Advice needed on difficult custody situation
September 13, 2016 12:57 PM   Subscribe

My partner is dealing with a very difficult issue post-divorce.

Six months after his divorce was finalized, his ex started denying him visitation with his son, due to her imagined belief about his inability to care for their child, due to her belief that he has autism (he doesn’t, he’s even gone so far as to see a specialist for a formal diagnosis that he does not have autism) and a violent temper (he is literally one of the most gentle and kind people I’ve ever met). They are currently going through the court system to remedy this.

In the meantime, the ex has filed a restraining order and an order for protection (both dropped) against him. She has accused him of abusing their child (CPS investigated and closed the case with no findings of abuse) and continued to block all contact with his child. The court appointed guardian also did an investigation and said he found no reason that the father should not have normal visitation. The child is three and a half years old and previously had a close and loving bond with his father. Now, after six months apart, the first sessions that father and son have had in a therapist’s office (to assist with reunification) have been cut short due to the child crying and reusing to look at his father. The therapist had advised the mother on how to talk to the child about seeing the father again after a long absence, and it’s unclear if this was followed as the child’s reaction was so strong when he saw his father and the father had previously never, ever had anything but loving experiences with a son who loved him very much.

The court has yet to make a final determination on custody, opting instead to give the parents some time to attempt work visitation out with each other (thus the sessions with the therapist). The court has expressed skepticism of the mother’s fantastical descriptions of abuse, none of which are backed up by a shred of evidence (though the father has years of emails and texts between the two of them showing her temper, verbal abuse and instability in the face of his calm and levelheadedness). The mother has also testified in court that she’s told the child that daddy is sick and cannot take care of him and the court has expressed concerns on her “coaching” of the child.

(As a data point, the mother grew up in a deeply abusive and unstable environment and has alienated everyone in her life, including family members and friends. The father had a normal upbringing and maintains close relationships with family and long-time friends.)

This whole thing has been devastating for my partner and he is very worried about his son and that their bond is irrevocably damaged through no fault of his own. The current therapist has basically thrown her hands up and said she doesn’t know what to do as she doesn’t know how to deal with this kind of thing, so we are looking for a new therapist who has experience in parent/child reunification (itself not an easy task).

I am hoping to get information or resources that I can pass along to my partner on how to navigate and salvage his relationship with his son. Everything I find on the internet is a horror story about the terrible effect this has on children (which I don’t doubt) but surely, there is still some hope for the relationship to be repaired and for his still-young son to live a relatively normal life? I am familiar with parental alienation syndrome and how controversial it is, and trying to find pragmatic, compassionate info about this on the internet is like wading through a swamp.

- Who are the experts on this that are credible?
- What are action plans in scenarios like this that are known to work? We’re finding a lot of info on what alienation looks like and the effects of it, but having a hard time finding actions plans and things to try – especially as it relates to much younger children.
- It is doubtful, due to the son’s young age, that his father will get full custody. Is there any hope on counteracting the messaging (conscious or unconscious) that the mother is giving to the child while she still has full custody? It seems like any progress that could be made would quickly be undone by the ex, who has shown very little cooperation thus far (though we keep hoping that she’ll start).

I understand that this is a very sensitive topic, and that women and children are often disbelieved. I ask that you please take me at my word when I say that this is a loving father who has seen the strong bond that he previously had with his child destroyed. It doesn’t seem like anyone involved (lawyers, courts, therapist) really understand this or know anything about it. The father will always fight for his son, but right now we are feeling helpless and lost and would very much appreciate any guidance that anyone could give on how to navigate this, how to help the child and generally give us hope that this won’t be another terrible and sad ending. Thanks.
posted by young sister beacon to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lawyer up.
posted by patnok at 1:10 PM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Would your partner be willing to pay for supervised visitation? I know it's far from an ideal situation, but she might be more willing to allow that, and he would probably have more access.
posted by corb at 1:10 PM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also: is the belief that the son or your partner has autism? It's kind of unclear.
posted by corb at 1:11 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sue for full custody and allow her ample, supervised, visitation. If she's this unstable and alienating her son from his dad, that's emotional abuse. Just because she's a woman, doesn't make her automatically a good parent.

The child has a right to a relationship with his dad. And careful management of the effects of his mum.

Three is not too old to sort this out. But it will be work. With a stable and supportive partner and lots of patience, and full custody till mum's had therapy, it can all be ok. Hugs. You both must be worried and exhausted.
posted by taff at 1:22 PM on September 13, 2016 [25 favorites]

Best answer: He must get a lawyer immediately -- a family law specialist who knows the right people to talk to (in and out of the courtroom) and can get those people moving. Any good lawyer would have heard about one of those therapy sessions and gone straight to the judge to bring some thunder down, because that is absolutely the result of the mother badmouthing the father (consciously or not).

Things will get better. Either the mother will soften or the courts will step in, and even if neither of those things happens, the boy will come to understand what's really going on here.
posted by Etrigan at 1:24 PM on September 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

Why doesn't he seek full custody of his child? She sounds mentally ill per your description. He should have a lawyer representing his interests.
posted by cairnoflore at 1:25 PM on September 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify: he has a lawyer and is asking for full custody with ample visitation for mother (he believes in the importance of a strong mother/child bond). We are cautiously optimistic that he court will find in his favor but the worry is that due to the young age of his son, combined with the son's (newfound) fear of his father, the courts will not want to uproot a 3 1/2 year old from his stable home (with mom) to put him with a person he's scared of. And we can see why - my partner definitely does not want his son to be traumatized. This is why we're looking for action plans on reunification even if the child is still with the mother. "Management of the effects of his mother" is a good way to put it (thanks taff).

His family is all out of state, mom has alienated all her family members, so there's no immediate family around to help.

The accusation of autism was towards the father.
posted by young sister beacon at 1:58 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not that this will help anything in the immediate term, but if I were your partner, I'd consider writing letters or recording videos to be given to the child when he's older. Nothing in there about what the mother is doing or saying, but just "Hey son, today is September 13, 2016, and you are 3 years and 180 days old. I haven't seen you in a while but I love you and miss you and can't wait until we can have time together." That kind of thing.

Hopefully, things will work out well (people in the system genuinely do want what's best for the child, but sometimes things take time), but if it's another 6 months before your partner can see his son on the regular, that absence might be missed. Knowing that he was loved, even from afar, might be good for the kid when he's processing how fucked up this all is in 10-15 years.

As far as right now goes, have you tried looking into resources for soldiers coming home to their young children after a deployment? Obviously the situation is different because the non-deployed parent would also generally be on board with/not sabotaging the reuniting process, but some of the stuff here, for example, seems like it could be done without her help.

I think you should also step up efforts to find a new family therapist, asap. Or, at the very least make sure that the therapist understands that the mother cannot be trusted to do any kind of coaching that would help this go easily. The fact that the kid cries and doesn't want to look at his dad doesn't mean that the kid is traumatized either, he's just little and confused.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:46 PM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry you're going through this. Sounds like the mom has serious issues and they are impacting all of you. Since a lawyer is already on the scene, I can only offer reaching out to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I didn't link it because a google search of NAMI and your county should pull up your local site.

I'm suggesting this because I think you and your partner need heavy duty support in dealing with someone who is very difficult. I attend our local support group for children of a parent with BPD and/or NPD. It helps me feel less isolated when I have to deal with my mom for whatever reason.

You can just contact the local person and tell them your story. They can point you toward resources. There should also be plenty of open meetings if you want to attend and meet others who live everyday dealing with someone like the mom. (Definitely not suggesting that the mom may have any kind of diagnosis, just saying that NAMI folks are great and can help.) Your partner might also just get relief at knowing he is not alone.
posted by It'sANewDawn at 4:20 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Have your partner talk to his lawyer about requesting a CASA for his child.
posted by epj at 6:07 PM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: His situation is likely far worse than people are leading you to believe. Most lawyers won't be able to help him. Consult with, as Catherine has given good advice in a similar situation. Also books by Bill Eddy, and Warshak
posted by Sophont at 5:43 AM on September 14, 2016

One more thing, something to guide your dealings with family court. In general, for the most part, the judge does not give a damn for what is right, fair, justice, or what is best for the children. Judge just cares about clearing his* docket and not seeing you guys before him again. So the crazier person often wins. There is no penalty for perjury, and as you have seen, rarely real consequences for disobeying court orders.

Also, get a paternity test. Really.

*or her
posted by Sophont at 5:59 AM on September 14, 2016

Best answer: Three year olds are pretty resilient. He shouldn't worry too much about the child's emotional reaction, but instead remain calm and available during the visits. Whatever he can do to make them positive - even showing him a little video on his phone. If the therapist is adding to the stress, switch to a new one. The child needs to be given a chance to adjust during the visits, and the visits should not be arbitrarily cut short.

If there's any way to get unsupervised visits ASAP, do that. I know these things are complicated, but it's unclear to me why they have defaulted to supervised visits during the pendancy of the custody decision.
posted by yarly at 9:12 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

So I think it's usually best in these things to assume the other person isn't just crazy for no reason. They usually have a coherent narrative and are trying to work from it. It sounds like the mother's coherent narrative is that your partner is emotionally abusive, possibly because of difficulty in emotional connection, and violent.

It's unlikely she's making this up out of whole cloth - it's far too specific, and in an unhelpful way. It's likely she genuinely believes your partner has emotional difficulties relating, and that he has some violent tendencies, which could include shouting, etc.

It's very hard for anyone to truly know what someone was like in a relationship, especially when it starts to go south. I once testified for an ex who was involved in a separation, because he'd always been kind and gentle to me - only to learn later that my ex had indeed engaged in physical intimidation with his partner when things started to go bad and his partner had engaged in wrongdoing.

You say, and I believe you, that your partner would never hurt his kid. But what was the relationship like with his ex wife? What do you objectively, from sources other than him, know about his relationship with his ex wife?

Kids are perceptive. If his mother, who he lives with, doesn't like your partner, it's likely he'll be influenced by that even if she's not trying to "turn him against him".

I think it'd be useful to ask - what does she actually want? Is she asking for anything? Is she saying "get counseling for your autism"? Is she asking for anger management? If she's not asking for anything, you should ask, "What would it take for you to feel safe?"
posted by corb at 9:37 AM on September 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

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