A few months ago I prosecuted a rule to show cause in which the mother had refused to let my client (her ex-husband) take the children to his wedding, even though it was his weekend with the children. Because I only sought civil contempt (designed to enforce compliance with the order) rather than criminal contempt (designed to punish for non compliance) the result was that my client received an extra weekend of visitation. His children, of course, will have no memories of their father’s wedding.
Family law attorneys often forget (if they ever remembered) that contempt can be used to punish as well as enforce. I see more family court judges using criminal contempt sanctions for parents who deny the other parent court-ordered visitation. I applaud this trend.
As Judge Wayne Morris Creech (a family court judge in the circuit in which I practice) once explained to an opposing party before sentencing her to jail for criminal contempt after she denied my client his court-ordered Christmas visitation for the second consecutive year in which he was entitled to it, there are “jail people” and “not jail people.” Not jail people “don’t think about jail is a place that you could end up. But you come over and you disregard a court order and you thumb your nose at the court…” and Judge Creech might send you to jail. He further explained:
But, I’m going to tell you this, I have seen this before. I have dealt with it many times. I know how to correct it. And here’s how you correct it. You give jail time. And you make it grow, and grow, and grow.
I tell you, I have not encountered anybody in 20 years on the bench that I was not able to bring into compliance with court order. They will do one or two things: Run or comply. Here’s the reason. Most people can’t afford to take off six months from work. And, I could today, with the finding that I have, sentence you to six months in jail. If I sentence you to six months in jail, you would lose your job. You probably would lose your home. I mean, do you understand the repercussions that flow from six months in jail. I mean, it is life altering. It is life altering. And, I just haven’t run into many people that are willing to say to me, judge, bring it on. Heap it on here.
And usually what I do is give a taste. And I keep telling them, you taste that? It can get worse.
The few times I have have seen or heard of Judge Creech sending someone to jail over visitation interference it is has been very effective. Even putting a parent in jail for just 48-72 hours gets his or her attention in a way that no other deterrent does.
In hindsight, I wish I had sought criminal contempt against the wedding-visitation denying mother. I doubt an alternative weekend of visitation got her attention (I wouldn’t be surprised if she believes she “got away” with something by reducing the joy of my client’s wedding). But I have started routinely seeking criminal contempt when my clients’ visitation rights have been interfered with.