Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ladies' Night Out

Or why I don't do custody cases anymore

A friend of mine desparately needed a night out on the town recently so last night we did it, a group of us each in our own various stages of life. I heard about past marriages (or more than one) current boyfriends, behaviors that make up the "why" in the Y chromosome, children, teenagers, laundry and discipline (or lack of it). By the end of the evening I came home feeling somewhat guilty that my life was so peaceful and relieved that I just didn't have to deal with any of that.

It brought back memories of doing court-ordered child custody evaluations. Keep in mind that over the years I've interviewed and worked with psychotic killers, rapists, drug kingpins, death row inmates, mafia figures and various other low-level criminal types.

I'll take them any day over a disgruntled non-custodial parent. Now, most divorces don't end up in court-ordered custody evaluations. The majority of people with kids split up, talk (or shout) amongst themselves and generally figure out what they need to do and when to do it without any court involvement other than a rubber stamp. Those weren't the cases I got. By definition, by the time a case came to me the couple had already been through one hearing, or three, as well as emergency motions for visitation and/or custody, domestic violence petitions, protective orders, social services investigations and/or criminal charges. These were not easy cases.

Over time I learned that all the allegations back and forth could generally be boiled down to four or five categories: allegations of abuse or neglect (physical or sexual), drug use, domestic violence, mental illness or something I call generic "lifestye differences". Non-custodial Mother alleges that Father dresses Daughter in age-inappropriate clothing so she looks like a "biker-chick" while Custodial Father complains that Mother wants Daughter in black patent leather shoes with white anklets. Or Mother alleges that Father is a lying psychopath with sexual interests in their teenage babysitter. Or Father really has been convicted of multiple felonies and the interview alone is enough to get you thinking about the distance between yourself and the nearest security alarm.

In memory of Kurt Vonnegut: So it goes. One must fight the temptation to toss the child to the nearest passing stranger.

The fathers I interview assume that because I'm a woman I will naturally side with the mother. The mothers assume that because I'm a woman I will naturally agree with their childrearing tactics and the fact that all men are rats. And they all want to know whether or not I have kids. (I don't.) Being childless is an advantage in these situations. I am not saddled with my own personal shtick of past marriages (or three), domestic violence and childrearing issues. And if being a biological parent had anything to do with good parenting skills we wouldn't need these evaluations to begin with.

The children are the most honest ones of everybody involved in the litigation. My ears would always perk up at any sentence out of their mouths that began "My mother wanted me to tell you..." They were honest even about their coaching. I was also surprised by some of the things the parents admitted: quizzing a child in detail about the other parents' sex life, plans to take the child and run, attempts to undermine the child's medical or mental health care. Sometimes the main goal of the evaluation was just to make sure the child didn't disappear or die in the process of growing up.

The fact of the matter is that there is no litmus test for being a good parent. In spite of the thousands of dollars being paid (to private forensic evaluators, not the court-employed folks) for interviews and psychological testing, no psychological test can tell you which parent is best for which kid. And the answer may be different for each individual child even when the same parents are involved. A child who is unpredicatable, emotionally labile and impulsive may do best with the parent who is patient, stable and consistent while the shy, slow-to-warm-up child needs an extroverted parent. Regardless, most kids are pretty resilient and they grow up to be normal responsible folks in spite of the craziness between their parents. I just hope they manage their own custody issues as well when they're adults.