Help a father BE a father
July 2, 2008 8:35 PM   Subscribe

[YANML Filter] How can my boyfriend navigate his way out of a terrible child custody situation?

You are not my lawyer, a lawyer, nor anyone I might someday hold accountable for your response. However, do you have advice that can help my boyfriend and I?

My (live-in) boyfriend has been in a nightmare of a custody battle with his ex-wife for numerous years. After a deferred assault charge (6 years ago) and several (unfounded, by CPS) abuse claims on her part, his bimonthly visitation was first suspended, then renewed, with supervision required. Although much of this looks bad at first, all claims and causes have been the unfortunate result of needless litigation on the part of the mother to gain her way and to exclude and eventually rid my boyfriend of his parental rights.

Last Sept, she filed for contempt for his use of a derogatory term (b*tch) in reference to her in an email, and claimed that his parents, the supervisors, were not adequate, for petty, otherwise non-noteworthy claims (accidental use of dairy instead of soy for lactose intolerant child, child broke glasses and could not wear them during custodial weekend). She continues to claim wrongful abuse on the basis of aggressive behavior by children and coached claims (on her part) made by preschool-aged children. The judge determined that, because of his history, he would not "learn his lesson" without the visitation being changed to be professional, court approved.

In the last 9 months, however, my boyfriend has made a serious attempt to change his behavior, his life, and to come in compliance with court orders, realizing that he cannot fight with his ex-wife to the detriment of his children, no matter how frustrating her behavior. He has gone off disability (for depression) and has a modest paying full-time job, is currently fulfilling court requirements for counseling and anger management courses, and is seeking out fathers' support groups and parenting classes. Additionally, he has been paying the minimum child support requirement regularly.

Unfortunately, he cannot afford legal representation nor professional visitation services. Any attempts to maintain a relationship with the children (4 & 6 years old) are barred by the mother. She does not answer his regular phone calls, claiming that she asks the children and they do not want to talk, and only very rarely does she have the children return his calls (averages once every 2 months). She does not respond to email requests for pictures, clothing sizes, address to send gifts, but emails with the clear intention of establishing a pattern of no contact between him and the children (though twisting facts and statements) later in court. She has multiple attorneys, and again, he cannot afford representation. His former attorney retired, leaving him without representation.

He has a court date in Sept, which is when the temporary custody requirements (professionally supervised) are to be reviewed, and when contempt charges can be purged. How can he make sure that he can again have visitation, without supervision? What should our next steps be? How can we find representation at little to no cost?

Again, no evidence of abuse or neglect has ever been found by CPS investigations. If there is neglect, it is on the part of the mother, not the father. This case is a classic example of bitter ex-wives syndrome. My boyfriend desperately wants to see his children and to have a relationship with them. He fears for their well-being and what damage this unnecessary litigation may cause to their development.

Additionally, we would love to one day have full custody of the children. She has a history of infidelity and mental illness and also has twin girls with her current husband (as well as his daughter from a previous relationship living with her), and we fear for the childrens' healthy development. How can we get to this point?

Emails can be directed to
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
These questions are usually followed by a flood of people saying, "go to legal aid," without ever having been in the position to make a referral to legal aid. First, the income qualifications to receive free legal representation are very, very low; legal aid attorneys work to represent the most needy, the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised. If he has an income, he will almost definitely not fit the requirements for legal aid.

Having made a number of referrals to legal aid, I can tell you secondly that at least in Philly legal aid doesn't touch custody with a ten foot pole. The demand for custody representation among those who cannot afford an attorney is through the roof. One legal aid attorney told me when I tried to make a referral for an emergency custody petition, "if we did custody, all we would ever do is custody, so we can't and won't."

An attorney wound up taking my client's case pro bono, which took a lot of arm twisting and the intervention of board members and other influential types.

Sorry, I know that's probably not what you want to hear, but that's the reality of the legal aid world, at least as I have experienced it.
posted by The Straightener at 9:09 PM on July 2, 2008

What jurisdiction are you in?
posted by lassie at 9:26 PM on July 2, 2008

Original poster says this is in Washington State.
posted by mathowie at 9:47 PM on July 2, 2008

If outside of King County, try the CLEAR hotline (info available here, as well as a contact number if you're inside King County).

There's also quite a bit of information available through, including specific information about contempt of court in family law cases, and parenting plans.
posted by pril at 11:30 PM on July 2, 2008

I agree with sondrialiac, and will go even further. Your boyfriend has to recognize that the only thing that matters here, at least to a family court judge, and arguably also in a karmic way, is the best interests of his children. This is the standard that is applied in a lot, if not all Family Courts. My experience in a different jurisdiction has been that judges get very tired very quickly of parents fighting each other over real and imagined slights at the expense of their children's well-being, and will often lash out at the first parent who happens to make it onto their radar. You mention your boyfriend is improving his behavior -- I say this is a good first step, and that he should make this his only focus between now and September. At every step of the way, when confronted with provocation from his ex-wife, he must make a conscious decision about whether reacting to her provocation will be in his children's best interests. If the answer is no, then he must walk away, regardless of the injury to his ego.

Of course, in the context of an acrimonious custody dispute, simply being the bigger person might not get you very far if nobody observes your behavior and is able to report back to the Court on the positive steps you've taken to turn things around. In the absence of agency supervised visitation, and without a lawyer to advocate on his behalf, your boyfriend might want to see if any of the organizers of the programs he's enrolled in would be willing to submit a report to the Court on his attendance and participation in such programs. He might also wish to keep a daily log of his interactions with his children and his ex-wife until his next Court date. If he does, he should try to make his entries about his interactions with his children rich in detail, and those about his interactions with his ex-wife factually accurate, relatively unemotional, and succinct. Also, he should attempt to call his children if he is permitted to do so by the Court's order, and he should note each attempt he makes, whether or not it was successful, and if the lack of success was due to his ex-wife's interference. If the children have their own lawyer, your boyfriend would do well to be cooperative with this person, rather than confrontational, and to impress him or her with the attempts he's making to change his attitude.

My clients' new partners or spouses often overlook the impact they can have on the final determination, so you might want to take a look at how you can help this situation. The language of your post indicates that you have some problems with this woman and how she's treating your boyfriend. It's natural that he will confide his frustrations in you, but you should be careful about your response, recognizing that you also have some power over this situation. If your dislike of his ex-wife and her ways runs so deep that you cannot be objective, then you should limit your contributions when he talks about the situation. If you are capable of being objective, then you should not permit the conversations to devolve into extensive bitchfests, but instead try to channel his frustration in more positive ways. Custody battles are hard on everyone involved, but on no one more so than the children. Both you and your boyfriend need to understand that, even if you don't like his ex-wife, his children might very well think that she's the bees knees, and you may not disabuse them of that notion, even if you think it's an illusion.

Finally, please try to get him a lawyer. I recognize this is not always easy, but your boyfriend's children deserve an outcome that as accurately as possible reflects their best interests, including if those interests would be served by having ample visitation time with their father, and a chance to develop a strong bond with him.

As you correctly noted in your post, I'm not your boyfriend's lawyer -- just a lawyer who sympathizes with the situation.
posted by lassie at 5:43 AM on July 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

One other thing (like my last comment wasn't long enough!). Don't talk badly about the mother in front of the children, the judge, or any of the lawyers associated with the proceeding (except your own, and even then, try to keep it within reason). People think that, because they're in Court, they have free license to take potshots at their adversary without realizing how poorly this comes off to objective listeners. It's okay to elaborate on facts that you think illustrate some point of law you're making ("she's interfering with my visitation rights in the following ways: on July 3 I attempted to call my children but she wouldn't give them the phone"), but not okay to gratuitously talk about what a bitch she is. WRT the children, it's never okay to disparage their mother in front of them.
posted by lassie at 5:54 AM on July 3, 2008

Document, Document, Document.

1. Keep all emails sent and received. Print them out and put them in a folder.
2. Keep a log of phone calls. Both those your boyfriend initiates and those he receives. Record date and time, intent of call and response. Note if contact with children was allowed. Record just the facts and not feelings. Put these in a section of the folder.
3. Keep a log of all visits. If any incident occurs such as the broken glasses, record it in the log. Put it in the folder.
4. Keep documentation of counseling and training courses which apply to this situation. Put it in the folder.
5. Keep paycheck stubs as proof of employment. Put it in the folder.
6. Keep copies of child support payments such as canceled checks. Put it in the folder.
7. Keep all documents from CPS, especially those clearing him of accusations. Put them in the folder.

Even if he is unable to lawyer up, he needs to build his proof that he is doing all he can, all he's been asked to do and is actively working to maintain/gain access to his children. The folder with all the documents becomes a source of evidence in patterns of behavior. It helps remove the "he said/she said" aspect. If you record just the facts and not the feelings, you remove the emotions from the documents which may cloud things. To that effect, consider all communications with the ex-wife to be BUSINESS communications. If you would not call the cable service rep a bitch then don't call the ex-wife a bitch.

His goal, for the September hearing, is to show that he's working on the tasks placed before him. Consider the list of tasks like a job and the payment is access to the children.

Good luck.
posted by onhazier at 6:46 AM on July 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention. I'm not a lawyer. I am waiting for my first placement as a foster parent. Foster parents are advised to keep such folders as the one I outlined above. If a placement ends, we're to send the folder with the child. Birth parents are given a case plan when the children are placed in foster care. They literally can have a folder which outlines what they have to do to be reunited with their child. I just figure that a similar folder to what I will have to keep would help your boyfriend show the judge his efforts.
posted by onhazier at 6:54 AM on July 3, 2008

onhazier got there first. Documentation is SO important, and the best way you have to systematically and factually contradict the ex's lies, slurs, and drama.
posted by GardenGal at 9:46 AM on July 3, 2008

If he has an income, he will almost definitely not fit the requirements for legal aid.

This is not entirely accurate. I work in legal aid and have had clients will full-time (albeit low paying) jobs. You don't have to be unemployed to qualify for legal aid. If you boyfriend calls the intake office to see if he qualifies, the worst they can say is no.

And while the demand for custody representation is high in the legal aid world, many organizations do offer it. Mine does, for example.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't abandon the possibility of legal aid until you're sure it's not an option.

Nthing suggestions to document everything.

I'm not your lawyer, etc. etc. Best wishes.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 4:07 PM on July 3, 2008

If any correspondence is really important, you'll send it by actual mail, certified (preferably with a return receipt), or you'll have absolutely zero proof that it was received.
posted by oaf at 12:22 PM on July 4, 2008

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