I was recently asked by a Commissioner, “Ms. Long, would it be fair to ask, in your opinion, should parents focus more on their children’s needs and desires rather than how much parenting time they receive?” Since I was acting as an expert witness on this case, I provided a standard answer, “The children shall be the center focus, and the decisions made are based on the children’s best interests.” After leaving the court room I began to ponder more about this question, and explored what the true meaning of “best interests of the child.”
Although there does not appear to be a definitive answer for what “the best interests of the child means”, the ‘best interests’ concept derives from the courts determining several key factors (child welfare.gov):
1. The emotional ties and bonding between the parent(s) or caregivers, including siblings.
2. The capacity of the parents to provide a safe environment, with adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical.
3. The mental and physical health needs of the children.
4. The mental and physical health needs of the parents.
5. The presence of any past or present Domestic Violence within the home.
6. The presence of any subastance abuse issues.
7. The child’s wishes (depends on age and maturity).
While the above listed key factors are obvious and shall be taken into account when determining parenting time, we must review some other relevant factors that may be possibly secretly denied by the courts or argued by the attorneys/parties. Children do not come with a price tag, nor are children up for sale. Parents who argue about 30%, 50%, 70%, etc. of parenting time and negotiate who decides what the children can and cannot do is potentially dangerous to these children. Parenting plans are considered legal binding and if they are not followed as written, one or both parents may be in contempt of law. Contempt, in layman’s terms, is a legal order that is not being followed and a Judge may issue all sorts of penalties, including jail time and financial payment. Parents argue all the time in court, disagree on what the parenting plan says, do not follow the parenting plan as written, etc. What about the children? Where is their voice? And what about the developmental stages; a three-year-old has different needs than a twelve-year-old; and a sixteen-year-old is more interested in their social, extra curricular, education, etc. You get the gist of what is being discussed and parents still argue amongst themselves regardless of the needs and wants of their children/teenagers. Just stop for a moment and reflect (if you really care about your kid); what is the best interest my child?
Courts are looking to professionals to make recommendations for the children and teenagers. Family courts are beginning to sway toward the children’s needs and wants especially when they are older. Family courts are even providing more guidance toward adding different stages in the parenting plan due to their ages and development. Additionally, courts are finally recognizing the importance of extra curricular activities and social aspects of the children’s lives. So, parents, if you are truly interested in the best interests of your children; truly hear them and do your best to incorporating their wishes into the parenting plan.
When I testify in court again and the Judge asks me about the best interests of the children; I will provide a more detailed answer based on the child and their family history. We need to listen to the children and teenagers out there going through these tough situations. It has nothing to do with the amount of time each parent receives, it is about the quality of time and allowing the child to grow and prosper.
Written by Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC
Owner and Founder of Long Counseling and Evaluation Services, PLLC