Custody battles are among the most emotionally fraught legal disputes that come before the courts, which is perhaps why so many parents incorrectly assume that once they have been awarded primary custody, they are free to cut their former spouse out of their lives for good. What many parents do not realize is that the primary custodian has a legal obligation to actively foster and enhance a relationship between the child(ren) and the other parent, which does not stop once a custody agreement is reached.
Just last month, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie was ordered by a judge to improve her children’s relationship with their father or risk losing primary physical custody. This case highlights the often-overlooked, ongoing responsibility of the primary caregiver to encourage and help enhance the other parent’s relationship with the children. Disparaging the other parent to the child(ren), discouraging the child(ren) from enjoying time with the other parent, and/or interfering with or impeding the other parent’s relationship with the child(ren) are not only reasons why a court may decline to award primary custody to a parent in the first place but are also behaviors that can jeopardize custody after the issue has been settled.
Jolie was reportedly ordered by the court to supply her ex-husband, Brad Pitt, with the cell phone numbers of each of the couple’s six children and to allow him to speak to his children whenever he wants. She has also reportedly been banned from reading the texts sent between Pitt and their children and instructed by the judge to tell her children that they are ‘safe with their father’.
It’s not just high-profile, celebrity couples that run afoul of this law. Take the recent example of a mother, who after being awarded primary custody of her two-year-old daughter, actively refused to foster a relationship between the child and her former spouse. Instead of facilitating the agreed upon interactive FaceTime calls with the child’s father, the mother would sing loudly, read and even paint the child’s nails, making it almost impossible for the father to engage the child on the calls. As a result, custody was reversed and awarded to the child’s father, who had shown he was the one most capable of fostering a relationship with the other parent.
In another sad but all too common scenario, a father with primary physical custody of his two sons, refused to encourage or insist that the children speak to their mother during the week. He continually cited excuses for why the agreed upon calls did not happen, blaming dead cell phone batteries and lost and broken phones. After the mother complained to the court, it was discovered that the boys’ father had given them alternate cell phones to use, and had not disclosed these numbers to the mother.
The court ordered the father to disclose the numbers to the boys’ mother but, sadly, the relationship had broken down so much through the absence of contact, the boys refused to speak to their mother, expressing anger towards her for bringing their father to court. They then refused to see her. The court intervened and granted therapeutic access to the mother—which often happens when a parent requires additional support in developing a relationship with their children—but the damage was done and the children, who were now 15 and 16-years-old, respectively, did not recover their relationship with their mother.
Whether you are Hollywood royalty or a regular parent, the same laws apply. The Angelina Jolie example serves as an important reminder that failure to comply with the court’s demands to foster and encourage a relationship with both parents can bring the custody of your children into question. Divorce is difficult but the onus is on ex-spouses to stay civil and do everything they can to make sure their children have a relationship with both parents.
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