contained, but yet oozing through the pores.  Sherriff’s officers stand by, just in case the containment is breached.  It is almost like you can stick a pin in the person and all the rage will explode.  You see it in their eyes:  the hurt, the betrayal, the resentment, the loathing.  Attorneys and Judges almost, but not quite, get used to it.  It is emotionally draining to be there and watch the seemingly endless parade of perceived or actual victimhood, self-righteousness, sabotage, the lack of veracity (ok: lies), the selfishness.  As I discussed in earlier posts, a person going through a divorce or dissolution of a relationship or custody battle can become acutely narcissistic, maybe more than before if pre-existing, but certainly the tunnel vision sets in for many who walk into Court.  The reactive narcissistic behavior (RNB) of a person can blind them to the “big picture”, can obliterate the values of fairness and generosity, can make a person seem hateful and malicious, and can do untold damage to children and to former partners.
            Judges are quite good at seeing this and will not hesitate to scold, warn and even punish a litigant who is being obtuse, stubborn, selfish, and certainly if they are acting in a way that is harmful to the emotional well-being of a child.  But the person who has his coat pulled by the Judge often doesn’t get it.  He (it can just as well be a “she”) will often leave court feeling misunderstood, feeling “screwed” by their former partner, by the judge who is “biased”, and by the system.  You see it in the hallway, right outside the courtroom doorway.  People leave crying, or bitter, muttering under their breath, cursing, yelling at their attorney, vowing or demanding to appeal, planning further sabotage to the other side.  It is warfare.  It is blind hatred fueled in the tunnel of narcissism, born of the loss of love, the perceived abandonment, the loss of control, the betrayal of trust they once had, the rage of the vulnerable one who let their guard down in a relationship--and got less than they expected, or worse.  How does one go on in a rational and constructive way?

Two Kinds of Scenarios:
            In scenario #1, you have two reasonably healthy people:  emotionally healthy with little or no serious psychological history, no substance abuse, domestic violence or child abuse issues, past or present.  This is what is seen most of the time.  Seemingly nice people whose relationship declined—either slowly over time, or abruptly with infidelity or other acute events (e.g. sudden financial collapse or loss of employment, IRS problems, major health problems, etc.).    Matrimonial attorneys get inquiries all the time from prospective clients who just discovered their spouse was having an affair.  Although the Courts these days do not really factor that into the financial outcome of the divorce, and usually do not care at all how many people the other spouse slept with, it is important as an attorney not to gloss over the devastating meaning of this discovery to the client since it will affect the course of the litigation in many cases.  It is also important to acknowledge and validate the pain of the client.  The discovery of infidelity or other major secrets and subsequent betrayals is a life altering event for many.  It deals a crushing blow to a blind trust formerly bestowed to a spouse/partner.  The “victim” of this betrayal will often feel alone, lost, adrift and frightened.  Once the initial shock wears off, the depression will often turn into anger—sometimes persistent and at a level that drives the person to self destruction, or to the extreme detriment of their children.

            Individuals whose relationship declined over time, may have participated in the benign neglect of the relationship with their spouse/partner who also watched it happen as they both passively swept it under the rug.  It may have been due to having children and immersion into one’s career, lack of chemistry (perhaps from the onset of the relationship), infrequent lovemaking if any, a sense of helplessness or depression, or possibly due to growing apart from each other for a variety of other reasons.   There is less of a sense of betrayal to either party when there is time to see it coming, and the parties have already become “comfortably numb” to each other and to their plight. (“Comfortably Numb”, From The Album The Wall, Written By David Gilmour and Roger Waters, © Columbia ® Records, 1980.)

            With scenario #2, one or both of the parties may have chronic issues or histories of psychological disorder, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, arrest histories, etc.  Some parties have been in and out of “the system” for years, or for life.  Sometimes their children are in foster or relative placement, or in treatment themselves.  Some people in this situation are too busy trying to cope with their own lives to be angry.  They don’t have many choices available because they are under scrutiny by the courts, by agencies (such as child protective services or parole) or treatment centers.   Here, there is an external structure imposed on the individual by a court, or by an agency that has rules that must be followed, or else.   Even the abuser in the domestic violence matter, who may tend to be a controlling person, someone with a short fuse, a rage-a-holic who blows up violently when frustrated, may not be chronically seething with anger on a day to day basis.   Scenario #2 clients are sometimes easier to represent, because the rules, consequences and procedures are so clear in most cases.  Clients in the “system” know what is expected of them and in many cases, they work hard and get their children returned to them, or supervised parenting time becomes unsupervised parenting time if they work at it.  If they cannot comply (for example, they continue to show positive urine tests for drugs, or they do not attend meetings or parenting time appointments, etc), then they remain where they are, and that parent will be in no position to “win” anything in Court.

You Have to Recognize there is a Problem to be Able to Deal With it.
            Scenario #1 parents have a harder time resolving their issues because they don’t see that they have issues.  To a scenario #1 parent with reactive narcissistic behavior (RNB), the litigation can go on interminably, or episodically in the long term.  The individual who feels “screwed”, victimized, betrayed and hurt can expend huge sums of money and effort trying to “punish” the other party or to be vindicated themselves.  People experiencing RNB can be self-righteous and may think that if they can just get in front of a Judge to tell their story, then the Judge will hate their spouse/partner and punish him/her.  The self-righteous, angry person who feels victimized, also feels perfectly justified in their crusade against that other party.  No matter how much it costs, no matter the emotional cost to the children and to the respective parents’ families, the battle is relentless, never-ending and vicious.  Judges hate cases like this, often grow to dislike both parents, and will sometimes change custody to protect the child from the dysfunctional machinations of a vengeful parent.  Parenthetically, some years ago, I saw a judge temporarily put a child in foster care out of frustration with both parents, until they could both complete psychological evaluations and comply with recommendations.  They just could not stop sabotaging each other, including their respective parenting time and planned vacations with the child.  They both couldn’t stand that their child had a relationship with the other.  They both had no idea the effect their behaviors were having on their child because their tunnel vision made them blind to anything else besides their chronic rage at the other.  They did not see that their child was suffering as a result.

Some Thoughts:
            I’ve previously discussed the huge legal and emotional costs of constant litigation and the emotional damage this does to parties and to the children.  What about ways of re-formulating one’s thought process, to create a self-imposed intervention that might change the course of where things are going?  It is possible to refuse to play the “game” at some point.  One can take back control of one’s life and walk away from the arena of legal jousting, or walk away as much as realistically and reasonably possible.  One doesn’t have to run toward these battles like a lemming running toward the cliff.  The imagined or wished-for rewards of litigation often have little relationship to the true outcomes.  That is often (but not always) why some people leave the courtroom in tears.

Anger as a Positive or Negative Force:
Anger is a human emotion and within certain limits, it can be a positive and a constructive force. Those limits can be measured in the realms of intensity, mode of expression and duration.  Usually a person becomes angry for a reason that is identifiable and maybe justifiable.  Optimally, the angry person will express their displeasure in an assertive, socially appropriate manner, and then eventually get over it and move on.  The assertive and constructive expression of anger to another person in a relationship can help change the other person’s behavior and improve the relationship.  The expression of anger here is not inappropriately or aggressively intense, is expressed by assertive communication, and does not linger so long that it becomes punitive or destructive to the other person.

At worst, however, the angry person will freak out, rage (used as a verb) at the source of their displeasure, and walk around with residual amounts of anger toward that person.  This can result in chronic loathing, vilification and demonizing of the other person, as well as acting in a vindictive and malicious manner toward that person.  We see the demonizing of one parent by another parent quite often in Family Court.  It is hard to believe all of the allegations that are replete in the Certifications of litigants, seeking the Court’s intervention.    Hard to believe:  That is why Judges discount most of those allegations unless there is convincing documentation to support the allegations.  People think that if they could just tell their story to the Judge. . ., but that is not how it works.  Maybe you can tell your story to your friends and family and receive huge support, but telling the same story in Court will fall flat if you do not have any proof.  And even if you do have proof, it had better be important enough for the Judge to act on, or it will still be skipped over.  What is important to you may be trivial to the Judge.
Some Tenets to Live By, to Cope in Family Court:
a.    One of the parents is probably the better parent, whatever that means.  It might be you, it might be the other one. It depends on who you are talking with. So what? As long as there is no child abuse or neglect or other horrible things occurring, it will not matter that much, legally speaking.  In pure parenting (whatever that is), even though you might objectively be the better parent if you could get a score, you still have to be available to pick up the child at school or activities, and to spend the time needed to properly care for the child.  That is why most people think that a child needs two parents, so that they can back each other up, make sure that the child’s needs are met, and to provide some consistency in the child’s life.  Trying to marginalize the other parent is destructive to the child although it might make you feel better in the short run.  It will also make the child resentful of the parent doing the demonizing their other parent.  The self-righteous (RNB) parent strongly believes in their parenting superiority.   The parent who marginalizes the other parent will predictably be disliked by the Judge.  That’s a bad strategy.  Short-sided and self-defeating, not to mention emotionally destructive to the child.

b.    I’ve said this many times before:  The Court does not care about the ethics and morality of your spouse as long as that person is not committing any crimes or exposing the child to anything inappropriate.  The Court does not care how many affairs your spouse/partner had or what gender they were.  The Court cares about consistent and appropriate parenting; being there, showing up, being kind, keeping the child safe, well fed and clothed.  Those are essential.  The Court wants you to have good judgment and to be careful how you act and talk in front of and to your child.  Being consumed with anger at the other parent gets in the way of appropriate parenting, and clouds judgment. 

c.    The Court does not enforce religious beliefs.  When your child is with the other parent, that parent can take the child to any (reasonably sane) house of worship they want to regardless of which religion you practice, even if it is different.  The Court will allow the child to practice whichever religion is practiced in the home in which they are residing on any particular week, with either parent.  Your exasperation about it will have no effect in almost all cases.  An exception to this is if the parties already have a written agreement or divorce decree saying that the parties agree that the child will be raised in the _______ faith, and all of a sudden a couple of years later, one parent changes their mind.  Otherwise, you are probably out of luck if you wish to enforce a particular religion for your child, when the child is at their other parent’s place.

d.    Don’t make the Judge hate you.  Take a step back, look at how you are coming across.  Ask yourself how you would perceive someone else being you, if you could be a spectator.  How not to make the Judge (or your children) hate you?  Don’t act hatefully.  Don’t be overly annoying with petty complaints about the other parent’s parenting (e.g. “Our daughter came to my house today with messy unkempt hair”, or “the other parent lets our daughter watch ____on TV”, etc.). As long as the child is not being exposed to porn or R-rated violence, etc., you will not be able to control which children’s shows your child watches (e.g. iCarly, who a former client insisted was overly suggestive).   The judge is not going to change custody or scold the other parent unless there are serious and potentially dangerous things going on in the other parent’s house.  Complaining that your ex is marrying the person he had an affair with also will not matter.  That is a therapy issue, not a legal issue.

e.    Try not to react.  In Family Court you will hear allegations against you.  Some true, some false, some with an element of truth.  For the most part, you can let it go.  Don’t be defensive, be factual.  Don’t feel obliged to hurl your own allegations back to the other parent.  When it goes back and forth like that, the Judge steps in.  Read paragraph “d” again.  Don’t act hatefully.  Try not to be horrified at the allegations or misrepresentations. Expect them. Try to step back, breathe and look at the bigger picture.  Try to imagine watching this from the gallery, or from the bench where the Judge sits, and try to place a wedge between what you are hearing and what your emotions usually are in this scenario.  A wedge of time to think rationally, like a sandbag at the levee before the flood.  Don’t react.  Let it be if you can and if legally advisable or possible.  Let it flow over you like a wave in the ocean.  It passes by.  You don’t drown.  Take the control away from the accuser by not letting your emotions overflow, like the buttons they always pushed in the past.  Remove the buttons and look at the goal, not at the moment.  Choose your battles wisely.

f.      What is the “goal”?  The goal to the self-righteous parent with RNB is usually to win, to squash the other parent like a bug, to get the advantage, to deprive the other parent of an extra hour of visitation, to sabotage, to marginalize, to get the child to like him/her more than the other parent.  What if the goal could be changed to feeling calm and content, confident that the child will still love you (we are assuming no active attempts to alienate the child against you here) long after the divorce/litigation, etc. is over.  What about the goal of being rational, loving, and fair, or setting a good example to your child of what is a good person?  A “good person” means different things to different people.  A person behaving narcissistically may believe he/she is a good person, doing the right thing against the forces of evil.  It is sometimes necessary and  important to try to get objective feedback from a third party as to what you are doing and if your game plan or course of action is a good idea.  That third party can be a therapist, clergy or someone who will be honest with you and who is not drinking the kool-aid of your tale of victimhood at the hands of the other parent.  Your friends and family are an important support network, but they will often side with you no matter what, and will not be objective. They are on your side, unconditionally and may egg you on, unwittingly, to your ultimate detriment.  You need honesty too, not just blind support. Both are important for different reasons.

g.    The fact that you “went down that road” doesn’t mean you can’t change course and find another route to take.  Your strategy or way of thinking and reacting may be doing more harm than good.  Take a fresh look, talk with an objective, neutral outsider who has no axe to grind, and then look in the mirror and make a course correction if appropriate.  Don’t let your ex’s attitude get to you.  You may be perceived as giving up or losing.  But in your mind, you’d be better off thinking that you took control back and you are driving your own bus.

What About Forgiveness?
            This is particularly difficult for a person feeling betrayed and victimized.  The betrayed person can be walking around seriously in emotional pain over whatever happened.  Forgiveness can be liberating.  Walking around angry can be obsessive and burdensome.  It can eat away at a person and occupy one’s waking hours (and even enter one’s dreams at night).  When a person is unable to let go of their anger, get over it (so to speak) and forgive the other person, it becomes a weight that they have to carry, and it is a destructive force.  This is way beyond an assertive expression of appropriate anger at a person.  Here, however, the dysfunction is the chronic nature of the anger.  Forgiving does not mean ignoring or forgetting.  Depending on the other person’s behavior, it might be very wise not to go into denial and  some should take appropriate self-protective measures.  We see this issue frequently with battered spouses who repetitively forgive their abuser and put themselves in jeopardy over and over again by going back to a dangerous situation, hence “the cycle of violence”.  Forgiving a betrayal is different, however.   

            Regardless of the event or events that led to the perceived betrayal, whether it was adultery, alcoholism, substance abuse, eating disorder, lack of attention, lack of sexual desire, abandonment, business failure, serious illness, refusal to go for marital counseling, etc., there is little point in remaining angry.   Remaining angry feeds into a person’s sense of victimhood and is not an enabling strategy; rather, it is disabling.   Imagine not needing to prove the other parent’s incompetence, or saving the amount of time and energy it takes to marginalize the other parent to exclude that person from your child’s life.  Imagine wondering if your child would be a happier person if she knew that it was ok to love both parents.  Imagine not caring if your child went to the phone to call the other parent and you just let her sit and talk to her other parent in privacy.  Imagine how easy it would be if you didn’t have to worry about what clothing or toys from your house travelled with your child to the other parent’s house, and vice versa.  (I have handled cases where the other parent would not allow a gift from my client or the grandparents to the child to enter the other parent’s house when the child returned there.) 

Forgiveness means having to say that it’s ok, even if it was not ok when it happened.  Forgiveness means saying that it is ok that you are where you are at now, regardless of the past.  Forgiveness means letting it go, walking away from the past and allowing it to be.  It is what you tell yourself about the event, not the event itself that drives your emotions.  A chronically angry person who loathes, hates and despises (are they all the same thing?) the other person is driven by self talk and beliefs that the other person is bad, evil, horrible, a demon from Hell, etc.  Not many people on the planet are deserving of those labels.  You might try to question those beliefs and see the other person as merely a fallible human who may be driven by their own dysfunctional childhood, early experiences and irrational thoughts.   Maybe it is ok to let go of that.  He/she doesn’t need to be punished, admonished, shamed or compromised to learn their lesson. The other person doesn’t need to learn a lesson from your hand. 

The Court won’t help you punish your ex.  Almost never. The Court will only do what is in your child’s best interests: emotionally and physically.  That actually might go against your current interests, since you may not have been previously aware that the angry behavior is destructive to your child.  Don’t take the chance that the road you are on leads to a dark, sad place.  Forgiveness is a process that takes time, but it is also a decision you can make, and you can decide at least to begin that process.  Breathe, take another look at the bigger picture, or ask a neutral party or therapist to assist you with a mid-course evaluation of your approach to this entire difficult situation.  You used to love the other parent and you created a child or children together.  You owe it to your child to try to focus on the positives in both of you.  You used to have much in common, and you still do, since you have a child.  To do the important work of parenting that is ahead of you, you both would be well advised to try to begin to work together civilly and cooperatively.  You can’t do that if you loathe the other person.  Try to say in your mind that it’s ok for you to be where you are at in the present.  Don’t focus so much on what you lost although it is sad. Try not to perceive yourself as a victim of the other person any more. Let yourself live in the moment and look toward the future.  You will never win trying to get even.  

There is no winning in vengeance and malice. Everyone loses.  It is a destructive, dark force that harms you as well as those around you, especially the children.  Try a different approach.  You will also save a ton of money on your legal bills.  You will be freer, your kids will be happier, and you can get on with your life, unfettered by the yoke of chronic anger and victimhood.   You cannot control your ex’s feelings or behavior, and you cannot control your children's love,  but you can potentially control your own life course.  You also do not have to react to the ex’s agenda, nasty remarks, allegations, or put-downs.  Taking the high road is the usually the best road to be on with children in Family Court and in life generally.  Good luck.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

            Previously, I discussed Reactive Narcissistic Behavior (RNB).  This phenomenon is often seen when a parent going through a marital or other breakup acts selfishly.   Since they are acutely consumed with anger, they can only see their actions from a very narrow perspective.  This emotional tunnel vision can distort a person’s reality and keep them from seeing the effects of their behavior and decisions on others, especially on the child.  My previous discussion focused more on the expression of anger in front of children, as well as litigating every last detail of parenting time, trying to marginalize the other parent, etc.  But what about parental insecurity?  Where does that come from?  How is it manifested?  Is it destructive?  How does the narcissistic parent use your insecurity against you?  And what can be done to guard against it?

Sources of Parental Insecurity:

            When a couple are working as a parental team, at best, they support each other.  They do not disagree on discipline or rules in front of the child.  They do not tolerate disrespect by the child against the other parent.  They work together and discuss parenting strategies in private, when the children are already asleep.  They do not play good cop-bad cop.  They do not criticize the other parent to the child.  They do not allow the child to manipulatively come between the adults. 

            Conversely, the insecure parent has huge worries, especially in a divorce situation.  The insecure parent may have pre-existing, underlying self esteem and abandonment issues which will feed the insecurity.  The thought process might go somewhat like this:  What if the child gets angry with me and sides with the other parent? What if that happens and the child stops loving me, or becomes closer to the other parent? Then the other parent “wins”.  This can drive the behavior that will ultimately prove self defeating to that parent.  But fear of abandonment and the effort to avoid it is a powerful motivator.

Abandonment issues usually stem from early in a child’s development.  A child perhaps was not properly cared for, was not properly nurtured, or a parent died or left home, or rejected the family and was episodically distant, or was abusive or an alcoholic, etc.   Some adults with this early developmental trauma may experience devastating emotional reactions triggered by a current real or perceived rejection, criticism, argument, etc.  It may feel intolerable, nightmarish and overwhelming, because during early childhood, that is what it was then. A current rejection can bring back all of those childhood emotions in a flood.  The fear of experiencing those (expected) emotions can drive a person’s behavior in a self-defeating or even self destructive direction.  A person with abandonment issues will tend to be overly solicitous and overly indulgent of a child whose rejection is feared.  It can also result in that parent being emotionally or physically abusive to the rejecting child.

            The insecure parent (or any person, for that matter) with generally low self esteem expects rejection and failure.  He or she often works overtime to get the approval of others and is usually super-sensitive to signs of rejection or abandonment from any significant person. That person has what you might call “abandonment radar”. The insecure parent with low self esteem or fear of abandonment will work harder, do more, spend more and basically never say no to their child, because the risks are too great.  The child could become enraged and reject that parent.  That child (spoiled, overindulged, etc.) could potentially refuse to go for parenting time with that parent.  The insecure parent worries that the other parent (who is no longer their friend) will be more attractive or fun than he (or she).   The other parent may conversely be narcissistic and angry.  The reactive narcissistic behavior of the angry parent may motivate that parent to sway that child with things, bribes, incentives, etc.  For example, if I wanted to make my child favor me, I might be more prone to give that child (a 9 year-old) their first cell phone (of course, an iPhone), a Wii, a plasma TV in their bedroom, a trip to Disney, and the list is endless.  A narcissistic, angry and vindictive parent might be motivated to alienate their child from the other parent (because he’s a jerk, or she’s a  shrew [rhymes with witch]) just to “win”.  So the incentives, bribes and inappropriately huge gifts keep coming.  The insecure parent can counter with their own version of parent of the year.  That insecure parent can also go out and buy this 9 year old an iPad (she already has an iPhone), a new bedroom set, a second plasma TV (bigger than the one at the other parent’s house) and a trip to Florida (Disney of course).  Both parents therefore fall into a pattern of competition for the child’s love and attention—all based on things, how many things can be purchased, how many things can be put into the child’s bedroom, how many things they can do on vacations, etc.  Love becomes all about things and money rather than about love and consistent parenting. 

            In short, this combination of parents: one angry and vindictive, and the other insecure and feeling out-spent by the other parent can lead a child into an undesirable dynamic of dysfunctional parent-child interactions.  Children in this scenario become confused, demanding and angry themselves.  Sometimes one parent won’t let their child bring things the other parent purchased for them into the other parent’s house.  So that child learns that it is not ok for them to love the other parent, to receive gifts and love from the other parent.  The angry, narcissistic, vindictive parent does what he/she can to squash the other parent’s relationship with the child by being the big spender, the hero, the one who “provides” everything to the child.  The insecure parent is always playing catch up and may even go into debt, spend money he/she doesn’t have on the child, take lavish vacations that they cannot afford, and generally work too hard to keep the child’s attention and love.  The child becomes aware of that parent’s insecurity and becomes manipulative. The child learns that he/she can control the insecure parent with pouting, threats of going to the other parent, by being demanding and frankly, spoiled.  It does not make that child a better person.  It will, depending on the child’s age, affect that child’s later relationships and with life partners and subsequent children.  It does damage, possibly lifelong.

Interventions and Possible Solutions:

            Unfortunately, divorcing parents are not usually very interested in shoring up the other parent’s status in the eyes of their child.  This is a time of mistrust, of adversarial interactions (overt and covert), and sabotage for many.  It is not good, but it is common. How can a caring parent recognize what is happening and do something about it to
protect their child from being torn apart by the parental competition?

Court Ordered:
            First, some State Courts have requirements that parents who file for divorce also attend a parental education seminar.  This is the case in New Jersey where I practice, and is also available in many other states.  In this two hour seminar, divorcing parents are given information about the effects of divorce on children, sometimes with lectures and video presentations.  These are sobering and educational for parents who have no idea what to expect.  For parents who engage in ongoing battles that surface in the Court, Judges will often order them to attend other programs.  For example, in New Jersey there is a seminar called “Children in the Middle” which is self explanatory.  Sometimes Judges will order a parent or both parents to go for psychotherapy or be evaluated by a mental health professional if the dysfunctional behavior becomes disruptive or is obviously hurting the child.  But these are external bandaid interventions that cannot change a person’s personality.  They are mostly educational and hopefully the attending parent will take the advice to heart and try their best to follow the sound advice they are receiving.  But what can an individual person do in a scenario like this?

Self-Managed Interventions; What a Parent Can Do Now:
            A concerned parent who has a relatively civil relationship with their estranged spouse/partner should try to communicate as to a joint plan to effectively help their child with the impending dissolution process.  At times, both parents will seek out a counselor to assist them, or for the child to receive counseling to provide support during an anticipated difficult time.  An individual parent who is insecure and feeling potentially estranged from their own child should seek out a licensed mental health professional to identify why they feel this way, to identify the reasons for their feelings, and to receive professional interventions or strategies to cope effectively with their feelings and thoughts about their situation. 
            This may be a good time for a divorcing parent to begin psychotherapy to deal with lifelong problems that were swept under the rug, or which the individual has been struggling with for years.  Now that a divorce or relationship breakup is happening, it will acutely exacerbate the pre-existing traumas, insecurities and emotional issues for that parent.  Emotional reactions can become debilitating, such as with severe depression, anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, eating disorders and substance abuse appearing (or recurring).  Behavior worsens and it becomes more difficult to rationally parent a child, with judgment clouded by emotional pain and self-indulgent attempts to feel better.  An emotionally healthy person is going to be a better parent.  One cannot effectively parent a child while drowning in personal suffering and behavioral acting out.  Feelings of insecurity during divorce are not unusual, but it is a matter of degree and self-control.  If the feelings persist, however, and adult behavior changes as a result of it, and if the parent’s interactions with the child become driven by an unhealthy need to gain the child’s love, approval and attention, then it is time to seek professional advice.  The other parent, who may (or may not be) reactively narcissistic, angry and vindictive, may not ever have the insight to know to seek professional help. You can’t wait for that to happen. That parent, in stark contrast to the insecure parent, feels indignant, entitled, powerful and self-righteous.  There is a sense of entitlement and he/she makes unilateral decisions for the child which may tend to marginalize you and helping you to  feel distant from your child.  That parent won’t seek help unless the Court orders it.  But you can do something right now, not waiting for things to get worse.  You can begin with self-help and not expend  inappropriately huge efforts to "win over" the child.  Of course, legal interventions are sometimes necessary.  But an unhappy, anxious and insecure person makes for a less effective parent.   That can potentially be changed and improved-upon with counseling.   

            Psychotherapy and counseling is much less expensive than litigation, and your child will not later thank you for all of the legal interventions you initiated.  Finally, it is important, as I have said previously, that the children in a divorce be kept as insulated as possible from the litigation process, from your feelings about their other parent, and from your own feelings about your own life.  Your child should not be made to feel like a therapist or parent to you.  Your child should not be made to feel guilty or responsible for your depression or for your happiness.  It is very important to recognize your own manipulative behavior toward your child, through guilt trips, bribes and diatribes against their other parent, if you are doing that.  These are all things you can work on, possibly with professional assistance if necessary.  At the very least, attend self-help groups or seminars in the community, designed to educate divorcing parents as to the best child-rearing techniques and best approaches to help children adjust to this traumatic time in their lives.  Don't wait for the Court to order you to attend.  And don't wait for your spouse to do this for you to begin.  That time may never come.  You can only control your own actions and your own life.  No one can take that away from you.  And you have to be in control of your life and of your emotions to be an effective parent.

It is important to remember that you already established a bond with your child which is not easily broken by another person’s efforts.  If a parent campaigns against the other with nasty comments about that parent, the offending parent will suffer later when the child lashes out against him/her for saying bad things about their other parent--you--who they also love. It may not happen for another ten years, but it will happen.   Act as if you are confident and calm, even if you are not.  Your emotions will catch up later.  It is important to be consistent, to be the adult with your child, to be the parent, and to set realistic and appropriate limits with the child.  You can and should say “no” to a child when appropriate, and you might have to apply appropriate consequences for misbehavior or defiant behavior.  Your child will be temporarily  unhappy with you, but you still have to say “no”.  The child will get over it if you are being a confident parent, not an abusive raging parent, but a parent.  Being overly permissive, overly punitive, or unsure about setting limits will lead to tantrums, acting out and disrespect.  You may need help with this, but you can get better at it if you try.  Just start by having the insight to know that you need help because you are not feeling in control of your emotions and of your relationship with your child.  Later, if you do the work, you will feel better about yourself and you will ultimately have a better relationship with your child.  Good luck.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

Web Site:
Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw
Linked In:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Previously (see blog post of March 15, 2012), I discussed in parts A. and B., the subjects of being accused of being an unfit mother and being accused of domestic violence.  Here, I continue:

     C.  Sexual Abuse of Children:

            I previously discussed procedure in Family Court when allegations of sexual abuse are made against a parent by another parent (See March 4, 2012 blog post).  Court procedure is a necessary structure into which you are placed.  It is the set of rules under which the Court operates.  But even when you know what is coming, it is important to have a personal strategy so that you have the best possible outcome, given the unknown variables that will be operating alongside of you.  These unknowns include the unexpected:  For example, a witness surfaces; a child makes a statement to a mental health practitioner, the school or to a law enforcement official;  photos or computer data (e.g. Facebook posts or previously downloaded porn files) are uncovered; etc.  You can only control what is theoretically or potentially in your power to change or to manipulate.  You cannot control outside forces such as unanticipated statements of others against you, but you can try to react in a constructive, non-self-sabotaging way.  Imagine you are barred from your residence by a brand new restraining order.  While you are out of the house, your spouse/partner has plenty of time to go through your computer hard drive.  Maybe enough time to have the hard drive removed and analyzed.  Or even handed over to the prosecutor’s office.  Before going any further, you should know (if you don’t already), that downloading pornographic images of under-age minors is illegal.  But that’s not the point here.  I am discussing what to do once you are accused.

            Scenario 1:  You know you are guilty
It is essential that you disclose everything to your attorney who needs to know what you are up against and so you can get properly counseled.  If you are not totally forthcoming with your attorney, then your attorney and you will eventually feel and look foolish when your actions are proven by “the other side” (i.e. your adversary).  Your attorney will most likely believe your story and advocate for that story as if it is true—because your attorney needs to believe in your cause, needs to be able to passionately defend you and to advocate zealously on your behalf.  All attorneys have had the experience of doing so, and then later finding out that their client did not tell them everything.  Ultimately, the truth comes out, in most cases.  Your attorney will be in a better—and more realistic—position to advocate for your interests, if the attorney knows all of the facts.  Your communications with your attorney are privileged unless there is an imminent risk of harm to another person and certainly if there is any risk to the safety of a child.  You should discuss the limits of privileged communications with your attorney when you retain the attorney. 

If you are guilty of sexual abusing a child, your parenting time will still be limited, suspended or supervised no matter what you say.  You may or may not be in jail with a criminal complaint, alongside a parallel proceeding in Family Court, depending on the circumstances and the severity of what you are accused of.  The Court will act swiftly to protect your child, in most cases.  In a situation like this, the Court will most likely consider you to be in need of mental health treatment.  Depending on what you did to your child (or any child), you will be expected to engage in psychotherapy with a mental health professional specializing in child sexual abusers.  Your parenting time will be therapeutically supervised, and eventually if you do your part, you may get to the point of unsupervised parenting time with your child.  You can deny and stall the therapeutic process for weeks and even months.  Eventually, you will most likely have to go through the same therapeutic process, whether or not you stalled and denied, or admitted that you have a problem and asked for help.  If you know you have a problem, this is the best time and opportunity to get the professional help you need and to engage in the process with sincerity.  You have been “outed” and if you want to be shown any mercy, it would behoove you to swiftly begin treatment with an appropriate professional.    You won’t necessarily have a criminal complaint or be in jail simply because of a sexual abuse allegation.  It depends on the circumstances.  There are all levels of sexual abuse, ranging from inappropriate nudity in the house, to inappropriate touch, to molestation, to actual penetration.  The courts, with the aid of professionals, will determine what is the most appropriate response to these unique circumstances, to protect the child and to provide the most appropriate treatment to the family.  There is certainly no guarantee that you will ever be allowed unsupervised contact with your child again, depending on the circumstances.  There is also no guarantee that your child will forgive you and that you will be able to resume a healthier relationship with the child.  That depends a lot on you, your motivation for getting treatment, your success in treatment, and of course, your child’s response to his/her own treatment by professionals.  Needless to say, this will be a long, hard, expensive road.    

Scenario 2:  You know you are not guilty.
The procedure is virtually the same as the above, sorry to say.  You will need to be as cooperative and open as you can.  Openness with your attorney, regardless of your embarrassment,  is always essential, so that your attorney can advocate for your interests effectively.  With allegations of sexual abuse of children, although there is the Constitutional presumption of innocence in Court, you are still going to be treated as if you might really be guilty until proven innocent—at least for a temporary period of time.  The Court cannot take chances with serious allegations such as this, since the Judge has the responsibility to protect the children under the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e. a case on this Judge’s docket).  The allegations have to be proven, but first you will be subjected to expensive psychological and psychiatric evaluations with experts who specialize in sexual abuse of children.  Your child will be evaluated as well.  In my last blog post, I discussed the importance of appropriate child interview methods to avoid the implantation of false memories of abuse.  A malicious parent, through constant questioning and leading conversations, can implant these false memories in a young, impressionable child.  (How many times, for example, can a mother ask the child “Did Daddy touch you down there?” before the child starts to believe that Daddy did.  Hopefully the professionals doing the evaluations will be able to discern what is real from what is not real.  For the sake of this discussion, we will call the falsely accusing parent the “malicious parent”.  None of this discussion should be taken to mean that accusations of abuse are false most of the time.  They are not.  But there are a great number of cases where the allegations are fictional and that is what I am discussing in this section.

If a parent is subsequently found to be guilty of lying to the Court, making false accusations against the other parent, and otherwise attempting to alienate the child from the accused parent, then the Court will come down hard on the malicious parent.  This can take the form of fines, a switch in custody to the other (formerly falsely accused) parent, and the payment of the accused parent’s legal fees.  This can be in the hundreds of thousands or even over a million dollars in some extreme cases.  Having a child under the control of the malicious parent, in the constant company of that parent’s own parents (the child’s grandparents), other family members, close friends, etc., it is easy to see how a young, suggestible child could be led to believe that the other parent (whose parenting time is now suspended) might have done bad things to them.  This causes great anxiety and confusion in the child since at some level the child has to question his/her own sense of reality and reconstruct it, based on what he/she is hearing from the adults in his or her life.  The child is therefore, in this scenario, being emotionally damaged by the twisted information swirling around in the malicious parent’s residence, in which the child lives.  This all takes place while the innocent, falsely accused parent remains isolated from the child, or at best, has an hour of supervised contact once a week.  It is not unheard of that a malicious parent can effectively alienate a child from the other parent, to the extent that your relationship with that child can actually be severed.  It is a very serious scenario and will be extremely expensive to defend against.  Even then, there is no guarantee of success, justice being well served, or receiving a happy ending with this scenario.  But there is no good alternative to fighting to clear your name.  Either you fight to prove the allegations are false, or you walk away from your child with no expectation of resuming a relationship.  Most people choose to fight for their relationship with their child, but it is a very expensive and emotionally-draining process.  You could end up spending your last penny as well as the funds your family and friends lent you, to defend yourself.  You should discuss your options with your attorney, and then get a second opinion.  Make sure your attorney is well versed and experienced in this area.

     D.   Child Abuse and Neglect, Generally Speaking: 

Each State has its own child protective services agency (CPS).  In New Jersey where I practice, it is called the Division of Youth and Family Services or DYFS.  Assuming each CPS agency has a child abuse hotline or other method for reporting child abuse and neglect, it also has procedures enacted by Statute, for investigating the allegations.  Usually the informant’s name or the source of the phone call is kept confidential.  Otherwise, people would be reluctant to report abuse or neglect.  In New Jersey, it is actually a misdemeanor NOT to report if you have reason to believe that abuse and/or neglect might be occurring.  That means that the informant does not have to investigate by themselves to find proof prior to making the phone call, but they have to have a good faith reason to believe that it might be occurring.  It is the CPS’s job to do the investigation and to obtain the proofs and documentation.  In fact, health professionals such as physicians and psychologists, social workers, etc., could get disciplined for not reporting suspicions of abuse/neglect.

Without getting into the methods used by CPS agencies, or whether your case is real or based on a false allegation, there are some strategies that should always be employed.  If you are uncooperative, guarded, unresponsive or hostile to the CPS workers, it will work against you.  It will make things worse.  Even though you may feel that your Constitutional rights to privacy are being violated the workers have the right—granted by Statutes—to enter your house, look around, open your refrigerator to look at what’s inside, go into your bathrooms, bedrooms and to interview your children individually without you being present in the room, etc.  If you do not allow them entry, they will return with a court order and with the police to do what they have to do.  In some cases, they will have the right to temporarily remove a child from a home, place the child with a relative or foster parent, take you to Court, and insist on evaluations and possible interventions which will be ordered by the Judge. 

It is an extreme scenario for a CPS agency to remove a child from the home.  More often than not, the agency will try to identify a problem and see if they can work with you to find an appropriate intervention, to keep the family intact.  If a child is removed from the home, the goal is usually reunification.  If the precipitating problem is substance abuse or excessive alcohol consumption, you will need to agree to treatment and to actually attend and complete that treatment successfully.  If the issue involves neglect, the agency will need to know why.  If you are overwhelmed with the demands of parenting, perhaps the agency will provide you with homemaking services or refer you to other social service agencies that can provide you with needed support.   If there is medical neglect, you may be Court ordered to provide the care that the Court decides is necessary. 

Generally, you will not have to go to Court if your child is not removed from the home, so long as you cooperate with the CPS agency.  That is a fuzzy area that needs to be looked at.  If you know that what they are asking you to do is reasonable and based on your reality, it might be a good idea to participate in whatever program they refer you to, such as psychotherapy or substance abuse counseling.  But before you sign anything—any “care plans” or other written agreement with the CPS agency, you should consult with an attorney who is knowledgeable in these matters.  You need to fully understand what you are agreeing to, whether it constitutes an admission of guilt, and whether or not your name will be placed in a State child abuse registry as a result.  In any case, you may receive a letter from them saying that they substantiated abuse or neglect, based on your particular circumstances.  That substantiation may have undesirable consequences to you that you need to understand and perhaps should appeal.  You should consult with a family law attorney adept in these matters so that you can be properly advised.  It is one thing to be forthcoming, cooperative and civil to a CPS worker.  It is quite another to agree to sign agreements, admissions, and agree to services (e.g. sexual abuse counseling)  that seem to imply that you are “guilty” of whatever they are sending you for.  You have the right to consult with a lawyer before you sign anything or agree to services.  You won’t be punished for that.  But generally you will fare better with an open, cooperative attitude.  If the allegations are false, they will eventually be dropped (hopefully) and you should receive documentation that this was done.  You should make sure that if the allegations are deemed to be unfounded with a confirmation letter and that your name was never placed on the Child Abuse Registry, or that if it was, that it was removed. 
      E.   How to Act in Court: A Checklist:

Here are a few things you can do to try to make a favorable impression in Court.  This will not change your facts or the ultimate decision that the Judge will make, but may start you off on the right foot with the Judge.  First impressions are important, and even if superficial, these are things that the Judges will react to in some way, either positively or negatively.  Whether or not you have the right to express yourself as you wish when you are home or with your friends, you are in front of a Judge who may have values different from yours, may have private feelings about certain modes of dress or personal expression, and may initially like you or dislike you, based on superficial and non-legal characteristics that you display.  Why take the chance in Court when the Judge has the power to make your life more or less difficult?  The Judge will absolutely be observing you to assess your demeanor, attitude and cooperation.  Here are some dos and don’ts:

a.    Dress respectfully.  Wear modest clothing: No cleavage, mini skirts or excessive jewelry, makeup and piercings.  No baseball caps or sunglasses.  Shirts on men should be buttoned.  It is better to wear a suit or sport jacket if you have.  If not, a clean, pressed shirt and pants.  No tee shirts with slogans.  You do not want to look sexy or cool in court.  You want to look as vanilla as possible.

b.    No gum chewing, slouching in your seat, sighing, rolling your eyes, mumbling under your breath, commenting (blurting out) about something someone says, tapping your pen or fingers on the table, etc. 

c.    Grooming is important.  Men should be shaven or have beards trimmed neatly.  Shoelaces should be tied.  Hair should be clean and combed/brushed.  You don’t want to look like you slept on a cardboard box by the Church steps last night (unless you did because your spouse falsely accused you of domestic violence and you instantly became homeless).

d.    Expect to be ordered to leave a urine sample in court.  Don’t show up thinking that your urine will be clean on Monday if you partied on Friday night.  It won’t.  Some substances remain in your system for longer than you think.  And if the Judge orders a hair follicle test, it will show positive for anything you did for at least the past three months.  Be guided accordingly.

e.    If you are prescribed anything that would show up on a urine test, bring the medication with you, or a doctor’s note showing that you are prescribed whatever drug, for what whatever diagnosis, and that the doctor believes that you take the medication responsibly.  You will not be believed if your urine comes out positive for morphine if you say you take Percocet for back pain or that your dentist prescribed it, unless you come with documentation.  You will not be believed if your urine comes out positive for pot, if you say you were in a party and you inhaled secondhand smoke, or someone gave you a brownie containing pot, etc.  Bring all documentation of the medications you are on.

f.      Before you are ordered to do so, find a therapist or group counseling and start attending psychotherapy or group for whatever you think the issues are (just think, what would a court order you to get fixed?):  such as anger management training, parenting skills training, counseling or treatment for depression, anxiety, panic disorder or get to a psychiatrist if you might have bi-polar disorder or something else that requires medication.  If you have a couple weeks before your court date, consider checking in for a 14 day detox program and get a referral for outpatient followup once you are out of detox.  Walk into court already showing that you are sincere, intelligent, insightful and proactive.  You will reach you goals faster if you do.

g.    Write notes to your attorney in court rather than whispering.  Make eye contact with the Judge and have a serious or neutral, innocent-looking, not scary facial expression. Don’t have a smile or smirk on your face. It will make you look inappropriate and bizarre or disrespectful to the Judge.  Have appropriate, serious affect.   Act polite and respectful. If the Judge asks you a question, end every sentence with “Your Honor”.  Yes, Your Honor, No Your Honor, etc.  Stand when you speak to the Judge unless she tells you to sit.  And then say “Thank you Your Honor.”

h.    No matter what horrible lies the other attorney (or your spouse) says about you in Court, do not react.  Do not glare, give death looks, make noise in your seat, act out in any way.  That will only work against you.  Don’t roll your eyes, slouch or sigh loudly.  I know I said that already, but Judges hate that.  Let your attorney fight for you.  Or if you represent yourself, then try to act as professionally and respectfully as you can, sticking to the facts and proofs.  Avoid personal attacks and name calling.  Look right at the Judge when you speak, so the Judge can size up your sincerity, level of anger and credibility.  Always tell the truth.  Always.  Once the Judge catches you in a lie, you’re done.  You’ve effectively dug a hole and jumped into it.  Don’t lie in Court. That’s a very bad strategy.

i.      If you are the primary breadwinner, and you are out of the house, make sure that you are up to date on any child support or spousal support obligations before you walk into court.  If there is nothing ordered yet, make sure that there is money in the checking account so that bills can be paid.  Don’t wait for the Judge to order you to take care of your child’s bills.  It’s your child, not the Judge’s, so you should not wait for a Judge to tell you what you already should know.  Make sure the mortgage or rent is paid and money to put milk and eggs in the refrigerator.  If there is a no contact order, have your attorney send your check to the adversary attorney, or bring it with you to court.  Make no changes in health or auto insurance.  Do not cut off your spouse or children from cell phones, cable TV or Internet.  Do not act in anger, even if you are unjustly accused.  It will only make things worse for you.

For anyone going through rough times, good luck to you and to your children.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Web Site:
Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw
Linked In: