The Intelligent Use of Therapists, Schools, CPS and the Police during Divorce
A long time ago, before my own divorce, I swam the first leg of an Iron Man race across the Chop Tank river in Maryland. My girlfriend Lee and I knew each other from a YMCA swim club and thought this would be a fun challenge of our strength. It turned out to be a very stormy day. We entered the choppy water with the other racers and soon I was disoriented. The rain and the waves made it hard to see. After swimming for a half an hour, I couldn’t see land or Lee. I recognized a life boat and swam toward it. Lee, a better swimmer than me, had given up. She was inside the boat and urged me to keep going. Since I trusted her and could see the lifeboats, I did. One stroke after another for over an hour I swam until I reached the shore. And crossed the finish line.
Getting divorced is like jumping off a cliff into a choppy river during a storm. You may swim through the legal system and emotional upheavals at times, like an Olympian. At other times, you may feel like you can barely keep your head above water. Deep fears and reactivity get churned up as people work through this enormous family change. People will tell you that better times lay ahead. And this is true. What you need to be prepared for is that, at some point, you, your kids and your spouse may become completely irrational.
Therapists, school staff, CPS and the police may come into your life during the turmoil like little life boats bobbing on the surface of this choppy river.
I am focusing on these four areas of community because they are also the professionals that judges and custody evaluators rely on for a clearer understanding of what is happening inside a family. This is also why it is important to work with them skillfully.
You may feel like hiding when everything is so crazy, but these people are usually helpful. Just be an educated consumer, know your rights and cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Kids may need someone to talk to during this period other than Mom and Dad. This is important because unlike adults, they can’t go talk to their friends, go for a run or do some of the things that we adults have the freedom to do. They feel trapped and voiceless. If you can afford a private therapist to work with your kids, it can help them manage the strong emotions like grief and anger.
Pick a therapist with good boundaries and a good heart. A young therapist may be able to relate well to your children, but an inexperienced therapist can get too easily pulled into siding with one parent against the other. Or not work with the parent at all. Or work too well with the parents and make the kid feel left out. Or worst of all, foster parent alienation. This is the last thing you want. A good therapist will give your child a voice while nurturing positive, respectful relationships between everyone. It is an important balancing act.
A private therapist can also help if one parent is trying to alienate the other via the court system. If a vindictive parent gets a temporary restraining order or accuses the other parent unfairly of abuse, the therapist can be called in to testify and give the child’s point of view. And the courts will listen. What the therapist says will have a lot of weight because the courts need a neutral opinion on what is happening. A child’s mental health is important to them. This can prevent horrible mistakes from occurring.
Many schools have school-based counselors who can work with your child if they are distressed. Their focus is school functioning and they rarely get involved with family dynamics. In fact, understanding the family is so off their radar that you will need to make sure they understand the custody situation. If you have 50/50 legal custody, the school needs to communicate with both of you equally.
School counselors and teachers often overlook this because they are used to families where one parent does all the school communication. You have to be a bit proactive here to make sure you are in the loop.
IEP or 504 Plans: If your child is not getting good grades and has the capacity to do so, you can ask the school for extra help. Kids feel terrible about themselves if they are not succeeding, so act quickly. Accommodations such as an extra study period to help with organization and homework assignments may be available. Taking homemade cookies to these meetings is a very good idea! And if you aren’t getting the help you need, taking an education advocate can be a good idea.
A Child Protective Services worker might be called to interview your children at school or visit your home to assess for safety. There is probably no other professional visit that can make you feel more scared or out of control than one from CPS. It triggers two primal fears: am I going to be kicked out of polite society and am I going to lose my children? Don’t worry too much about what the school staff will think of you. This is more common than you think in schools.
The job of a CPS worker is to make sure that your child is safe, well- fed and going to school. He or she is not there to get involved in a family court matter. In fact, if you are using them for vindictive reasons, they will write it in the report which may say “this is a family court issue, not an abuse issue.” In other words, someone is over reacting or being vindictive.
The best way to deal with CPS is to not call them, unless you are advised by your lawyer to do so. If your child is being hurt at your former spouse’s house, it is better for a teacher or counselor to make the call. If a CPS worker comes to your house, be friendly. They are only trying to help.
If you have court orders that are court stamped, calling the police can be fairly straight forward. Judges write the rules and the police enforce them. This is how our judicial system works. Yet, the police hate these calls. An officer told me once he would rather be called to a murder. Make sure you have a copy of the most recent court order in order to eliminate any “he said, she said” confusion.
If your former spouse was supposed to drop the kids off two hours ago and you have no contact from him or her, you can go to the police. They will call your former spouse and urge him/her to follow what is written in the order. Usually this is all it takes and the kids hopefully won’t know that the police had to be called. Don’t tell them.
If your spouse continues to not follow the order, a police record of the infractions can be used if you need to ask the judge to step in for enforcement.
A civil standby is another good use of the police. This means that an officer will come to your house when a stressful event occurs like a move out. They can make sure everything goes smoothly.
If you have a lawyer, you may want to get their opinion before you make the call. It is often necessary, but you could be scrutinized in court about calling.
You could also be scrutinized by your neighbors. If the police can come in an unmarked car or park around the corner from your house, that can help minimize any negative gossip.
Police and Out of Control Kids
What if your child is out of control or hitting you? A call to the police is much more difficult here. Yet, this is a better option than taking matters into your own hands. Kids are highly emotional during these times, and can be a danger to themselves or others. If the dispatcher has a women officer or someone who knows the family, that can be helpful. Meet the police officer at the door and step outside so you can form an alliance with them. Tell them how grateful you are that they came. The police are the next line of defense when a family is unable to handle the situation and if you are alone with an out of contol child, you need help. Sometimes the police are very nice about it.
Keep swimming. Eventually, you‘ll get through the choppy waters of your long journey. At some point, you will notice that you and your kids are becoming less reactive, and perhaps even your former spouse, as well. That means that the shore is close. Soon you will not need these services so much. You will reach land, and you will forever be a kick ass swimmer.