Unsung Heroes: The Child Custody Court Judge

Dear Child Custody Judge:

I started out the day hating you.

I saw you sitting there, on your mahogany wooden throne.

Just sitting up there.
Towering over everyone else.

Just who the hell do you think you are?

You walk in here with your black robes.
You hide behind this monstrous desk.
And you dispense judgment. Ha!

Day after day, you look down on people
And you make your random decisions.
YOU decide what’s best for our children.
YOU decide who should pay whom for legal costs, childcare, food, extracurriculars, and college.
YOU decide how much time people get to spend with their offspring.
You awful, awful person, you.

And so I sat there.
Through the arguments,
The sturm and drang
The He Said-She Said.

I sat there as the court officer scolded and sent a woman out of the courtroom for the remainder of the day because her cel phone rang twice.
(Truth is, he did tell us to shut them off and she DID have an annoying ring.)

The Struggle For Custody

And then I watched a distinct family drama play out.
I saw a husband and wife, both looking beat down by years of court battles. Rumpled and wrinkled.
With lawyers in tow.

The father, let’s call him Gary, had a female lawyer, in her late 30’s early 40’s. We’ll call the lawyer Kate. She was dressed casually elegant in a sports jacket and skirt. Kate was well-spoken and seemed quite reasonable. I liked her ‘five dollar’ vocabulary and her precise descriptions of Gary’s awful predicament.

The mother, let’s call her Louise, had a male lawyer, with white hair, in his 70s. Let’s call him Spencer. Spencer was mid-70’s and wore what seemed like a Men’s Warehouse dark blue suit and black leather shoes.

Both of them were fighting over 16 year old Megan, waiting outside in the cold wide hallways of LA County Family Court building.

Gary’s lawyer, Kate, argued that the violin lessons, the volleyball team expenses, all of these costs were being thrown at Gary without any consultation. Poor Gary, said Kate, was retired (in his 50’s) after getting a legal settlement from his workplace and had poured all of his money into a home in which he lived.

He was without liquidity, no cash, zero dinero, and his ex-wife Louise was bleeding him dry between child support and all of these extra expenses.

And on top of all of that, Louise let Megan go to Spain with a friend–when it was Gary’s weekend to be with Megan.

The cherry on top?

Louise, according to Kate, was turning Megan against her father Gary, alienating her from his affection.

Kate argued that the court should enforce and mandate Louise communicating with Gary, that she must consult with him and his weekends should be sacrosanct–untouchable.

“Poor bastard” I’m thinking. “Louise is raking Gary over the coals.”

But Judge Janet wasn’t having it. In her late 40’s/early 50’s, blonde shoulder-length hair, parted down the middle, glasses precariously balanced on the bridge of her nose, she questioned why Gary needed to be so absolute about his time or his daughter’s extracurricular expenses.

Judge Janet then opined “Megan is 16 and children at this age are moving away from parents and are seeking more independence. They have the desire to choose when they spend time with their parents.” Judge Janet was putting out a lot of hypotheticals here. How does she know Megan’s state of mind or decision-making process?

And how does Judge Janet know that Megan isn’t just being brainwashed by her mother Louise to dislike spending time with her father?
Why can’t Gary have more say in Megan’s life even at 16 years of age?

“Goddamn this judge, she’s biased against men! I knew it. The system is rigged against men. I knew she’d side with the woman!” My brain was quite sure of itself.

Let the Bombast Begin….

Then came Louise’s lawyer, the septuagenarian esquire, Spencer. Spencer cleared his throat, stood up and slowly buttoned his dark blue suit jacket. He now began to pace and to walk behind Kate as he loudly boomed.

“THIS….MAN!…This….MAN!…owns his own home! He took all of his assets and made SURE they would be tied up in his home. He didn’t pay child support for 2 years. 2 YEARS!! THiS….MAN!” He said ‘Man” like he had just tasted a piece of dog excrement. Disgust, repulsion!

Spencer, continued to pace and pontificate.

And he did something strange, he would turn around to all of us, the other parents in the galley, awaiting our day in court, and as he laid out his case he would often turn to us–as if we were part of a jury on this case.
He was loud, bombastic, and seemed to perform as if he were working on the Scopes Monkey Trial or the case of the Manson family.

We’re talking about volleyball expenses and missed custody weekends–not double homicide, not God vs Evolution here. Jeez!

Yet this Clarence Darrow wannabe went on as if he were performing at Carnegie Hall.
And he told the story of Gary’s hidden expenses, Gary’s unwillingness to find any work after early retirement at 50. He made Gary look like a worthless, selfish, weasel and bum.

The Judge was truly Judging

Judge Jane heard Spencer’s story about Gary. She didn’t confront him on his pomp and circumstance. She didn’t confront lawyer Kate, when Kate respectfully stated repeatedly that Judge Jane had ‘no evidentiary information’ about Megan needing to be independent of her father and confronted Judge Jane on having too much ‘speculation’ on this case.

In the end, Judge Janet refused to see Megan who was waiting in the hallways. She refused also to compensate Gary for his unexpected bills for Megan. And despite Spencer’s performance for the stage, and Kate’s repeated calls for mandating consultation– Judge Janet made both parents unhappy.

Louise had $10,000 in attorneys fees (good ol’ Spencer) fighting Gary (and we assume Gary had the same) Spencer asked the Judge to force Gary to pay those bills.

But Judge Janet disappointed everyone by telling Gary and Kate that Gary would not be getting additional weekends nor reimbursement for extracurricular expenses.

And the judge told Louise and Spencer that Louise’s legal bills would be her own problem.

Now I had to question my previous judgment–in fact my pre-judgment of this judge….was this Judge a bad judge after all?

Judge? Perhaps I Mis-Judged You

After all, she voted for the teenager Megan’s independence.
And she voted for the father being more flexible in his demands for time. And she voted for the father and mother to pay their own legal bills…which seemed to be a vote that both parents cooperate OUTSIDE of court if only to reduce their legal expenses defending their positions.

In fact, I believe Judge Janet INCREASED the legal bills for this couple. Here’s how:
She decided to tell the attornies–“I want to think about this case for a bit so we will recess and pick up later today.” In effect she racked up at least 3 more billable hours for both father and mother.
Thus she may have been sending them the message–‘keep this up folks and you’ll both be broken financially!’

Judge Jane listened to the attorney’s arguments–and she poked holes in all of them. She saw through this case. She had enough experience day after day, month after month, year after year to see that these were two adults fighting not only over their own lack of communication but also over the heart and mind of their child.

Watching these and other cases that day, I began to see the incredible difficulty of her position. Ideally, Justice is blind. Judges don’t fight for either gender. They fight for fairness and justice for children who don’t have agency or mastery over their own lives.

Judges Make The Tough Calls

And Judge Jane does something several times per day that I never have to do. She makes decisions and rulings that affect people’s lives today, tomorrow and perhaps for the rest of their lives.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I have the luxury of deferring all decisions to my patients. As a psychotherapist working with individuals and couples, I don’t have to decide what my patients do with their ex-spouse or children.

Certainly I report on abuse and self harm but I don’t direct people’s actions, nor do I create real life consequences for their failure to cooperate with their partners.

I need only direct my patient’s attention to the pro’s and con’s, the positives and the negatives of various life decisions for their children.

Judge Jane, on the other hand, has the difficult challenge of ruling on right and wrong, on time and money spent with and on their children.

And at least 50% if not more of the people who enter Judge Jane’s courtroom, walk out with a resentment—a grudge against the judge.

So what does Judge Jane have to comfort her in the dark of night? What does she have when she reviews each day? Only the belief that she is doing for these children what one or both of their parents are not willing or able to do–look out for their best interests.

Judges Can Change Children’s Lives

How many children have written to the judge and told her, “Thank you for allowing me to visit with my non-custodial parent.” Or “thank you for keeping me safe from my abusive parent.” Or “thank you for finally allowing me to live with my other parent.”???

Hers is a thankless job and filled with drama of Shakespearean proportions. Blowhard lawyers, battling ex-spouses, false claims, trumped up charges, evasive tactics and no small amount of tears–real and crocodile.

And there are real-life dangers–dangers of real abuse, neglect and abandonment. Danger of complete alienation from a parent that loves and cares for their children.

Judges Have Stressful Work

I challenge you, dear reader– get a taste of the life of a Custody Court Judge.

Try sitting in any custody court for just one morning this week. You will witness intense human drama played out before you. Two people are at war over their children. You will see the sadness of two people who could not come to an agreement; two people who once said ‘I will love you till death do us part.’ Two people now trying to destroy each other.

You will witness not only the sadness of two people who cannot get along. You will also experience the fear of the loss of immortality.

Children and Our Bid for Immortality

Humans have children for many reasons: DNA, Instinct, Societal expectations. Just as often, we have children so that they will surpass what we have achieved in life. They are our project, our little spaceship carrying our message to the universe “I was once alive, please remember me through my progeny.”

In fact, having children is the ultimate act of universal graffiti–by having children we are saying “Kilroy was Here!” on the brick wall of the universe. On some primal level, we have children to achieve immortality.

Of course, our children are much more than a testament to our immortality once we get to know them. But the very act of creating a new life is the idea of leaving something else behind. To say to the universe–‘hey, maybe I meant something after all.’
And once we’ve created a human being we soon realize (consciously or unconsciously) that we have the ability to ‘program’ them for loyalty. It’s easy to ‘push the buttons’ of our childrens emotions. After all, we’ve installed them. Guilt, shame, loyalty, respect, and much more.

Confusing Our Needs for Our Children’s Needs

It’s a sad truth that our children can, and often do, replace our need to seek out friendships and social relationships. Many parents do in fact forfeit their opportunities to spend time with peers due to ‘the kids’ and all their kid needs.

It’s also true that many parents get to vicariously enjoy their children’s adventures, relationships, challenges and victories.

Lets not forget, for many parents, their child is the first person since their own parents, that will love them UNCONDITIONALLY.

Friends may come and go. Co-workers will disappear from our lives. Spouses may walk out the door. But our children are often connected by blood, connected for life. They can never stop being our children.

We see children as our friends, our caretakers/comforters as we age and as our bid for immortality.

The spectre of losing our children’s loyalty, affection and of losing our own say in the direction of their life path brings out more than just a concern for their well being.

People aren’t fighting just over their children in Family Custody Court.
They are irrationally fighting for personal meaning, identity and personal value.

Split The Difference?

They are irrationally fighting for unconditional love and connection.
Because, quite often, they have mistakenly melded their identity in their role as parents rather than in themselves as human beings.

In the Old Testament story of the Judgment of Solomon, two women come to a courtroom fighting over a baby which both claim as their own. Solomon, being the wise judge that he was, told both women that the only equitable solution was to cut the baby in half–right down the middle–and give one half of the baby to each woman.

The true mother of course, would not stand for this solution as she wanted her baby to live and thus she told Solomon to instead give the baby to the other woman.

We would do well to follow her example and seek to only do what is best for the long term happiness and functioning of our children–even when we must sacrifice our own time and space with them.

Judge Jane must face these decisions every day, several times per day.
So a big hats off (if I owned a hat) to you Judge Jane.

You make the hard decisions.

Decisions that will change children’s lives.

Thank you for representing the children.

You are my new hero.

I know that not everyone feels this way about the Custody Court Judge they encountered.

Feel free to share your thoughts and observations!

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©2020 Ross Grossman, MA, LMFT
Affinity Therapy Services
23-248-9379, 323-646-4477

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