Not always the most wonderful time of the year

A phenomenon many divorce attorneys like me encounter each year between mid-November and January 2 is the sudden drop-off of clients and client activity.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the holiday lull, the last-ditch effort to grasp the fast-fading warm feeling of family or at least the rational attempt to try to preserve the illusion that ‘everything is all right’ for the children.

DSCN0169Often, the holidays are a happy blurred memory batch from childhood, with ham dinners with families gathered at grandparents’ house, favorite (and not so favorite) presents we’ve received over the years, candlelit church services, carols and much more.

Overlay this with the commercial media blitz of glitter, bling (every kiss begins with k?? Who knew? Awesome!) and price cuts, and the secular Holidays take on an almost sacred tone of their own.

We want our children to experience this, to feel whole, to be glad and warm and loved. Often we are able to swallow our own pain–or drown it with well-doctored eggnog– long enough to let the little ones experience Santa and the magic.

But what we also see as the years pass is the carving up of these happy days with a broad knife, dividing the time the children “must” spend with father, mother, siblings, grandparents and others. When parents cannot look beyond their own needs to compromise with their children’s lives, the court will do it for them, with lack of emotion or feeling to guide it.

Four hours for mom. Two hours for grandma. Twelve hours for dad. Splitting the day so you have to be hauling kids on the road for two hours of the holiday you’d all rather spend at home. Weather? Schmeather. The court order says… Alternating years, so every other Christmas your hearth is empty and dark with no children to celebrate. Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. Thanksgiving Thursday. Friday? Maybe, if you’re lucky, a few extra days of the vacation when the children can have a parent all to themselves without other obligations.

DSCN0207There’s no good way to do it, so this yields the sucking-up and effort to maintain through the holidays “for the kids.”

In my generation, divorce was not as prevalent as today, and we visited in summers only, so our holidays, though father was absent, were not disrupted. My children, however, were subject to visitation orders, and spent most holidays with their fathers, which was fine with me. Holiday is a state of mind, as far as I’m concerned. You can have a special day on the 23rd, 25th, or even 31st, if you put your mind to it.

Many more children of my kids’ generation grew up in split parenting situations, so maybe for them, it’s not as traumatic for their own children to be visiting other households during these magic periods. And often, no matter how hard you’re trying to hold things together, the children are well aware of the tensions underlying the surface. If those tensions become toxic, then perhaps separation, even this time of year, could be the right choice, for everyone’s peace of mind. It’s important, though, not to compete with each other to “buy” the children with stuff.

But even if the magic fails on one front, there are many more, like these suggestions from Suzy Brown. As she says, “Holidays are about peace and sharing and gratitude and love. During tragedy, or divorce, or heartache we have to reach down and find those core things at a deeper level, a more meaningful level.”

It’s a tough time. I’m going through the single parent thing again for the first time in 15 years, and it’s a big readjustment. But it can be done. If you feel that you can’t hold on, for any reason, please seek professional help, whether in the form of legal counsel, psychological counsel, or just a heartfelt cup of cocoa with a good friend or close relative. Take time out for yourself. Most decisions about situations (absent actual danger) can be put off for a week or two. Give yourself and the children time in as de-stressed a manner as possible. This will pay off as they learn coping skills from you they can use all their lives.




Happy endings

Often in domestic violence cases, we find that when an abuser starts losing control of the victim, and the victim becomes a survivor and moves out on their own, then the abuser goes after what hurts that survivor most. Usually that’s the children.

I have a dozen cases in my files where mothers have lost their children to fathers who are better funded, better situated, and often present as pillars of the community, despite the abuse they’ve dished out over the years. Many of these women are cut off from their children for years, certainly long enough to destroy all hope of a positive mother-child relationship forming. They have to choose between their own safety and their child. What a horrible place to be.

This month, I had the joy to be involved with a case where a mother and a child, separated by more than ten years by a vindictive abuser, had the opportunity to be permanently reunited again. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the courtroom as this mother and daughter hugged each other, triumphant at last.

 Karma does come around sometimes, as I continually reassure these women who live in agony, praying their children are safe and cared for.  They just have to keep themselves strong, healthy, and on the road to stability. Always prepare for that chance that fate will bring your children home again. You never know when that happy ending will arrive–sometimes when least expected.

It’s nice to have a smile at the end of the day. Best wishes to my client and her daughter, and nothing but good days from here on.

Why the drama, mamma?

As a family law attorney, I know that I’m going to be dealing with people’s emotional issues. After all, when these people come to see me, usually their lives are in turmoil. They may be newly separated. They may be struggling with financial stability. Parents living in two different homes may be battling over children who clearly can’t be ripped in two. I get that.

Really, I do.

We spend a good deal of time dissecting those situations and doing the very best we can to get people through those gauntlets in one piece, and hopefully arrive as close to their original goals as we can. 

What really makes me crazy are the people who must create more drama for their lives, because they love it. It makes them feel important. These people will have their cell phones at appointments with me and answer every call, because if they don’t, the world as they know it will come to an end. Now I don’t know Uncle Harry, and I’m sure his bowel issues might be very significant to him, but if you’re paying me in excess of a hundred dollars an hour, is it really worth discussing his condition with your mother and deciding whether he needs to take his medicine for ten minutes on my clock?  No problem. I’ll just check my email while you’re busy.

Then there’s the extremists. “I”m taking this all the way to the Supreme Court!” they exclaim. That’s all well and good, and I appreciate that determined spirit.  Of course, the fact that the Supreme Court/other federal courts don’t handle a lot of family law cases might be relevant. But there’s still a Superior Court and Supreme Court here in Pennsylvania, if you’re not happy with the order entered by the county court. None of which matters if you don’t return my calls, don’t provide me with the documentation I ask for, and you yell at the judges during our hearings because you ‘just have to be yourself.’

And listen, people. When you have a spouse, long-term partner or a teenaged kid, there’s one rule that applies across the board: any of these people have lived with you long enough that THEY KNOW HOW TO PUSH YOUR BUTTONS. This shouldn’t be news after all this time. Seriously. So when he or she does that ONE thing you can’t stand–whether it’s call you twenty times a day, shows up to pick up your kid ten minutes early every single time, or has their new boyfriend call to negotiate custody arrangements–you don’t have to call and tell me a hundred times. I cannot repair the person that you aren’t going to be with any more. I mean, that’s why you’re not with them any more, right? Just learn to ignore them. Planned ignoring, our therapists call it. It’s a real tactic. Read about it here. It’s free. Use it. 

I’ve said it before: Breaking up is hard to do. (Actually Neil Sedaka said it before me. And got paid better for saying it.) Some people deal with the stress by making themselves into the victim to gain sympathy from everyone around them. Some people try to prove that they’re in control by running roughshod over anyone they get a chance to crush, including social workers, court staff and other people trying to help. Some people just grasp at anything they can find to hold on to as though it were a life preserver, because they really have no clue what’s going to help.

I blame a lot of the need for drama on the current trend for reality show circuses. When you watch Big Brother or Jersey Shore or Wife Swap or Celebrity Rehab or Survivor–any of them, you get a fabulous lesson in how to manipulate people, how to portray yourself. how to make yourself more important by how you deal with everyone around you.

 But as far as I’m concerned, you’re hiring me to do a specific job: to get you through your life crisis with as little damage to your life as possible. I’m not here to deal with you while you’re waiting for your close-up. If that’s what you’re really after, please call me after your fifteen minutes is up. That way, I can preserve my sanity as well as yours.

When do you say when?

Being a divorce/custody lawyer certainly opens one’s eyes to the possibilities and depths of despair in the world of relationships.

Once people commit to each other, they form a whole lot of ties that while easy to break in one way, as in, “Get your lame ass out of here,” they’re much harder to break in other ways.

For example, the woman I met last night who hates winter, hates snow, but her child’s father is entrenched here, and she can’t move (with the child) more than 25 miles away from him, thanks to their court order. Or the joint credit card that now has a balance of $20K that you had so much fun running up together, but neither of you can afford to pay it off. Or the mortgage on a house that you just can’t allow to foreclose because you need your credit rating for the next job you want to apply for. These days, a lot of couples are staying together because they can’t afford to live separately in this economy, especially if they have children.

Even women in abusive relationships find it difficult to leave, for many reasons that the average person doesn’t always understand. It’s hard to say “when.” Or in the words of Neil Sedaka, Breaking Up is Hard to Do.

A column at Discovery Health by Coulson Duerksen lists 10 things to consider when you’re trying to make that decision, including the existence of mutual benefit, avoidance and an imbalance of participation/contribution.

Even weighs in on this subject.

This being said, anyone who believes that a relationship will always be happy and unstressed is on better drugs than the rest of us. Ups and downs are a natural part of any relationship, and many factors play into that roller coaster, including seasonal affect problems, past baggage, holiday expectations and the effect of family members on the needs and demands of the relationship.

Those of my readers who have children on the autism spectrum know the demands that special need places on their families. One author says that “Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, and many others cite enormously high divorce rates among parents with autism. Those rates seem to range from 80-90%…” She goes on, as Missy points out, to show that figure to be some mystical number from who knows where–but the fact remains that among the parents of autistic children that I have spoken with in the western PA area and also online, the divorce rate is better than 50%.

That’s huge, my friends.

Considering how much more those children need the support and commitment of their parents, you’d think that would hold the families together. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true.

So many people inch along the border of saying “when,” sublimating their unhappiness for these and other reasons. My nurse-practitioner friend of many years would scold them if she could, sharing one of her favorite sayings, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” True enough. How much time are these adults willing to waste before moving on, if it’s really time? A month? Six months? A year? Six years?

I’ve had clients dribble away years, waiting. Waiting till the car’s paid off. Waiting till the kids are grown and out of school (which might actually be worse on the children: see here). Waiting until…sometimes until their partner dies. Are their own lives really that unimportant that they can afford to choose not to live them?

When do you say when?

Justice: by the law or by the heart?

When you have brought up kids, there are memories you store directly in your tear ducts. .. Robert Brault

I’ve debated how to write this post for several days, and it’s been difficult.  My role as attorney at law is to uphold the law. Most of the time, that also means to pursue justice. Sometimes these two goals don’t match. These are the hard cases.

I have a client (who has asked me to blog about his case), the victim of a biased judge and a vindictive ex-wife. For several years, the parties utilized the custody court in the state of Tennessee, because that’s where they lived, at first.

After they split up, the wife moved to Pennsylvania with their son, not bothering to get court permission to do so. My client, a high-powered computer consultant, then worked for Microsoft at points around the globe, without an address in the States. But the court awarded him summer and holiday visits with his son.

The mother denied him the right to visit several times thereafter. Although he applied to the FBI and other agencies, he was told they would not get involved in custody matters. (Those same agencies are now the ones prosecuting HIM.) He had to enforce his Tennessee order rights at the court in Pennsylvania, with the mother being held in contempt of court for violating the order.

After multiple findings of contempt, the judge in Tennessee finally gave my client primary custody and said he could take his son to live with him abroad. My client was then making fabulous money for Microsoft, but because the mother was afraid of something happening in the pro-Arab countries where my client was being sent, he quit his job (!) and became a freelance consultant instead. The child got the chance to experience living in many different places, at a much better standard of living, and better schooling and opportunities.

The summer of 2006 came, and he sent the child to stay with his mother, per the court order. Before the summer was over, she filed an emergency petition in Pennsylvania (even though the child hadn’t lived here for six months, as the law requires) to keep the child. Judge William White had said if Tennessee acted on the case, he would stay out of it, as federal law requires, and told her to put the child on the plane. The child went back to his father, as the court order required.

After that, however, the Pennsylvania  judge reneged on his statement. He scheduled numerous hearings, despite our continued objection, which my client did not attend. We steadfastly and consistently opposed jurisdiction in Pennsylvania while a valid Tennessee order was in effect. He issued a bench warrant for my client for failure to appear, when he knew he had no jurisdiction in the first place. He granted the mother custody pending further hearing, despite the fact that Tennessee said it was holding jurisdiction during the minority of the child, and the fact that the child DID NOT LIVE IN PENNSYLVANIA.

So now my client has been the subject of a case for international kidnapping, with the FBI and various governments around the world involved. Most recently he was arrested in Bulgaria, and his passport revoked. He talks about his situation here. Interpol took his credit cards and passport; the credit cards have now been used by unknown persons as far away as London. WHILE HE WAS IN CUSTODY. They are treating him like he is a dangerous criminal, when all he is, is a father who wants some time with his son.

It is truly a sad story. The child has been listed with the National Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children when mother knew very well where the child was. I bet he was even on a milk carton somewhere. The end of the story remains to be seen, but anything positive coming from it is hard to envision.

The really sad part of the story is that if the mother had held to the original terms of her court order and sent the child to visit his father as scheduled, my client would never have gone after primary custody. He was content to let his son live in the States then, and have splendid holidays overseas. But by constantly denying him visits, forcing him back into court to effectuate his orders, the mother created this situation where he had to get primary custody to be sure he’d see his son.

And now, he knows that if he sends his son back to visit, he’ll likely not see him again until the child is 18, because she has always refused to comply with their current Tennessee order, in the only court that truly has jurisdiction.

So, has he violated the language of an order? You can decide that for yourself. Has he done something wrong? I don’t think so. He’s been forced, as many parents are, into an untenable position because of the vindictive and selfish behavior of the other parent in a custody battle.

Who won here? Not the mother. Not the father. Not the son, because in either household at this moment, under these facts, he must be denied access to his other parent. Not the lawyers. Not the system. Not the FBI, attorney general’s office or NCMEC, spending thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on something that this mother could have made unnecessary. No one, really. No one.

Too bad Solomon died years ago; we could use his wisdom about now.

Reality crashes in

This week I’ve had two whammies of a sort that make me have to confront our children’s situation–and their very clear deficits that I often try to minimize.

The first was a two-day custody trial for a client whose child was diagnosed last summer with Asperger’s Syndrome (the same diagnosis as Captain Oblivious). The child is nearly past the age where therapy will give him some real help. He was misdiagnosed, as many Aspies are, with ADHD at 4 and put on meds for four years. Only now when the social issues come into play in school, are the little obsessions more apparent, the reclusiveness, the inability to understand what other people expect in a conversation, in a relationship.

Oddly, it was the father pushing for the services, the testing and the treatment, and the mother essentially in denial–a division that doesn’t usually occur. Of the families I know dealing with this, it is much more often the mother who bears the burden of carting the child to all the sessions, making sure home treatment is carried out, talking to the professionals, and the father who withdraws into his work or other life. So good for him, I guess.

But as it often does in court when I have to hammer home the devastating nature of the autism diagnosis and the changes the family will experience as therapy progresses, it reminds me of our situation and the seeming hopelessness of experiencing change for the Captain.

The case I had this afternoon was a happy one–a stepparent adopting a little girl who is a month younger than Little Miss. As I listened to the conversation she had with her parent, the expansive vocabulary, the ability to reason aloud, the playfulness of her teasing; in short, so many capabilities that ‘normal’ children her age have that Little Miss does not, it pained me all over again.

I try to focus on her steps forward, but reality is like the impact with the cliched brick wall in front of us: she reads two years behind her classmates. Her emotional development is that of a child 4 or 5 years old, though she’ll be 9 this week and is the size of a 12-year-old. Fortunately her math is better than the child in the first case above. Apparently he didn’t excel in anything, and instead of placing him in a program suited for autistic children, the school’s answer in his somewhat backward part of the country was just to send him through third grade again.

But is that so wrong? Is it fair to keep promoting these kids when they haven’t mastered the skills they’ll need? At the IEP meetings, I always insist she is smart, and hope she’ll catch up. On a practical basis, she is very capable of household duties, etc., and she is smart, she is slowly moving forward. School? Not so much. But even if Little Miss finally develops appropriate language skills in 5th grade, or 7th–how much has she missed that all her classmates absorbed back here in 2nd and 3rd grade? They adapt her program and move her ahead with her age group, but is that really what she needs? When do you stop the wheel and get off?

I think this year will be the critical fulcrum point for both these children, as the Captain deals with junior high, and Little Miss confronts the more theoretical and analytical processes that are part of fourth grade. We are seeking outside help this year with TSS/BSC/mobile therapy as is appropriate. But we like to think that schools, especially ones as geared for dealing with ASDs as ours, are the best solution for the educational and socialization skill acquisition. Surely they’re better prepared than I am.

They haven’t got there yet.

Maybe they will.

Dessert May Come First–Or Not, Vol. 2

Welcome to the May 9, 2008 edition of dessert may come first —or not, A place to share experiences of the Autism Spectrum, whether a personal journey, or from the perspective of a family member or friend. We share stories and offer encouragement and advice to others on the path.


Good Fountain presents Reading – it?s what works posted at Good Fountain, where we learn how all those on our child’s team help design their learning process in a way that best suits the child’s learning style.


Julie James presents Grace, Please Find Me posted at a most imperfect paradise, a heartfelt story on the tough choices we have to make sometimes when we have children with issues.

For those of you who might not have seen this, here’s my story on ABA for $40 a month. And another on a new web browser for autistic kids.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of dessert may come first –or not using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Technorati tags: , .

CHECK OUT these other great carnivals as well!! The Carnival of Family Life at Write From Karen, the Carnival of Creative Growth at Energies of Creation, the Mom’s Blogging Carnival at Mrs. Nespy’s World, and Writers From Across the Blogosphere at the Writer’s Block. Enjoy!

The dream job

“Do you miss it?”

I was sitting in court next to the legal advocate from our local women’s shelter this afternoon, as we supported a woman who’d been brutalized by her husband. The photos from the hospital showed ugly bruises inflicted by the man’s cane. Yes. Cane. The man had the temerity to beat her till she was black and blue and then came to court, claiming he was too disabled to have managed the feat.

“I do miss it,” I confessed. From 2001-2004, it would have been me advocating for this woman, bringing 15 years of legal experience to the aid of battered women as part of the Blossom Project. It was my baby, a special six county program solely devoted to assisting victims of domestic violence. As the Attorney Coordinator, I designed the services, including eight-week classes geared toward giving victims much-needed information and direction in terms of where to find jobs, housing, child care, and more. Each week, I also represented up to 15 victims, mostly women, in the process of gaining protection orders in court.

There are a few women who really stand out from the hundreds of bruised faces I saw over those years. One came to every class, listened faithfully to everything that was said, but refused one of the bright pink carnations the ‘graduates’ received, for fear her husband (who she was preparing to leave) would think she’d been with a man. Another waited two years before she gathered the quiet courage to leave, more for her sons’ sake than her own, once they became secondary targets of the violence; as she predicted, she lost her income, then her house and finally her children. The system managed to work against her at every turn. A different one did much the same, but finally her children saw the truth of things and came back to her. She put herself through college, got a Fulbright to go to Africa for a semester to help women there, and now counsels abused women professionally.

There is nothing worse I’ve seen in my law practice than the results of one human brutalizing another, particularly when that man or woman or child is one for whom the batterer has professed great love. What kind of screwed-up message does that give the loved one? Studies have shown that it obviously distorts the ideas about relationships for a child growing up in such a home. Many of the men and women who I represented had grown up in a home like this as a child. That’s why we believed the education component was so important–giving them a hand up, if they’d take it.

Some did, and it was a proud day for both of us when it happened. Many didn’t. Statistics show that a DV victim returns an average of seven times to the abuser before being able to make that final break. I’ve been lucky that none of my clients have received the other kind of finality. They’ve been threatened with capital punishment if they leave, and occasionally, I’ve been threatened as well with harm for helping them. But somehow I kept on.

I still take divorce and custody cases referred from the women’s shelter, often pro bono, because someone who knows what they’re doing has to stand up for these women. I teach the chapter on civil remedies each year during shelter volunteer training. The legal advocate knows she can call me day or night for immediate advice to help her clients, who often need to have information to make a split-second decision. But it’s not the same as being the one in that courtroom chair. That position was the one time in my career I could feel that I was a hero every day. Yes, I miss it.

For information and food for thought.