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WHO PAYS THE PRICE WHEN EX-SPOUSES CAN’T — OR WON’T — CO-PARENT THEIR CHILDREN?

We see it all the time — divorced or divorcing parents who see every compromise on issues of visitation or custody as a loss and who return to the courts time and again to settle everyday disputes.

In a case to be released next week, Lori Hibbard vs. Tony Hibbard,  the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld the decision of a trial court to pick a side in such a case, and to do so in a big way.

The couple divorced in 2007 returning in less than a year with disputes about money and visitation.  In the next 4 years, the parties filed a total of 30 post-judgment motions between them.  According to the appeals court, the disputes increasingly involved access to their daughter –only two years old at the time of the divorce.

Initially, it appears from the decision that the plaintiff mother had a fair amount of success managing to limit the defendant father’s access more and more.  At various points, this even involved requiring that visits be supervised and that overnight visits be suspended.

By the time they returned to court to litigate their last set of four motions — two filed by each party– visitation by the father had been whittled to one weekday afternoon and two 7-hour weekend visits every other week together with some specified holidays and birthdays.

The mother’s two motions sought further restrictions on the father’s access, the father, for his part, asked that the mother be held in contempt of court for failing to allow him several scheduled visits and –more importantly –asked that custody of their child be granted to him.

The mother defended against the contempt motion claiming that although she had not allowed the visits it was because her daughter had reported being touched inappropriately by a friend of the father during an earlier visit.

The trial court did not find the mother’s  claim to be credible noting in a detailed 20-page decision that, in the past, the mother had made various other unrelated claims that had not been substantiated by investigators or by the child’s therapist.  She had argued that the child was afraid of her father, but again was not backed up the child’s therapist.  The judge further noted that the mother had terminated therapy for the child when the therapist asked to meet with the father and had terminated longstanding daycare arrangements after a worker shared information about the child with the father’s current wife.

Concluding that the mother’s strategy was to eliminate the father from their child’s life, the judge awarded sole custody to the father, granting the mother visitation rights.  Considering that she had originally been awarded custody and had historically succeeded, at least  to some extent, in controlling the father’s access, it is a fair guess that this was an unexpectd result.

The mother appealed  and lost.

In this blog, we have commented before about  the toll  that contentious and protracted custody and visitation litigation takes on families, and especially on children.  The adverse effects of serious and prolonged  parental wrangling on children — not just while it is happening but well into adulthood — has been amply documented.

For most families, the financial toll taken by the cost of serial court appearances makes a difference in the quality of life of the entire family and colors the attitudes of the adults towards each other.  This, in turn, makes it even less likely that the children who are at least the official subject of the fighting, can enjoy a carefree, guilt-free and happy childhood.

We do not claim to be in position to judge  or evaluate the merits of Ms. Hibbard’s attacks on Mr. Hibbard’s parenting.  What we can say, however, from many years of experience, is that once custody and visitation issues have been  addressed and decided  — whether  by  agreement  or  by trial — future efforts to change the deal become subject to increasing skepticism. As lawyers, we must always respect the obligation of parent’s to do what they believe to be in the best interest of their children. At the same time, however, we must always counsel our clients — as the experienced lawyers in this case no doubt did — to consider at every step, whether they are motivated by genuine concern for their children or by relationship issues between the adults.  At a minimum, they should be made aware that this will be a question that the court will consider in every instance.

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4 Comments on “WHO PAYS THE PRICE WHEN EX-SPOUSES CAN’T — OR WON’T — CO-PARENT THEIR CHILDREN?”

  1. Tricia Powe says:

    “As lawyers, we must always respect the obligation of parent’s to do what they believe to be in the best interest of their children. At the same time, however, we must always counsel our clients — as the experienced lawyers in this case no doubt did – to consider at every step, whether they are motivated by genuine concern for their children or by relationship issues between the adults.” Wise words of a quality attorney! This statement is vital to the future depths of family bonds, especially between the parents and children one month, one year, and a decade down the road. Children are wired to desire their parents’ approval and inherently observe and acquire the relationship skills they will carry into their own lives as adults. I know of no healthy parents who want to be parenting adult children whose emotional maturity stopped at the time high-conflict co-parenting entered their lives; imagine having a forever-14-year-old! A higher quality of attachments are more likely to translate to a higher sense of self-worth and lowers the chances of at-risk behaviors. Again, wise words up there. Nice read.

  2. How much attorneys are willing to do this varies based on several factors: 1) moral courage. (This is not often well received and often the attorney will be fired and stiffed for fees) 2) training in communication–something few attorney have 3) culture in the jurisdiction– it is hard to run counter to the prevailing ethos–and 4) general ability to remember that firing a “bad” (wounded, and maladaptively behaving) client is always better then keeping them.

    And then there are those who will foment fighting and pocket what they can. Alas.

  3. Peter Szymonin says:

    Its well past time for the government to get out of the business of divorce. As most states are no-fault, then they should practice what they preach. Every divorce should be based on an equal division of parenting time, assets and debts. Period.

    And one of the biggest problems with divorce attorneys and the courts is that everyone rushes and never once considers the children. GALs in this state, being a major part of the problem.

  4. I am not a lawyer but I do a fair amount of child custody cases. If I assess a situation where a potential client comes to me with false allegations, vindictiveness or no legitimate reason I can see or believe to limit the other parties access to children, I refuse the case. I have counseled clients to work with the other party as much as possible on the issue of their children. Children suffer so much when they cannot spend equal time or as much time as they need or want to with the both of their parents. Except in the case of abuse or active addiction, I see no reason why children should not have access to both parents. Usually this comes down to power, control and money. These have NO PLACE in the health and well being of children except that the children should understand both Mommy and Daddy have equal authority and that both will provide for them to the best of their ability. It is so bad for children to know that one or the other parent has to “obey” the other parent in order to have access to their children. Sure the court made the ruling but the children often don’t understand this, they somehow know that the custodial parent could let them see the other more often if they wanted to. If parents only knew how in most cases with holding a child from another parent without serious case will damage their children for life, maybe they would care. We have wounded, damaged people having children who use them as pawns to act out their own frustrations or anger from their own childhood. I am for shared legal and physical custody and for parents to be forced to work together by the courts. I am also for mediation where people have to work out their differences in counseling and only in rare situations have to fight in court for the safety or well being of their children. As a private investigator I believe no judge should rip any child away from shared custody unless there is hard evidence of abuse or addiction. Even adulterers have rights to parent their children in as close as possible to the way they did when the family lived together. I am passionate for children. I grew up in an imperfect home where divorce was not an option and in spite of things I wished could have been different, my parents presented a united front to us six kids and that developed some really good ethics and habits in our lives.
    Gladys Brierley
    Accurate Investigations


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