SCENE: Susan, a well-dressed and perfectly manciured blond in her late thirties has just been notified that her children's attorney, appointed to represent their interests in the custody battle with her dreaded ex, has just arrived for her meeting with the children, her very young clients ages three and five. Marsha, an Attorney for Children in cases like these, has been practicing for ten years and is very well respected by the courts and the local legal community. She has also just gotten divorced herself last year, from a cheating bastard of a husband.
SUSAN: Hello, I'm Susan, Michael and Cindy's mom, it's very nice to meet you.
MARSHA: Yes, lovely to meet you, and what a darling home you have here. Are Cindy and Michael upstairs?
SUSAN: Yes, they're in the playroom. Let's go up and introduce you.
MARSHA: Wonderful, I hope I haven't come near mealtime.
SUSAN: No, we've eaten. Five sharp every evening, I believe in regular routines, unlike Mike Sr. That man doesn't eat until 8pm most nights. No wonder the kids are always coming home from their visits with him hungry.
MARSHA: How often is he visiting with them?
SUSAN: Well, it used to be every other weekend, but we haven't seen him around here in about five months...that's when he started dating that tramp he sees.
MARSHA: Does he call them?
SUSAN: Not until 9pm, when he knows they're already asleep. It's like he does these things to purposely avoid having to deal with their questions about why they aren't seeing him. It's disgusting, if you ask me.
MARSHA [ENTERING THE PLAYROOM]: Hi Kids, my name is Marsha, it's so nice to meet you both.
KIDS: Hi, Marsha.
MARSHA: Isn't that a lovely doll you have. Mom was just telling me that you used to visit your Dad, is that right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, but we haven't seen him in awhile. I miss him.
MARSHA: I'll bet you do. Well, I'm sure he misses you, too. Do you get to talk much to him on the phone?
MICHAEL: He called last week but then mom said it was time for bed, so I had to go.
MARSHA: Oh, ok. And would you like to see him more?
MICHAEL and CINDY: Yes! Can he take us to his house this weekend?
MARSHA: Well, I'm going to talk to him, and we'll see, ok?
Fast forward to the courtroom on the next schdeduled appearance in the custody matter. Both parties and their respective attorneys are present, as is Marsha. Mike's attorney has spoken with her client and he has told her that he was seeing the children regularly, but then Susan got upset when she learned he was dating and refused to allow him access to the children. He is near tears and expresses his feeling that he has no rights in this situation- what Susan says goes. His attorney assures him that she will speak to Marsha about initiating more regular visitation. Mike has no history of drugs, alcohol use or any mental infirmity. He has been late with child support during the last three weeks because he just lost his job. He is a carpenter and has come to court in jeans and a tee shirt and is unshaven.
Mike's attorney reports her client's side of the story to Marsha who abruptly (and in a stern, almost scolding tone of voice) cuts her off- -- "I'm sorry, but Susan says that Mike hasn't even seen the kids for five months...there's no way I'm going to recommend that he be allowed to just jump into regular visitation when his kids barely know him! He is going to have to start with supervised visitation and maybe eventually, if he's really serious about seeing his kids, he can increase the visitation from there. Mike's attorney, astonished that Susan's emotional propaganda has been taken for truth retorts: "I think it is unfortunate that due to the fact that Susan has not permitted Mike to see their kids that he should now be relegated to supervised visitation. Incidentally, he says the last time he saw them was two months ago, and that it stopped because Susan didn't like him dating. Certainly you aren't suggesting that in two months the children have forgotten who their father is." Marsha responds cavalierly, "Well, regardless of why he hasn't seen them, it's not going to change my position." The case is called and the Judge listens to Marsha first. "Judge I recommend supervised visitation one day a week until Mike can show the court that he is really serious about seeing his kids. I mean he can't just be permitted to come in and out of their lives and not make a real commitment. And the superviser needs to be someone that Susan will consent to and she doesn't get along with his mom or his sister, so those two are out. If he can't come up with a viable alternative, he will have to go to court-supervised visitation, which will cost about $70.00 per session." The Judge orders supervised visitation one day per week and since Mike can't come up with any other "viable" alternate supervisers, court-supervised visitation it is. Except one thing: Mike is out of work and cannot afford it. Now, if he is unable to visit due to his finances, at the next court appearance he will be brow-beaten for not seeing the children and accused of being the uncaring, neglectful louse his ex described.
What is WRONG with this scenario? How is it that ONE woman, made of flesh and blood (and with her own biases and emotional baggage) can decide the fate of a father and his precious relationship with his children, never having met him before, but relying solely on the embittered words of a scorned ex-wife? But this is exactly the way it plays out in far too many cases. The unfettered, unbridled power of attorneys for the children (formerly called law guardians) results in opinions that are relied on far too heavily by most judges; and their opinions are often based on the unsubstantiated emotional ramblings of the mother in the case. Unless she is on drugs, has been hospitalized for depression, has abandoned her children, or there is evidence of neglect or abuse in her household, the mother's story is virtually taken as gospel to the detriment of many a loving father.
I am SO passionate about this topic and actually lived the above described situation (for real) in a case I have currently. It amazed me that no one seemed to question the mother's story or require any further evidence before deciding that this father needed to "prove himself" worthy of being in his own children's lives! This practice is absolutely loathesome and must be examined if fathers are ever to have any meaningful stake in the family court system, or more importantly, in their children's growth and development. The superimposed morality of many attorneys for the children is misguided, and in some cases, downright vindictive. The show of power at all levels is most ugly when that power serves to hurt the very people whom these advocates are appointed to help. To my mind, judges must be more leary of substituting the attorney for the child's judgment for their own. These attorneys are not judges, but their recommendations are almost always followed to the letter.
It used to be that "Law Guardians" had to come to court and represent what served "the best interests of the children." Due to recent legislation, however, the term was changed to "Attorney for the Children." This was supposedly done to take those attorneys away from moral safeguarding and force them to come to court and represent what their clients(children) WANTED, not necessarily what they personally believed was best for them. This change was made because attorneys are not social workers and are not trained to identify,treat or categorize children as neglected, abused, and certainly cannot by virtue of a law degree decide what is in "the best interests of the child[ren]" or which parent is being truthful. Though this change was made many months ago, my experience (as recent as today) is that nothing has changed in the world of child advocates. The shameless personal agenda-pushing and superimposition of morality is as astounding as it is saddening to those it affects. One wonders how such legal leviathans can rest their huge heads on their pillows at night.
***Please note: Not all advocates for children abuse their power or force their opinions on litigants, nor do they all strongarm the legal process. However, there are a great number who do, and so the author feels there is much merit in discussing this trend.***