Fathers & Mothers in Florida Custody Cases
By Attorney Jennifer Schulte: In today’s church service my pastor gave a sermon/message from Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (New International Version). I have heard this verse many times before, especially growing up as a missionary kid, but today it somehow sounded different…more real perhaps. Maybe it is because I’m a mother now or maybe it is because Father’s Day and Mother’s Day just passed. Whatever the reason, the message about honoring (not simply obeying) our parents was very personal to me. As a divorce and paternity attorney I meet with moms and dads on a daily basis that have come to me to guide them through the process of family law. It is rare that I have someone in my office asking me how to assist them in preserving the relationship between the child(ren) and the other parent. Sadly, more often than not I have a parent trying to scheme and strategize to limit the contact the child has with the other parent. There are so many ways to NOT follow the above verse in my field of law. A mother that testifies to the judge that the father is abusive, is hostile, does not desire to spend equal or substantial time with the child for one reason or the other. A father that allows his new girlfriend or his mom to badmouth the child’s mother in front of the child. Parents who use the children as pawns in a war on our domestic doorstep. It can be heartbreaking for those in my line of work to hear over and over that there is no way in the world these people can actually co-parent.
It is with the above in mind that our firm created a scholarship to attempt to bring back the idea that we are not only attorneys but rather advocates as well. This past spring the partners in our firm announced a Scholarship – Ayo and Iken Children of Divorce Scholarship. This scholarship was designed to honor fathers and mothers that are either permanently separated or divorced who communicate openly and positively as well as join together to continue showing their child(ren) love while working together to support their child. We as a firm read the applications and essays submitted and were pleased to announce two winners. How refreshing to read story after story of how parents were able to set aside their differences and their hostility in order to continue raising their child. It is never easy or simple to co-parent or share parental responsibility with someone that you dislike enough to divorce or separate from. The parents that our firm honored through their children’s words were able and willing to keep “family first”. Imagine two competing entities with their own agenda actually compromising and sacrificing so that the next generation of parents has an honorable example to strive toward.
If you are not religious or perhaps don’t think that my verse above applies to you/your life then it might be helpful to direct your attention to Florida Statute Chapter 61.13 which addressed timesharing and parenting plans. There are twenty factors that the Court will look at in determining how to divide the time and parental responsibility between competing parents. While the phrase “honor your mother and father” is not delineated therein, the factors themselves imply that the Court is going to look into the parents’ actions, attitudes and capacity to encourage the children to maintain/continue a relationship with the other parent. That means when a parent is trash talking the other parent to or in front of the child, denying the other parent access or attempting to discredit the other parent’s contributions to the child then the Court may determine that parent is not the one most likely to facilitate an ongoing relationship with the other parent. It is extremely difficult to speak well of someone who has possibly stopped financially providing for you and/or the children, or who has “destroyed” the family by leaving with a new significant other. The Court though wants the parents to put that aside and treat the separation/divorce as an almost business transaction and to basically act mature.
In 2001, Judge Michael Haas, from Minnesota, stated the following:
“Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault. No matter what you think of the other party – or what your family thinks of the other party – these children are one-half of each of your. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an “idiot” his father is, or what a “fool” his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad. That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions. I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.”
In Orange County, Florida our Circuit Judge Roger J. McDonald has published a small pamphlet to advise parents on how to work together to put their children first during a family law matter. Additionally, in the Ninth Judicial Circuit’s Amended Standing Administrative Order (November 2010), parents are warned that “children have a right to a loving, open and continuing relationship with both parents. They have the right to express love, affection and respect for one parent in the presence of the other parent.” While the number of divorces continues to rise in the State of Florida (it is estimated that about 50 % of marriages end in divorce), I believe it I imperative that we carefully train up our children. One of the best ways to honor our own parents is by teaching our children to honor their own parents. Honor doesn’t just mean “obey” but rather it involves showing respect and being courteous.
My parents divorced when I was already in college but my two younger brothers were still in high school and living at home. It was eye-opening at the time (well before I ever imagined being a family lawyer) to hear my mother NOT badmouth my father. It was encouraging and therapeutic to listen to her remind us about what a loving father we have. My mother never discussed the reasons for their divorce and never spoke negatively about my father. She called to remind us to celebrate my dad’s birthday and she sacrificed holidays to make sure that he was not alone. My father has made comments since I became a mother about what a wonderful mother we had growing up. He took longer to accept the divorce but he wasn’t the one who filed. Being able to look back on how my parents interacted with each other and how they came together despite their differences has positively impacted my own parenthood.
There are support groups for parents going through a separation and divorce. Until recently most of these groups focused on helping mothers and discounted fathers’ need for support. I’m happy to see a surge in “father and me” groups for dads and their children. There are more and more dads who are taking a greater role in the raising of their children. My own husband spends more “weekday” time with our child than I do as a result of our differing careers. It is antiquated to think not look at an individual families dynamic when addressing timesharing and parental responsibility. Each family is unique and there are many factors to take into consideration. The family that is able to continue to be a “family” despite the separation or division is the healthier one. There are so many resources when determining the parenting plan and parents should be encouraged to utilize one or more. There are experts and counselors that can meet with parents to help them work through their issues in determining the best parenting plan for their family. If left up to the Court then parents should be reminded that a Judge has such a limited window of time in order to attempt to grasp what is in the children’s best interests. As a general rule, attorneys will tell their clients that whenever possible it is a great idea to come up with the parenting plan between themselves and not leave it up to chance in the courtroom. Remember the grandparents as well when creating a timesharing schedule. Though grandparents are not to be substitute parents, they often are very involved in the children’s lives. If a parent is able to still show respect for their ex-in-laws then that attitude and behavior will have a positive impact on our next generation of parents.