I Am A Lawyer For Children: 6 Ugly Truths
In an ugly custody dispute where both parents have lawyered up and are fighting over their six-year-old son, who speaks on behalf of the kid? A child advocacy attorney, that's who. These child advocates are lawyers whose sole professional concern is making sure kids get treated fairly, often with screeching parents continually flinging accusations into each of their ears.
We thought this sounded like an admirable and completely nightmarish job to have, so we sat down and talked with a woman who chose this career. She said ...
Parents Are Constantly Threatening You
In a perfect world, for every child, there would be at least one parent looking out for her best interests. This is not a perfect world. So, kids need lawyers. I always wanted to help children, and I view it as something of a calling, but that doesn't make most of these children's parents hate me any less. Parents often have trouble separating their own needs and desires from the "best interest" of their kid. They come to think that I'm their lawyer, not their child's lawyer, and then they get super pissed when they realize that's not the case.
"What's he paying you, a bag of Skittles a day? I'll double that!"
Here's one skull-stabbingly stupid example: My team recommended joint custody in a divorce case. There was no hint of abuse for either parent, so we figured that'd be best for the child. But Daddy wanted to move to NYC -- more than a thousand miles away -- and take the kid with him. Since our recommendation flew in the face of his big-city dreams, he tried to get us fired. I was still in school at the time, already working in the field but not yet graduated. He called my school and said I wasn't "accurately representing" his child, and demanded we get expelled.
"Is there legal precedent for punching an accuser square in the balls? If not, can I set it?"
That didn't work. But he wasn't the last, or even the fourth-from-last person to try and destroy my career over giving a flip about my clients. Parents who don't get their way love threatening to take my law license away, like I'm a misbehaving 9-year-old and my ability to practice law is a beloved toy.
But in terms of go-to moves to win court cases, some tactics are far more disturbing ...
False Molestation Charges Are Constant
As you can imagine, lots of my cases involve accusations of abuse. But one of the most difficult things about any molestation case is that about half the time, we find out no molestation ever occurred -- it's usually one parent trying to get custody away from the other, via accusations of kiddie-diddling. The only legal response to that is to restrict them from alleging abuse in the future, but I don't want to do that on the off-chance the kid is abused down the line.
Sometimes, accusations like that ping-pong back and forth for a while. I remember one case where the mother started by accusing the father of abuse she seemed to legitimately believe occurred. The dad turned out to be innocent, but six months later, he whipped around and accused his ex-wife of molesting their child. He didn't want to settle for joint custody, and apparently figured tossing the ol' molestation accusation back at Mommy would do the trick. He got his dates wrong though, and she hadn't even been with her kid on the dates of his accusation.
"You expect me to know who's watching my child on what day? I'm a father, not a calendar."
And then there are the cases where the children themselves end up making baseless accusations. Summer is my busy season for that -- kids are getting out of school, and suddenly they've got all this free time and the only restrictions on their behavior come from Mom and Dad. A lot of kids decide to start suing for emancipation then (more on that in a moment). To make matters worse, summer is also when children often switch parents in joint-custody cases. So it's also the "hot" season for estranged parents accusing each other of child molestation in order to keep their kid away from the other parent.
So yeah, my calendar fills up around the middle of May and doesn't start to clear up until August, when school starts up again and everyone's too busy to file frivolous accusations.
And in case you haven't figured it out yet ...
Some Of The Parents Are Absolutely Terrifying
I once had a 9-year-old client with a stepmother too evil for a Disney movie. She hated the fact that there had ever been another woman in her new husband's life, and she decided to express that hate by taking that woman's child for herself. She sought termination of the mother's parental rights, and when it was made clear that we couldn't rob a parent of her rights just 'cuz, you can guess what she did next: She alleged that her adopted child's bio-mom was molesting him.
This is why I keep the firm of Bayer & Advil on retainer.
It started when the kid was at a pool party and got kicked really hard in the groin. His mom had examined him because she wanted to make sure he wasn't bleeding or anything. The stepmother freaked out, saying "that's molestation! She had no business being down there!" There was no other evidence of any kind of abuse. Sounds like the sort of thing we should've been able to clear up in a matter of minutes.
It took 18 months.
Evil stepmom moved on from the claims of abuse to "this kid has autism! His mother can't handle a kid with autism." That was proven bullshit, too. So next she started claiming the bio-mom had ADHD and thus couldn't handle her kid. Then she claimed the kid's mom was starving him. She brought up one accusation after the other, and even threatened to call the cops if Bio-Mom came to pick up the kid when it was her turn with him.
"She tells him that she loves him whenever she leaves. What a perv, right?"
That was the, uh, mis-sized slipper that broke the evil stepmother's back. We hit her with "alienation of parental affection" and were able to give the mother full custody, since the home life was obviously so toxic. The kid is still able to see his bio-dad as much as he wants, but he can't be around the stepmom without supervision.
"I gotta shit, so here comes the FBI. I'll be back in a few."
So yeah, that's what a "win" looks like for my job. But it's not always the parents screwing things up in a child's life ...
Sometimes You're Trying To Save Kids From Themselves
Anyone who has ever raised a child, known a child, or been a child knows adults don't have a monopoly on manipulation.
Fun fact: Minors can sue to be "emancipated" from their parents, if they can prove they can take care of themselves. There are a whole bunch of good reasons a kid might need to be emancipated. Maybe they're old enough to support themselves with a job and they need to get out of a shitty home situation. Maybe they're millionaire genius app developers at the age of 16 and they need to be able to run their business without parental interference. But more commonly, they're kids who assume the term "emancipated' means, "now I get to live on my own in a bitchin' apartment and go to bed whenever the hell I want."
Freedom's just another word for three squares of ice cream a day.
Emancipation law varies from state to state, but you're generally required to be above the age of 14, able to support yourself, and not be pregnant to have a shot at success. The only "guaranteed' path to emancipation is to be the victim of terrible -- and provable -- abuse. Psychologists and sociologists are brought in to evaluate how emancipation would impact the family dynamic, and whether or not it's in the kid's best interest. But none of that stops kids with no job, no place to live, and no history of abuse from applying for emancipation. The most common (B.S.) reasons teens try to flee the nest via court order are:
A. They want to drop out of school;
B. They want to do things they see their friends with more freedom doing;
C. They want to date whomever they want.
"C" is definitely the most common, because 14- to 17-year-olds tend to be just shitty enough at decision-making to think moving in with someone they met three weeks ago is an idea that absolutely won't backfire six months down the road.
"He wouldn't send dick pics over OkCupid if he wasn't serious, Mom."
My most irritating case was a 13-year-old girl who claimed her 20-year-old boyfriend was willing to take her in, and obviously we said no. We said no a whole, whole bunch of times. Being a teenager, she didn't listen -- she figured, "OK, I can't get this done through legal means, so I'll just run away." And to her creepy boyfriend's credit, he kicked her out of the apartment as soon as he figured out what she'd done. He wanted to sleep with a 13-year-old, but he absolutely did not want to go to prison.
"I just trying to be a (Megan's) law-abiding citizen."
So then she came back to us, seeking to be emancipated because now her parents hated her and they'd "destroyed her relationship" with Mr. Skeevy-But-Sensible. Rather than going through the whole fruitless emancipation process, we asked if she had any relatives she could stay with for a while. She had an aunt, and the parents agreed to hand over temporary custody.
You probably won't be shocked to find out that finally "escaping" her oppressive parents didn't solve her problems. Two years later, I get a call from the aunt she's staying with. The girl is 15 now, and she's stealing things, fucking older men, etc. When I tried to talk with her, all she'd say is, "I don't have to talk to you, I have constitutional rights!" So at least she paid some attention in social studies class.
"It's right there in the 29th Amendment: 'Congress shall make no law inhibiting the quest for some strange.'"
It was clear she was on a fast train to the juvenile court system, and I told her just that. She responded by going on a rant that the world was against her, and if people would just let her live her life, she'd be fine. After a few more weeks of living her life on her own terms, she earned herself lockup in a juvenile detention facility.
That's not an uncommon ending in this job, either -- you can only do so much. You can try to keep the grown-ups from ruining their child's life, but sometimes the child is just biding her time until she's old enough to ruin it on her own.
Custody Cases Can Play Out Like Cheesy Soap Opera Plots
I once had a case where a woman cheated on her husband and wound up baby-fied by another man. During the divorce proceedings, the baby's bio-dad wanted custody, but so did the baby's dad-by-marriage, even though that marriage was dissolving (as evidenced by, you know, another man impregnating his wife). Want to guess how that one turned out? Well, Louisiana has a quirk where you can have more than one father in those situations, basically declaring it a tie. In that case, the law was willing to recognize both dads because, in the state's logic, the more men contributing to that child's welfare, the better.
"As long as the two men never, ever kiss. We're still Louisiana, after all."
Another time, a pregnant mother had a stroke and wound up in a coma. The baby was born by C-section. So now the mother couldn't speak, and likely never would (hospital staff said she would probably never regain consciousness). She also wasn't married to the probable father. So, once again, a newborn infant comes into the world needing an attorney.
At least we make better companions than Barney.
I was brought in to determine if it was in the child's best interest to have the father get custody. I had to do a full danger assessment before he could get his kid -- that included home visits to make sure his house was safe for a child, investigating his social support system (i.e., who could this guy rely on for help?), making sure he had no problems with the law, etc. This was all on behalf of a client (that is, the baby) who could barely lift her head up. Fortunately, everything checked out for the probable father and everyone vouched for him. Despite the tragic circumstances, it worked out as well as it possibly could have.
But other times, no one is happy. That's because ...
Kids Will Demand To Stay In Abusive Homes
Once upon a time, I had a child client who was allegedly being molested by her father. The safety assessment was just horrible: He was actually forcing her to share a bed with him every night. We didn't have enough to remove her from the situation though, so we laid down some ground rules first: He had to stock the kitchen with normal-people food, provide a separate bed for his damn child, etc. -- pretty reasonable terms for a parent to abide by.
He wound up violating them right away, of course.
Gotta maintain that feng shui, after all.
We decided to extract the kid, and when I got there, the father threatened me and locked himself in a closet and generally behaved like the opposite of a responsible adult. Here's the kicker, though: That whole time, the child never stopped saying she wanted to live with her daddy.
That isn't so unusual. Not only do you get abused kids pleading with you to stay with their terrible parents (abusive or not, they're still the only parents they've ever known), but you often get abused kids freaking out that they might get in trouble for being victims. I've had kids ask me, "Am I going to jail?" way more times than could possibly be healthy for my soul.
I ask myself, "Am I going to cry tonight?"
It doesn't help that some of these Shitlord Class parents do their damndest to scare their kids about what'll happen if they "tattle." These parents coach their kids on what to say. I had one kid whose dad apparently told him to plead the Fifth Amendment. The kid delivered the line as, "My dad says I have five mendments not to talk to you." Said urchin then proceeded to tell me about the trip to Disney World his daddy promised as a reward for performing well in court.
Yup, I am.
Obviously, a kid doesn't get to make the decision to stay in an abusive situation (see: "saving children from themselves" above), but these are the cases where looking out for the best interests of the child means everyone hates you. But of course, that's the point -- if people like me don't to try to make sure that kid at least has a chance to make it safely into adulthood, who's going to do it?
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Things You Only Find Out as a Lawyer to the Poor and 5 Ways America's Justice System is Designed to Screw You.
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