BMC therapist Julie Balow writes about the importance of both parents making custody and visitation work in the aftermath of divorce.
Recently, an Oakland County family court judge ordered three minor children to a juvenile detention facility for refusing to visit with their father. The reason this case is making local and national headlines is because this ruling is, in fact, unusual. It has caused many to wonder why a judge would order such a harsh consequence for children caught in their parents’ alleged bitter divorce battle. It is important to realize that we do not have all the facts or history of this case. It is also quite possible this judge made a horrible judgment mistake. However, we should take an opportunity to understand the complexity of custody cases because it has become clear that many do not understand how this ruling could possibly happen.
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I work with families caught in similar situations as the family involved in this case. Often, one or more children refuse visitation with one of their parents. Many reasons are valid and understandable, while others are not. Regardless of whether the reason for refusal is “valid,” a child’s relationship with both of their parents is crucial for their continued development. If it is believed (or the court has deemed) that the children are in no physical or psychological harm when with the parent, and that parent desires to be a part of their children’s lives, the other parent must enforce the children to abide by the court order for visitation. Many judges will ask, “Are you able to get your child to go to school when they refuse?” If the answer is yes, then you should be able to get your child to go with the other parent. It is not uncommon for a parent to be held in contempt, and possibly sent to jail, for not enforcing the visitation schedule. A judge will not consider, “my child does not like the new partner, or my child doesn’t want to,” as a valid reason.
Next usually comes the question, “But what if the child is hurt in some way: they feel betrayed by the other parent or they do not feel important or valued by the other parent?” This is where therapy comes in. A trained family therapist will help the children and the other parent repair and rebuild their relationship. Family therapy also helps both parents understand boundaries, and their roles in the children’s refusal. Many times, parents truly believe they have the best interest of the children in mind, but they fail to see the damage being caused in the process. This is why it is so crucial for both parents to be involved in the therapeutic process. Too often, children are given control over these situations and it unravels in a very destructive way. If they are allowed to avoid situations, cut off from the other parent, and bury their emotions it can set them up for a future of substance abuse, emotional problems, and/or personal failed relationships. This is why judges and family therapists are passionate about reunification whenever possible and appropriate. It is not about the parents’ rights, it is about the children. Sometimes it takes therapy, or unfortunately a judge, for both parents to understand this.