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 Lessons From Family Court


Judge Richard Ross 

(A longer version of this work was previously published in audio CD form and is available from the author.)

CHAPTER TWO: Indecent Behavior

           In my courtroom I sat black-robed above the lawyers and litigants and court staff and it was “With all due respect, Your Honor” and “May it please the Court.” Smooth language and the law’s gloss varnished the rough tales of family life.

          I didn’t talk with the children there. For that we went “in the back,” as we called it, to my robing room. The robing room opened behind me to my right near the court clerk’s workstation, an 8' × 8' space with a desk, four chairs, a telephone, and a closet where I left my robe overnight. The beige walls were bare. In the back I removed the robe, rolled up my shirt sleeves, brought out the chair from behind the desk, and got to know the children.

          I talked with more than one thousand children in the robing room. Some of the things that frightened them were straightforward, such as when their parents fought, punished them physically, or abused alcohol or drugs. But the sources of children’s fears can be much less apparent. Moreover, a frightened child may be described instead as angry, or depressed, or as suffering from what mental health professionals call “conduct disorder not otherwise specified.”

          I tried to make the children feel comfortable. The small size and plainness of the robing room helped. Sans robe, I looked less like some warlock from a night terror. The court stenographer’s machine was an ice breaker; the younger children seemed fascinated that the machine produced their words. Some even had a go at the keys.


          Whatever works. Court is no place for a child. In most instances, gentle handling and lots of patience will yield conversation after a while.

          Not always, though. Take nine year-old Jessica, whose adoptive mother had raised her as an only child. The adoptive mother was her aunt, the sister of Jessica’s drug-addicted birth mother. Her aunt resented the sad, wasted life that had produced Jessica and two other abandoned daughters. Jessica and her sisters each had a different father; Jessica’s maternal grandmother had raised the sisters, by now young adults in their early twenties. Because the extended family had respected the aunt’s desire to keep Jessica’s legal adoption a secret, Jessica knew her sisters as “friends of the family.” Their warmth informed Jessica otherwise, however. Only the limits of her youth had prevented her from decoding their messages.   

          Welcome to the world of so-called “kinship adoption,” where your aunt becomes your mother and your sisters change into cousins.

          Or, in Jessica’s family, into mere friends. Former friends, actually. Six months prior to the court proceedings, the sisters and aunt had a falling out over the roots of Jessica’s behavior, which had become problematic at home and in school. Jessica was withdrawn, defiant, disruptive. The sisters thought they could reach her, but only if Jessica knew the truth about their identity. Jessica’s mood would brighten, they felt, when she learned that she had siblings, not to mention sisters she already knew well and who cared about her.

          Their aunt disagreed. She told the sisters that Jessica’s psyche was too frail to handle these revelations. As Jessica’s mother, her wishes must prevail; in fact, the sisters could no longer visit, she told them, lest they find themselves unable to resist imposing their views of Jessica’s best interests. Contact ceased. Her adoptive mother only shrugged when Jessica asked for an explanation or complained about missing her adult friends.

          New York’s Domestic Relations Law permits siblings to petition Family Court for visitation with one another; the next act in this case was to play itself out in my courtroom. Much less common than visitation cases involving children and their estranged or divorced parents, petitions for sibling visitation may result from severe family conflict or pathology. Many of the cases involve foster care settings in which a foster child has difficulty making contact with a brother or sister who is a foster child in another home. Whether the difficulty arises within a state-supervised family or from a private dispute, however, a sibling visitation case crossing the bench ranks lower with  many Family Court judges than, say, a dental checkup.

          The aunt’s lawyer in Jessica’s case didn’t improve matters much at first.

          “Your Honor,” he said, gesturing at the sisters, “the petitions filed by these two women seeking visitation with Jessica must be dismissed as a matter of law. They have no standing to file these cases. As you know, New York law permits only parents, grandparents, and siblings to file a case for visitation with a child. These two women are not Jessica’s sisters. Their aunt is Jessica’s legal mother, and thus from a legal standpoint Jessica’s birth mother has become Jessica’s aunt. Therefore, Jessica’s two former sisters have become her cousins, and cousins have no right to seek a court order for visitation.”

          The lawyer stopped. I leaned forward. 

          “Now, as to your motion to dismiss for lack of standing, you are arguing that Jessica’s biological sisters are cousins for that purpose.”

          “That’s right, Your Honor.”

          “You’re joking, right?” I said, trying to provide a hint about the impression he was making.

          “Not at all, Your Honor. I –  ”

          ”Thank you, counselor. You may be seated. The sisters have legal standing. They’re sisters.” 

          I appointed a lawyer to represent Jessica and a psychologist to interview the principals. Both reported that Jessica was a confused, distrustful child. Their work was made more difficult by the need for continued secrecy.

          “The issue is whether visits should occur with the sisters, not, at this point, whether Jessica should or has to learn all or additional parts of her life history,” I told the participants in my courtroom. “It may be in Jessica’s best interests to have one without the other.”

          Unlikely, it turned out. Jessica nearly had the truth in hand. Moreover, the sisters had decided no longer to play supporting roles in the charade. The litigation was like a burr scratching at the family’s wounds. The aunt’s lawyer argued that the sisters were seeking visitation in order to demonstrate supremacy in a family power struggle and, given the sensitivity of the issues at hand, that a court order for visitation would violate his client’s parental right to raise her adoptive child without the interference of state or sibling.

          “Nice try,” said the lawyers for the sisters, each of whom had hired one. “But it’s nonsense to pretend that this case raises grand issues of constitutional law. Is it in Jessica’s best interests to visit with her sisters or not? That’s what the case is about, period.”

          I felt it was time for me to meet Jessica. The aunt and sisters, however, indicated they would insist on having Jessica testify in their presence in open court.

          I was starting to dislike the lot of them.

          You have that right, of course, I assured them, in a tone of high-grade judicial steel. And, of course (I went on), a showing that Jessica would suffer psychological harm from this standard courtroom procedure would persuade me otherwise. I added that the “Court” would certainly appreciate the sensitivity they would be demonstrating by waiving this right so that Jessica could testify out of view in the robing room.

          Lawyers and clients put their heads together and got my point. A legal wrangle followed over who would be in the robing room. Concerned that four lawyers plus the judge, even in shirt sleeves, might intimidate Jessica, I suggested that I conduct the interview only with Jessica’s lawyer present. Following a review of the stenographic record with their clients, the other lawyers could have Jessica give additional testimony. All consented. A few minutes later Jessica’s lawyer was walking with Jessica along a back corridor and into the robing room. I met her just inside the door.

          “Hello, Jessica, I’m Judge Ross.” I reached out and shook her hand.

          Jessica stared at me, her bright eyes wary, and said nothing.

          “Thank you for coming to speak with me, Jessica. Come on in and sit down.”

          I gestured to a chair. We sat. I told the court stenographer we were going on the record.

          “Jessica, can you tell us your name?” I asked.

          She replied in a whisper.

          “Jessica, this woman is going to take down everything you say on her machine, so I’m going to ask that you try to answer so she can hear you, okay? Do you want to try that?”

          Jessica didn’t respond.

          “How old are you, Jessica?”


          “I’ll bet you’re a little nervous, aren’t you?”

          Nothing came back.

          “Well, that’s okay. Everybody’s a little nervous in court, even grown-ups.” A pause, then: “Jessica, do you know why you’re here today?”

          “Because I can’t see Aly and Dodie.”

          “Do you know why you can’t?”

          “My mommy doesn’t want me to.”

          “I see. And how does that make you feel?”

          No response, and Jessica was starting to cry – in fact, to shake visibly.

          I looked at Jessica’s lawyer. She shook her head.

          I leaned towards the child. “Jessica, it’s okay. We’re going to stop. I don’t want to do anything to make you feel bad. I’m sorry if this was too hard for you. We’re going to take you back to Ms. Grayson’s office and your mommy will be out in a few minutes. You seem like a very nice girl, Jessica. Thank you for trying today.”

          Nice going, Judge, I told myself, giving myself a mental rap on the knuckles and feeling like an idiot.


          Later, the psychologist testified. “Jessica has a poor grasp of who she is and why people are arguing about her, and I believe these are important factors contributing to her difficulties in functioning. My opinion is that she’ll eventually be much better off knowing the whole truth, but I can’t honestly say I know exactly how to go about accomplishing that or that I can accurately predict the nature and degree of any short-term effects on her. I do know for certain that she wants very much to see her sisters again, but the family secrets were beginning to cause a great deal of tension and dysfunction even in those relationships before Jessica’s adoptive mother discontinued the visits.”

          “And your recommendation as to the sisters’ request for visitation?” I asked.

          “I wouldn’t say no, but I would structure the visits carefully and involve the adoptive mother in the process, possibly under the supervision of a therapist.”

          At the end of the hearing I told Jessica’s aunt, this honorable woman who had adopted Jessica and become her mother: “You know, ma’am, as I think about this, I am realizing that if you had merely taken legal guardianship or custody of Jessica in the manner that her grandmother did with her sisters – in other words, if there had been no adoption – there would have been no secret for you to feel you had to keep. Jessica would have known all along who her sisters were, and also would have known as much about the rest of her family history as seemed appropriate to tell her, the same way her sisters learned it. I think you deserve a great deal of respect for the way you’ve raised Jessica. Kinship adoption is a sometimes criticized concept, but it’s clear that your adoption of Jessica on the whole is a success story. The thing that’s gone wrong recently is that Jessica is being kept in the dark, and most children are afraid of the dark. I’m ordering that the sisters have two joint visits monthly for the next six months, after which we’ll re-visit, if you will, Jessica’s situation.”

          Out of the darkness and into the light. Seems a better way, right? But light can beguile. Too much can turn a child’s world black.

          As occurred in The Case of the Rehab Visits.

          Michael was fourteen and was missing his father, a financial mogul and heroin addict. Michael’s parents had agreed to tell their son that Dad was on a three-month European business trip, this to shield Michael (as well as themselves) from the effects on the child of the truth’s harsh rays: Michael’s father was in the Midwest in a residential treatment center, where his addiction had finally dumped him.

          Three weeks into the program, detoxed and ready to right the ship, Michael’s father told his wife he wanted to see his son. She refused, reminding him of their agreement. Dad called his lawyer with instructions to petition Family Court for visitation.

          With a twenty-five-page motion in hand seeking immediate visitation for his client with Michael, the father’s lawyer stood to my right in the intake part at a podium several feet away from the bench to present his application. This was called doing a case “at sidebar.” Here the judge was up close and personal with the customers, as though to say “I feel your pain.” Moreover, so immediate was the physical and emotional presence of the robed majesty of the law that litigants and lawyers tended to say less. Thereby the calendar moved along more quickly – the real purpose of sidebar.

          “I don’t understand this application,” I said to the lawyer. “The parties aren’t divorcing or separating, and your client expects to be home in a few months. Why is this a situation for the courts?”

          “Your Honor, this is a child in great pain. He wants to see his father. He can’t get to the rehab without the mother’s help and she won’t let him go.”

          “Excuse me, but even if the court gets involved, you have to give notice to the mother that you’ve started the case and I would be appointing a lawyer for the child. Then we’d have to schedule a hearing. By the time the case is heard your client will practically be home.”

          “It’s more complicated than that, Your Honor. Yesterday Michael told his mother he would hurt himself if he couldn’t visit.”

          “Hurt himself?”

          “Well, he was extremely distraught and told her she would find him lying dead in the bathtub.”

          “How do you know this?”

          “Michael talked to my client by phone last night. I doubt strongly this a serious statement by the child, but it does serve to demonstrate the strength of his desire to see his father.”

          “Okay, counselor, have your motion served on the mother tonight. I’m directing her to produce the child in court tomorrow. The New York City Administration for Children’s Services is directed to make a home visit tonight, take any action that may be indicated to protect the child, and report to me tomorrow.”

          “Whoa, Judge, wait a minute. There’s no need to get the child welfare people involved. This is just – ”

          ”Why not, counselor? A parent’s drug addiction plus a suicidal child equals a child protective investigation. It’s a standard equation in these cases.”

          Dad’s lawyer shifted in place and stared at me. “Your Honor, this isn’t a typical case. My client is a highly successful financial executive and a responsible parent. The family lives on Fifth Avenue and their son is an honors student at one of the best private schools in New York City. He – ”

          I interrupted. ”Your client brought this case to court, not me, Mr. Sand. We treat captains of industry and street addicts the same here.”

          “Yes, badly,” the lawyer said.

          Busy urban courtrooms have a background noise of papers rustling and computer keyboards clicking and staff moving about and now at the lawyer’s insult this noise stopped. There were two uniformed court officers providing security in the courtroom. They gave me a once over to determine whether I was going to get worked up. Then they relaxed, watching me lean back in my cushioned recliner and give a wry sideways shake of my head.

          “Ah, Mr. Sand, you’ve become frustrated. Try to knit yourself together. You’ve accomplished your first objective. I’m not to going to toss the case out of court altogether today. Tomorrow, hopefully, the child will be in court and I’ll get a better sense of what’s going on.”

          At ten o’clock the next morning Michael was crying in my robing room.

          “I can’t believe my father’s a junkie,” he told me, his anger cranking up the volume on the word “junkie.” I was relieved at his anger. He had refused to speak with the lawyer I appointed for him; I had expected to find him withdrawn. Michael and I sat face-to-face and close-up. I had placed his lawyer behind him out of sight. The lawyers for Mom and Dad were in the courtroom, excluded by me from the interview on the basis that Michael’s potentially suicidal state represented an emergency requiring the robing room environment to be as pressure-free as possible.

          “You’re really angry, aren’t you?” I said to Michael.

          “And I don’t see why he had to cheat on my mother all these years, even if he was on drugs.”

          “What do you mean, Michael?”

          “My Mom told me. I was trying to convince her to let me go see him. You should read the first letter he sent me from the rehab. He really needs me now. She got crazy when I told her that. She was like, screaming about how he was no good and that he’d been fooling around since I was a little kid and this, that, and the other thing.”

          He cried. I gave him the box of tissues we kept near the phone on the robing room desk.

          For a minute I said nothing. I was thinking: Is the kid suicidal or not? Should I send him upstairs for an evaluation by the court’s mental health clinic?

          “Michael, your father’s lawyer told me that you told your mother she was going to find you dead in the bathtub. I’m very concerned. Did you say that?”

          “I was mad. I was trying to get her to let me go.”

          “To see your Dad.”

          The child nodded, sniffling.

          “Well, can you tell me honestly if you feel as though you would have done that to yourself?”

          “No way. I was just trying to scare her.”

          “Do you feel like hurting yourself?”

          He shook his head, staring at the floor.

          “Michael, I’d like to ask you to look at me, please, okay? Do you feel as though you’re going to do something to hurt yourself?”

          He looked up. “No, Judge.”

          “I’m glad to hear that. Have you ever tried to do anything to hurt yourself?”

          “No,” he said, sounding annoyed. “I’m not like that.”

          I decided I didn’t need the clinic evaluation.

          “Michael, you’ve had a terrible shock,” I said to him. A lot of stuff has been dropped on your head all at once. Anybody would have difficulty dealing with this. There’s help available to you, Michael, and I am going to ask you to take advantage of it, right away, and especially before you make any decisions about visiting your father. I know that you’re concerned about him, but don’t forget he’s in the hands of professionals at the rehab who know how to take care of him. He’s in a very safe place right now. You have to start thinking about being okay yourself in this situation before you try to make bigger decisions. Does that make sense to you?”

          Crying again, Michael said: ”I guess so. I can’t believe all this is happening. My life is ruined.”

          “I understand. I’m sure it’s very confusing. But I’m also sure it’s going to work itself out.”

          I paused, then said: ”Michael, this man I appointed as your lawyer, he’s going to talk to you about the specifics of getting support for yourself in dealing with this and I’ll have the case back in court next week to see how things are developing. Can you go along with that?”

          “What about the visits?”

          “You can tell your father the judge isn’t allowing it just yet.”

          I shook Michael’s hand. He, his lawyer, and the court officer who had been standing near the robing room closet throughout the proceedings went into the back corridor.    

          The court stenographer was getting her gear together to move into the courtroom. She looked over at me.

          “Jeez, Judge,” she said, shaking her head. “These people.”

          Michael’s case did not last the week. His father left rehab, returned home, and discontinued the court proceedings. I ordered the Administration for Children’s Services to monitor the family and take whatever action was appropriate to protect Michael, then turned my attention to the other eight hundred children in my active caseload.

          One of whom was ten year-old Thomas, who was six months old when his mother and her live-in boyfriend of two years (call him Jack) quarreled. The tiff turned nasty. Mom told Jack that Thomas was not his son. For a while the relationship was a tad. . . strained. In fact, Jack was not Thomas’ father. But he already loved Thomas. He felt like Thomas’ father. No other man was in the baby’s life.     

          The couple got over it. They agreed that Thomas did not need to know the circumstances of his parentage. Thomas as infant, toddler, and young boy knew Jack as Dad. He was a good Dad at that, involved and loving.

          Eventually Mom found true love elsewhere. Thomas was nine when his mother and father separated. He saw his father often enough and was glad the fussing and fighting was over, though it was easy to tell his father hated Mom’s new boyfriend. Then his mother lost her job. Thomas heard arguments at home about money. On the telephone, his mother yelled at his father: pay more child support or find himself in court. Thomas tried to focus on his friends and fourth grade.          

          And was surprised to find Dad at school one afternoon to pick him up. And shocked that Dad was taking him to a laboratory for DNA tests and saying he might not be his real father. And numb when Dad met him after school two weeks later to show him the test results.

          In order to obtain child support, Thomas’ mother filed a Family Court case to name Jack as Thomas’ legal father. Because she and Jack had never married, no presumption existed at law that he was the father.

          “Everything that man says about me telling him he isn’t Thomas’ father is a lie,” Thomas’ mother said under oath on the witness stand, pointing at Jack. “He’s angry that I broke up with him and wants to take it out on his son by not paying support. He should be ashamed. He’s the father.”

          New York law did not permit Jack’s privately-arranged DNA tests to be admitted as evidence at trial. Court-ordered tests at a state-approved laboratory were required. Those results would more or less settle the issue, but the lawyer I had appointed for Thomas urged me not to order the tests.

          “Your Honor, for more than nine years this man held himself out as the child’s father and built a loving father-son relationship. To have had private blood tests administered and to have informed Thomas that he is not his father is one of the most heartless, outrageous acts I’ve ever seen in Family Court. He should be estopped from contesting his paternity of Thomas.”

          “Estopped” was legal talk. The child’s lawyer was arguing that in these circumstances the man Thomas knew as his father should not be permitted to benefit, against Thomas’ best interests, from DNA tests that might disprove his paternity and thereby relieve him from paying child support.

          “Well, Mr. Johnson,” I said to Thomas’ lawyer, “if it’s true that he has already told Thomas he isn’t his father, and then proved it to the child by means of the private tests, what is the court accomplishing by naming him as the legal father? Shouldn’t I order the tests, if for no other reason than to confirm that he gave the child accurate information? However one characterizes the issues of fairness and humanity that are involved here, won’t I be confusing the child even more by creating a legal fiction?”

          The child’s lawyer stared at me. “There’s even more potential to harm the child by that approach, Your Honor. The court would be putting the child through a second awful round of possibly finding out his father isn’t actually his father, and no doubt hoping against hope while the results are pending.”

          A good point. The courtroom fell silent. Everyone was looking at me. I found myself thinking about the beaches on Anguilla.

          Then I said: “I’d like to see all counsel in the back, please.”

          While the lawyers were settling themselves in my robing room chairs, I stalled, going across the hall to the robing room of the courtroom next door to pour myself a cup of coffee. There was a computer on a desk in the robing room of this courtroom and a court clerk was playing solitaire on it.

          “How are you, Judge?” he said to me, his eyes on the screen.

          “You winning?” I asked him.

          “Nah,” he said.

          “Me neither,” I told him, and went back across the hall to the lawyers.

          I sat down at my desk, took off my glasses and rubbed three fingers of my left hand across my eyes, then said:

          “Tell you what I’m going to do.” I looked at Jack’s lawyer. “Before I decide whether to order DNA tests, I want your client to have a session with a court-appointed therapist. I also want the therapist to see the child once. Then I want your client to talk to the therapist again. After all of that, we’ll have a court date and your client will tell me if he wants to put aside his anger and agree to my naming him as Thomas’ legal father.”

          “Judge, he’s never going to do that,” Jack’s lawyer said. “He’s not going to pay this woman a dime. She dumped him, after he spent nine years giving her kid a father.”

          “The money is for the child, not her,” I said. “He didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to all those years.” 

          “He’s not the kid’s biological father, Judge. The kid already knows. There’s no going back now. You want him to go through the therapist exercise, he’ll do it, but nothing’s going to change, I can assure you.”

          It turned out he was right. Eventually, I ordered the DNA tests. The results were as expected. I dismissed the mother’s petition for child support. By that time, the man Thomas had known and loved as his father had stopped visiting him.

          Creativity abounds. Five year-old Marjory’s mother brings a python in a pillowcase to a visit with her daughter at a foster care agency. The child shrieks; the visit breaks off. Marjory’s mother claims in court, at a hearing to suspend visits altogether, that the four-foot python is a harmless baby and that she intended merely to amuse the child. Ten year-old Howard, the subject of a custody battle, is chubby, bordering on obese. He cries to his father about the teasing he gets at school. Dad tells him he’d be more popular if he didn’t look like a basketball. “My father hates me,” Howard tells me in the robing room, sobbing. Eight year-old Allan’s father owns companies and flies planes. Among his residences is a Manhattan townhouse with a twenty-by-fifty-foot gym. Having decided that Allan plays chess to excess and spends too much time reading, he sets up a target at one end of the gym and introduces his son to the BB gun. Allan begins to have nightmares. Fourteen year-old Claudia begs me to read the riot act to her parents, who want joint legal custody of her but have reached stalemate over two of the thirty-five draft provisions in the custody agreement. One of the contested provisions would require Claudia’s father, in buying a new apartment for Claudia and her mother, to assure that both of the new apartment’s bedrooms “faced south and west and allowed the same or similar type and degree of light that is presently obtained in the bedrooms of the parties’ existing apartment.” Dad objects to the micro-management. As to Christmas and Spring school breaks, Claudia’s mother wants to alternate them, but her father wants them split. No way, Claudia’s mother says.

          New York judges are supposed to reserve joint custody for parents who, despite their breakup, remain amicable and united on key issues related to their children’s well-being. Claudia says to me: “Please do something, Judge. Anything to get them to quit fighting. Otherwise I’m going to have to go live with friends.”

          Precious babies all.

          Twelve year-old Jason’s parents signed a divorce stipulation giving them joint custody of Jason. Their post-divorce Wonderland was the same slow sort of country that Alice experienced, requiring Jason to run twice as fast to get somewhere else. His fortnight’s schedule went like this:


          Mon. morning: From Mom’s apartment to school.

          Mon. afternoon:  After-school computer program.

          Mon. night:  Mom’s apartment.            

          Tues. morning: From Mom’s apartment to school.  Tues. aft.: From school to Dad’s apartment. Tues. night: Dad’s apartment.

          Wed. morning: From Dad’s apartment to school. Wed. aft: After-school sports program. Wed. night:  Dad’s apartment.

          Thurs. morning: Dad’s apartment to school. Thurs. aft.: From school to Mom’s apartment. Thurs. night: Mom’s apartment.

          Fri. morning: From Mom’s apartment to school. Fri. aft: From school to Mom’s apartment. Fri. night:  Mom’s apartment.

          Sat. morning - Sun. night (alternate weekends): Dad’s apartment. Sunday night: To Mom’s apartment.

          Monday-Friday: Repeat Week One.

          Saturday of second week (until 8 P.M.): With Dad, then until Monday morning back to Mom.

          Repeat the two-week cycle.


          In fairness to Jason’s parents, let it be said that a judge had approved this divorce agreement. Two years later, Jason’s mother was in Family Court asking me to approve a modification. She wanted to switch Jason’s after-school sports program from Wednesday to Tuesday. Because the exertion of his athletic endeavors required Jason afterwards to have a shower, a hearty meal, and a good rest, his mother felt he should not begin his time with his father until after school on Wednesday rather than after school on Tuesday.

          No way, Jason’s father said. And what dumb-as-a-shovel notion required switching the day of the sports program to begin with? he wanted to know.

          Because, said Jason’s mother.

          Because why? said Jason’s father.

          Because I want him to spend less time at your place with you and your tramp girlfriend.

          “Your Honor,” interjected Jason’s lawyer, whom I had appointed less than an hour earlier from several lawyers sitting in the back of my courtroom awaiting the call of their cases.

          “Yes,” I said, nodding in her direction and grateful that she had interrupted the family feud.

          “Whatever you do, Judge, I urge you not to create a situation whereby Jason spends more time with one parent than the other. He’s petrified of their reaction. The way he keeps peace is by assuring both parents they will have equal time. He gave me specific instructions to tell you not to upset the apple cart.”       

          I looked at Jason’s father. A smug mean twist of victory crossed his face.

          “Well, ma’am, having heard that, do you still wish to change the schedule?” I asked Jason’s mother.


          “Then I’m dismissing your request for modification. I see no reasonable legitimate interest of Jason’s that would be advanced by modifying the schedule at this time. Perhaps both of you will take this opportunity to consider how upset Jason is at the idea of displeasing either of you. He must have a difficult emotional life, not to mention an exhausting physical one.”

          Neither parent moved.

          “Please step out,” I told them. I took a five-minute break to calm myself, then asked the staff to call the next case.

          Occasionally, one of my judicial colleagues told me that my attitude towards such parents was too judgmental. Well, I was, after all, a judge. In the typical case, the law required my decision to promote the best interests of the child. One had to have standards.

          But nobody’s perfect, colleagues countered. Every parent makes mistakes. That doesn’t mean they don’t love their children.

          Then why don’t they simply behave decently? I would reply. Is there a better definition of love in the context of the family?



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