From the Coparenting Coach's Desk

SOLE LEGAL CUSTODY to....Mom....or....Dad....

Those words spoken by a family court judge are devastating to the parent who has just lost their right to make decisions about critical aspects of their child's life:

1  Child care/preschool
2  Education: K-12
3  Medical health
4  Mental health
5  Dental health
6  Religious/spiritual education
7  Enrichment activities

The parent who loses legal custody will usually still have access to records about their child in each of these life areas. Sometimes the judge allows the non custodial parent to access records directly from providers, and sometimes the judge directs the custodial parent to provide the information. There are circumstances where the judge orders that the non custodial parent have no access to information about any legal aspect of the child's life, but this is more unusual.

It is important to know that an allegation of domestic violence is extremely serious. A Domestic Violence Temporary Restraining Order, when granted, results in immediate award of 100% legal and physical custody to the protected parent. Such a finding may also result in the judge dealing with records access in a more restrictive way because of concerns about health, safety, and welfare.

Specifically, if the judge finds that a parent has committed acts of domestic violence against the child, the other parent, or the child's siblings within the past five years the judge, by law, must presume that the parent who committed the domestic violence cannot have joint or sole legal or physical custody of a child.

Permanent restraining orders require special protections for a longer period for the child and the custodial parent. This is why legal custody cannot be granted in a case where domestic violence has resulted in such an order.

It is critical that non custodial parents understand their rights and responsibilities in the realm of legal custody. If the judge has granted you access to records, you have the right to directly contact providers to request information about your child. 

However, if you contact a provider with an attitude of entitlement, anger, and demands you will very likely end up losing your right to directly contact providers. And you should. That is where the word responsibility comes in.

You have a responsibility to behave appropriately with any provider who has a direct relationship with your child. Every word you say and the way you say it will effect your child's life. Take this responsibility seriously and prepare yourself for contact. Understand that the other parent will probably have let the provider know about the legal custody situation. Don't be surprised and hurt by that. You would do the same if you were the custodial parent. In fact, that is the responsibility of the custodial parent.

When you contact a provider and discover that the provider does not understand that you can have access to records then politely ask the provider how they would like to receive a copy of the order so that the provider is confident they are complying with the law. Reassure them that you understand their position and that you want to work with them to ensure a good relationship for the sake of your child.

What if the custodial parent won't give you the information about the child's providers? If you don't have the information, you must get it from the custodial parent. That is the only choice you have.  Any attempt on your part to investigate or interrogate will likely be experienced as harassing or stalking. Don't do it. Instead, use legal channels to get the information. Seek help from an attorney or the Family Law Facilitator's office at the court house. Read your orders carefully and make sure you understand what is and is not allowed.

If the custodial parent won't give you information about the providers in the life of your child, it can be very tempting to coax the information out of your child. Don't do that to your child. Legal custody is shared between adults and the child will feel the improper nature of your inquiry even if the child isn't old enough to understand what you are trying to do. Don't put your child in the position of coparenting with you. Don't put your child in the position of telling you secrets. Don't put your child in the position of choosing between mom or dad. It is detrimental to the child and can damage that child's relationship with both parents. 

Your child can talk with you about anything that they want to and they need to be able to with an absolute sense of trust and confidence.  Children should not be asked by either parent to keep secrets as that is a terrible burden for the child. Treasure the openness and spontaneity of your child and treat them with respect. Don't take advantage. Don't exploit your child. Communicate with your coparent with appropriate coparenting information in a timely manner and keep the child out of the middle.

If you are frustrated, feeling helpless and powerless because of your custody situation, reach out for support. It exists. You don't have to go it alone. You don't have to burn out your family and friends. A word of caution though. Some support offered to parents is divisive and has a goal of reinforcing the battle, the competition, and winning. If that's what you want, you can find that kind of help. But that is not what is best for your child. Your approach to support and counsel needs to be child-centered. 

If you want a positive future for your child, peace in your family, and a loving coexistence for your child between his or her two homes, then find support that is balanced and respectful of the needs of your child. 

The Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House offers free support group for parents and offers facilitated coparenting meetings for coparents.