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Legal Issues - What You Can Do

Document everything – all the time. Make it a habit like brushing your teeth or paying your bills. I created a spreadsheet in Excel that’s become quite handy. I add notes when appropriate and document all days that Matthew spends with his biological parents, grandparents or other family members.

If you’re a decent writer, I suggest you put together a history statement. Start from the beginning of the child’s life and include the following:

• Who s/he lived with and when
• The names of all schools, teachers, counselors and mental health clinicians
• The names of all biological family members who you collaborate with. Include narratives about their involvement if that exists
• List all dates the child visits with the parents and any significant or relevant facts about those visits (does the child eat, are they clothed and clean, do they have any unexplained marks, burns or sunburns on their body, are they injured, etc.) If you suspect injury, take the child to the doctor right away. Kids are kids and they sometimes get hurt without any assistance. Keep an open mind and don’t rush to judgment unless you have just cause for it. False accusations are lies, which are never in a child’s best interest.
• Document when you drive the child to the parents home or collaborate with the parents in any way. Be sure to mention if the parents are willing to work with you or if they chastise you when trying to make arrangements.
• Include references to all mental health statements and any issues related to the school.

Aside from documenting, I strongly encourage you to be active at the child’s school. I work full-time, but I am in the PTA and have regular contact with Matthew’s teachers and school personnel. They know me and they know I’m there for Matthew. Since he had some behavior issues at school, I worked very closely with them to make sure we were all giving Matthew the same rules and messages about his behavior. It’s taken some time, but he’s a lot further along than he used to be. I address and document all behavior issues.

As a side note, it’s important to point out that behavior issues can (and often are) an indication of other issues in the child’s life. I vary consequences based on what the issues are, and sometimes I do not implement consequences at all. It really depends on a bunch of different factors. When both parents were playing tug of war during a heated time in the custody battle, I saw Matthew really struggling. He started talking back to his teachers in a big way. Instead of dishing out a consequence, I took him to an arcade. As we played pinball, we talked about the issues at school and I let him talk it out without feeling pressure. Not only did I throw him a curve ball (which keeps him on his toes), I got to the root of the issue and was able to give him the support he needed.  His behavior improved immediately at school and he and I maintained communication about the things that were on his mind. I gave him a reason to trust me. When you’re in the middle of a legal battle, it’s important to remember that your child is suffering. Kids have all kinds of mixed emotions and they often feel pushed and pulled in ways that confuse their sense of loyalty. I told Matthew many times that I understand that he loves his parents and that, actually, I expect him to. I go out of my way not to make him feel guilty for his feelings. And when his parents use these methods, I document them. I brought it up in court and the judge agreed that Matthew would not be deciding who he gets to live with and to ease up. They did ease up, thank God! But sometimes kids are older and do have a say. What then? Well, I think it’s an easy choice when you set aside your wishes for the outcome. Support the child. Remind him or her that you love them, want to know how they feel and what they’re thinking and want what’s best for them. Also let them know that while you will listen to them, ultimately you answer to a higher power. That takes the pressure off of everyone. Custody battles are confusing enough, and the person who is most in limbo, the one who MAY have to move and get used to another environment (again) is the child. Don’t forget how hard that really is. Don’t forget that they have feelings on the matter, and don’t try to persuade them one way or another. Do remind them that you love them. Do give hugs. Do listen. Do set your own feelings aside. They don’t need anymore grown-up problems that interfere with their sense of stability.

Now another part of this topic is visitation. I’ve got this big 3-way custody battle going on and Matthew is so confused he hardly knows which way is up. His father’s moods swing like rope from a tree, and he wants so desperately to believe that his father loves him. Matthew feels confused about his father because his father’s actions ARE confusing. Anyone would be confused. But Matthew is a kid and he doesn’t have much control over what his father does, and doesn’t have much control about the time he spends with him. He wants to spend time with his father, but only if his father is acting like a decent human being. His father is generally one step short of meeting the technical term for mentally abusive, but then every once in a while he can turn on the charm and convince Matthew that he’s the greatest. Needless to say, this is a tough call. I tried giving the father tons of leeway, but Matthew’s behavior and emotions at school indicated otherwise. I tried giving Matthew extra support, reminding him of his “cool down tools” - take 10 deep breaths, count to ten, take a time out to think things through, talk with a teacher or other adult at school. But these things didn’t do the trick. It was too much for him. Just so you know, Matthew is receiving emotional support services at school. So I decided that Matthew’s emotional health outweighs everything else. I limited the time during the weekdays (no overnight visits). I don’t know how the courts will view my actions, but I am very sure of one thing. I did right by Matthew. He needs serious sense of stability, and the on-off overnight visits were too much for him to deal with during the week. Matthew’s father was so mad that he refused to see him at all for almost two weeks. I documented that, of course. It was a tough call, and I’m not looking to hurt Matthew’s relationship with either parent. But in the end, Matthew’s needs HAVE to rise above everyone else’s need to come and go as they please. The case still hasn’t been decided, but I have plenty to say in support of my decision, and the ruling won’t be made until the summer. In the meantime, Matthew is much more himself, much less stressed out, and seems much more emotionally stable. At this point, I’ll worry about what the court has to say later. I did right by Matthew, and that trumps anything that might happen in court. Ironically, Matthew’s father is coming around to my way of thinking. He started spending time with him again after about two weeks, and I try to keep an open mind about the two of them spending time together. I don’t want to eliminate their time (well, honestly, a part of me does), but I don’t want Matthew to suffer because the situation isn’t stable enough for him. I documented all of this, including statements and emails from Matthew’s teachers indicating his improvements. I get everything in writing to use as exhibits in court, and, as it turns out, emails can be used.

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Standing in place of the parent, or acting parent, or "in loco parentis" is a big job that comes with a unique set challenges. I created this blog to share my story and my experiences with those who find themselves in a similiar situation. I look forward to hearing your comments!

The expenses do add up, so if you’d like to pitch in, please feel free to donate a few bucks. I really appreciate your generosity!