Thursday, February 19, 2009

Children Are Not Pawns in the Game of Divorce

According to Georgia Witkin, Ph.D. in her book KidStress, University of Missouri researchers found that children who lived with both parents had lower stress levels than children living with a single parent. Children living with a single parent living with relatives had the same stress level as children who live with both parents.

Does that mean you should stay in a bad, unloving marriage for the sake of the kids? There are many varied and different opinions on this. But if you decide that ending your marriage is the right decision, you should consider how the process of divorce will affect your children. In Pennsylvania, you are not required to have a formal custody agreement regarding the children. If you and your spouse are able to amicably work out a schedule for custodial time with your children, and not put the kids in a tug of war, you will have done the best thing possible to protect your children from the ugliness of divorce. You may wish to have the agreement memorialized in writing so that no misunderstandings arise.

However, if you are unable to come to a satisfactory custody arrangement and need the assistance of the court, you will have to file a petition requesting custody. In many counties, the first step is a meeting before a custody conciliator or custody master. This person is appointed by the court to help parents come to an agreement regarding custody. It is generally an informal process involving only the parents, their attorneys (if a party is represented by counsel), and the custody conciliator. In rare occasions the children will be asked to be available for consult, but will not be involved in the actual meeting. If the parents are able to come to agreement regarding custody the conciliator will enter the agreement as a binding order of court. However, if no agreement regarding custody of the children is reached, the conciliator may enter a temporary order based on his or her independent assessment. Either parent may then request a hearing before a judge in order to modify the temporary order. The court will either list the case for a hearing or, in some circumstances, order a second conciliation to see if the issue can be resolved without a hearing.

Regardless of whether you are able to amicably decide custody or you take the matter through the court system, I urge you to consider the well-being of your children. Children are entitled to their own feelings and thoughts regarding each of their parents. Bad mouthing the other parent, putting the child down for talking about the other parent, or restricting access to the other parent (barring any concerns of abuse) are detrimental to the child. Custody battles are extremely emotional for parents and understandably put the parents at odds with each other, but children are not pawns in a chess game and should not be treated as such. The less stress children experience as a result of divorce the happier you will all be as a family apart in the years to come.

As you start your life as a single parent, remember that engaging extended family members and relatives in your children's lives will not only ease the emotional and physical burden of being a single parent, it will also enrich your children's lives and ease their stress. If you don't have nearby family, reach out to local divorce support groups and single parent programs. You are not alone.

Audrey Buglione is a family law attorney and single mom who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her three children. Her office is located in Dauphin County. She assists clients seeking divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York, Perry, and Lebanon counties. Contact Audrey for a no-obligation confidential consultation.

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