I doubt that you are seriously looking to lose custody of your children. If you are reading this article, then more than likely, you are either involved in a custody proceeding or anticipating involvement in a custody proceeding. If I’m wrong and you want to give away your kids, then you can contact the Department of Social Services to discuss an entrustment agreement. Over the years we have seen people do a lot of stupid things; make a lot of perfectly avoidable mistakes. While the things you learn in the school of experience stay with you a long time, it is less painful if you can learn from other people’s mistakes. To learn from ten stupid mistakes parents make to lose custody, read on.
Mistake #1. Go to the initial hearing unprepared.
The first hearing is usually only scheduled for ten minutes. If you have reached an agreement, the court will enter a consent order and you are finished. If you have not reached an agreement, then even at the first calling of the case, some decisions must be made, such as where the children will stay temporarily. More than likely the court will enter a temporary order of custody and visitation at the first hearing and schedule a contested date for full hearing. If you are not prepared to address this with the court, you could lose custody at the first hearing. I have seen it happen.
Mistake #2. Don’t consult a lawyer.
Don’t seek sound legal advice early. Wait until the last minute to call a lawyer, if you call at all. Absolutely, don’t hire a lawyer to represent you in the case. After all, its just your children. The court will decide how much contact you have with them, the duration of the contact and the frequency of the contact. If the other parent is a controlling or manipulative individual, you do not want your ability to see your kids contingent on his/her consent and agreement because the first time you have a disagreement, you will find the other parent has half a dozen reasons why the kids can’t visit this weekend. Even if you are getting along well now, that doesn’t mean that problems won’t develop over time. If the order gives you such visitation as may be agreed, you have nothing unless the other parent agrees. In such a case, the order is so vague, it cannot be enforced.
By the way, no attorney can be prepared for court if you wait until the last minute. At PLG, we won’t take a case unless we have at least a month to prepare. What people don’t realize watching television lawyers win every week is that a lawyer doesn’t simply walk into court and win a case; there is a great deal of preparation that goes into winning. That preparation, investigation and research takes time. Generally, subpoenas must be issued at least three weeks prior to the court date. If you don’t subpoena witnesses and someone fails to appear on time for court, the court will not grant a continuance to get them there.
Mistake #3. Don’t cooperate with your lawyer.
Don’t provide the information, documentation and witness list he/she asks for, If you don’t provide your lawyer with the information, the documentation and the witnesses, you are asking you r lawyer to build your case, while giving him/her nothing to work with. No information, no documentation, no witnesses; no case. Perhaps that bears repeating. Consider this proposition as a mathematical formula: no information + no documentation + no witnesses = no case. If you are going to get a lawyer and pay him/her to represent you, you really should go the distance and cooperate with the lawyer. After all your lawyer is there to help you. If you don’t help your lawyer help you, you are actually hurting yourself.
Mistake #4. Violate court orders.
Once there are orders entered by the court. You must obey them. Violating court orders an result in fines, jail and other sanctions including the other parent’s attorney’s fees. Violating court orders gives rise to negative inferences by the judge on your case about you and your parenting. This is especially true if you are not paying court ordered support.
Mistake # 5. Lose your temper.
There’s a reason it’s called “losing” one’s temper or “losing it”. When it happens you are out of control. You say and do things that you would not ordinarily do. Stupid things. If you have difficulty with self control in the area of anger management, get help. Even if you have good self control. It may be a good idea to join a counseling group for parents without partners or divorce recovery so that you have a place to vent those feelings that build up into an angry outburst. It only takes one really stupid act done in anger, like shoving the other parent who is holding the baby at the time to lose custody. Once Custody is lost, you may never recover it.
Mistake # 6. Don’t co-operate with the guardian ad litem.
The guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed by the court to represent your children. He/she is not there to advocate for you or for the other parent. His/her only job is to advocate for the children. The guardian ad litem is required to make known to the court the children’s wishes with respect to custody and visitation, but also includes presenting what he/she believes to be in the best interests of the child, even if it is contrary to what the child wants. Your failure to make yourself available to the guardian, to provide requested documents and information will result in negative inferences by the guardian ad litem and could result in a recommendation against your receiving custody, partial or otherwise.
Mistake # 7. Lie to your lawyer.
That includes not telling your lawyer the whole truth. You may get by with it for a while but again, you may not. Don’t you think that the other parent will tell his lawyer everything, especially those things that you don’t want exposed? A good way to lose your case is to allow your lawyer to be surprised in court.
Mistake #8. Neglect your children.
Don’t put them first. Leave them alone and unsupervised. Don’t feed them healthy and nutritious diet. Don’t make them bathe and brush their teeth. Don’t provide a regular and consistent schedule for them including bedtime. Don’t take them to the doctor when they are ill. Leave them stranded with no transportation back home. Oh, that’s not you? Okay, then. Be consistently late to pick up your children for visitation. Better yet, don’t show up at all. Consistently return your children early from visitation. Under no circumstances exercise all of the time the court has given you with your kids. Just skip it. Oh yea, don’t take the kids to their activities, ball games, dance, scouts, tutoring, tai chi, karate, etc.
Mistake #9. Talk dirt.
Don’t think about what you’re doing when you open your mouth. Don’t think about what you are going to say before you speak. Don’t think about who you’re talking to or who else is present. In short, do not be sure that your brain is engaged before putting your mouth in gear! Go ahead and blab whatever comes to your mind without thinking about what you are saying.
A. Talk to your children about what happens in court or what happens in the divorce. While it may be appropriate to let them know in a general way what is going on, depending upon their age, they do not need the gory details. If in doubt, ask your lawyer whether to say anything and how much to say.
B. Disrespect the other parent to or in front of the children.
C. Talk to or in front of the children about the other parent’s indiscretions; talk badly about the other parent to the children… There absolutely no need to discuss the other parent’s sexual liaisons with your children. There is a name for this type of behavior, it is called “parental alienation.” Children subjected to this behavior are frequently diagnosed with “parental alienation syndrome.” If the court finds credible evidence of this type of behavior, it can serve as a basis to deny you custody or to change existing custody and visitation arrangements.
D. Use your kids as a shrink. Using them to vent your frustrations with the other parent. If you need to vent, call a friend. Call a help line. Call your psychiatrist. Go deep into the woods by yourself and scream a primordial scream. Or keep your frustrations to yourself.
Mistake #10. Use your kids as pawns in the great chess game with the other parent.
Yes, I am saying other parent not spouse or ex-spouse for a reason. Several reasons. First to remind you that your kids have two parents. It was not an immaculate conception. Your kids need two parents. Just because you can’t get along with the other parent or your marriage went down the toilet does not end your kids’ relationship with the other parent and it should not end that relationship. This includes using your kids as spies in the other parent’s household and pumping them for information. It stresses them our and can lead to serious emotional problems.
I also use “other parent” because not all parents are married to each other. Whether the parents are married or not, if the court believes there is credible evidence of this type of manipulative or retaliatory behavior, it can serve as a basis to deny custody or to change custody. Sometimes people seem to “get by with” using their kids to retaliate on each other. The terrible shame of it is the damage done to the children in the process. After all, it is the children who pay the ultimate price for this type of behavior. I have watched kids grow up in this type of environment, who are now adults with no desire to get married or have children of their own because of their experiences.
Copyright © 2007 by Virginia Perry, J.D. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal use and for non-commercial distribution, provided that all copies or excerpts include the following statement: This copyright material is used with the permission of the author Virginia Perry, J.D.