Despite having had five attorneys, two mediators, three judges, and two custody battles, sometimes I get swept away by a wave of optimism. I'll hear the story about the judge who ordered the rich deadbeat dad to sell his ancestral family home in order to pay child support, and I'll start thinking, not only does justice get served in family court, but that justice could happen to me!
This is dangerous thinking, folks. It's like believing the bad boyfriend who texts you six months after he vanished from your life promising that this time things would be different. It's like giving your sobbing kid yet another quarter for that claw machine praying that this time the claw will grab the orange beanie baby. It's like buying a lottery ticket and imagining how nice the sand would feel under your feet in the French Riviera because people actually do win the lottery, and perhaps that person could be you!
Well, yes, it could be. And it should be, perhaps. But the reality is that it probably won't be because family law is a byzantine, broken system that serves up answers but rarely justice. Or even common sense. Below are six reasons why family law fails families and enables people who think they're too important for rules.
1. Expecting people who can't co-parent to co-parent.
Recently, I took a day off work to go to court-ordered mediation. The mediator told me my ex-husband and I needed to learn to co-parent. I responded that that would be great, but that not everyone can co-parent, especially those who have had a 10-year-long high-conflict divorce. She told me we needed therapy. I said we'd been to umpteen child and famiy therapists over the course of ten years, and that I was a therapist to boot, and we still were not able to co-parent. Then I asked her what she would suggest. She looked down at her desk, shuffled some papers, and replied: "therapy."
Yeah. Go to the hardware store and come back with some milk, lady.
2. Enabling rich people not to pay child support
Because I write about being divorced from a wealthy ex who hides his money in order not to pay child support, I get contacted regularly by people in the same situation. I have heard far too many stories of real estate barons, CEOs, and high-powered executives who, through various machinations, get away with not paying child support. They remodel their McMansions and schuss down the slopes in Gstaad while their exes work two jobs to keep a roof over their kids' heads.
In my case, my ex's wealthy parents have enabled him to remain gainfully unemployed while owning two homes and traveling around the globe. I simply do not understand why my Ivy League educated ex isn't forced to get, like, a job, or to liquidate a fraction of his millions in real estate equity to pay child support so I can afford a decent apartment with a bedroom for both kids. It's an easy solution to a lousy problem. But as my attorney said, "judges don't care about what you need. They only look at what you can get."
Which, in my case, is nothing.
3. A "fair and equal" split that is anything but fair
It is ridiculous to insist that parents with vastly different means split children's expenses down the middle. No parent who makes $50,000 a year should be expected to pay the same amount in school and medical expenses as a parent making $500,000 a year. The split percentage should be based on each person's income, not this ludicrous 50-50 notion that doesn't take into account each parent's income.
4. Forcing a child to live with a parent who scares them
I have gotten way too many e-mails from people telling me that a judge gave joint custody to an ex with multiple restraining orders and arrrests and DUIs. Or an ex who tells the kids she's going to kill herself if they visit their father. In my case, I have an almost 17-year-old son who's so gaslighted by his dad that he worries he's "psychotic" -- and yet, I'm a bad mother for not traumatizing my child further by tying him up and depositing him in an hysterical heap on his dad's doorstep. I even heard from a father whose 16-year-old daughter was sent to juvenile hall because the judge thought she shouldn't get to decide where she wanted to live.
These kinds of travesties happen all the time in family court, a system -- theoretically -- designed to serve the best interests of the children. How then, do these travesties continue to happen? Read on for that answer.
5. Too many family law professionals are poorly trained, burned out, corrupt, or incompetent
Family law is the best thing that ever happened to people with personality disorders. It gives them a never-ending open forum in which to bamboozle parenting coordinators, guardian ad litems, and judges. It gives people who live to fight carte blanche to terrorize their exes and their children. As a therapist, I am flabbergasted by the ignorance of mental health professionals who can't spot a personality disorder and understand what living with a narcissistic ex does to children. Or by the laziness of custody evaluators who pocket their fee without bothering to educate themselves on parental alienation or interview all the collaterals. Or by judges who aren't fit to be judges. When I asked my attorney if she had the skinny on our new judge, I was told: "she's a loose cannon who hates family law."
And these are the people who are getting paid to protect the best interests of the children.
6. Family Law maintains an unlevel playing field
Family Law doesn't address, or even acknowledge, power imbalances. This means that the richest, craziest, meanest people usually triumph. They triumph because the other party doesn't have money to pay a lawyer, may not feel equipped to represent herself, or is so beaten down she just throws in the towel.
Family law does very little to enforce orders or deter litigious people from filing yet another lawsuit. It's a mystery to me why judges can't come up with effective consequences. Wealthy exes should have to pay 100% of the other party's legal fees. Child support dodgers and court order evaders should not be allowed to register their cars or leave the country. These are two very simple ways to level an uneven playing field and manage down high-conflict divorce.
Finally, every person affiliated with family court should be trained in the assessment of personality disorders. Until family law professionals can regularly identify high-conflict personalities, and come up with strategies to contain these inviduals, they will continue to damage lives and ruin childhoods.