The New York Times and Family Law

The amount and quality of the journalism coming from the New York Times that touches on issues related to family law is–literally–remarkable.  I could easily generate 100 blogs a year highlighting Times stories that implicate family law.  Often this journalism identifies first-wave issues that are likely to go national, such as a recent article on laws allowing children to have more than two legal parents.  Then there’s the noteworthy journalism on parenting issues which identify recurrent but unrecognized assumptions undergirding many custody cases.  Even if one despises the avowedly liberal tilt to the Times’ editorial coverage, and the more subtle liberal tilt in the Times’ story selection, this newspaper should be required reading for any family law attorney interested in the intellectual aspects of our practice.

Today’s [July 29, 2012] New York Times contains a feature story and a book review that could each sustain interesting individual blogs.  The feature story, Which Mother for Isabella? Civil Union Ends in an Abduction and Questions, describes a mother, Lisa A. Miller, who allowed her “civil union” partner, Janet Jenkins, to adopt her biological daughter, Isabella.  When Miller renounced lesbianism and because a conservative Christian she began excluding Jenkins from Isabella’s life.  Frequent contempt citations failed to remedy this behavior and ultimately a Vermont judge changed custody to Jenkins.  At that point, Miller’s religious colleagues helped her and Isabella cross the border to Canada and eventually travel to Nicaragua.  Aiding Miller in her fugitive status were Mennonites, including a Mennonite pastor who is now being prosecuted in the United States for abetting the kidnapping.

Almost three years after Miller absconded, she and Isabella remain in Nicaragua, her fugitive status encouraged and abetted by religious conservatives. The news story notes how many of Miller’s supporters contend she “has been persecuted because of her religion.”  Miller has “been helped by evangelical groups who endorse her decision to flee rather than to expose Isabella to the ‘homosexual lifestyle’ of her other legal mother.”  Her legal case was taken up by Liberty Counsel, which is affiliated with the Liberty Law School, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Her lawyers, led by the dean of the law school, invoked the federal Defense of Marriage Act to argue that Jenkins was not a parent.

Given the increasing prevalence of both open homosexuals and Conservative Christians in the United States, these type of custody disputes may become common.  The Vermont family court treated this case as would any family court in which one parent repeatedly undermined the other parent’s visitation and violated court orders.  What makes this case noteworthy is one parent’s homosexuality and the other parent’s fugitive status.  Apparently there is a subset of Conservative Christianity that believes homosexual adoptions should be treated as void, that abduction to prevent homosexuals from visiting their children is acceptable, and that to challenge such beliefs is to engage in religious persecution.  Shocking, and I wonder how many state legislators or family court judges might be sympathetic to these viewpoints.

Today’s Times also contains a book review of “Teach Your Children Well,” by Madeline Levine.  The reviewer, Judith Warner, describes Levine’s book as “a cri de coeur from a clinician on the front lines of the battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences…”  Her book criticizes schools that worship at the altar of high achievement but do everything they can to undermine children’s growth and well-being and parents who run themselves ragged with work and hyper-parenting, presenting an “eviscerated vision of the successful life” that their children are then programmed to imitate.  Levine’s remedies are teaching empathy; encouraging the development of an authentic self; and making time for dreaming, creating and unstructured outdoor play.

Levine argues, that parents learn new ways to express their love and concern, trading their fears of failure for faith in their children’s innate strengths, and prioritizing the joys and challenges of life in the present over anxious visions of an uncertain future. “There comes a point in parenting,” she writes, “where we must decide whether to maintain the status quo or, armed with new information, choose a different course. There is little question that our children are living in a world that is not simply oblivious to their needs, but is actually damaging them.”

My own experience parenting a teenager is that there is a continuing tension between pushing children to “achieve” and allowing them to determine their own level of effort and then allowing them to suffer the consequences or reap the benefits.  There is further tension between a too narrow definition of success that treats money and achievement as the primary goals of education and a vaguer (or broader) version of success that treats career and money as relatively unimportant.

Not only does the proper balance vary by child but it also changes as the child ages and matures.  Further even the child often doesn’t know if a proper balance has been struck.  Our college sophomore daughter was sufficiently successful in high school to matriculate at her first choice of college but she believes we didn’t push her sufficiently.  Yet she would become withdrawn and distraught if pushed too hard in middle and high school.  The correct balance may be impossible to determine except in hindsight.

Within the family court culture I observe, proper parenting is to push the child as hard as possible without having the child break down.  Custody is often challenged, and sometimes changed, when a teenager “underachieves.”  Custody is also challenged, and more frequently changed, when that same teenager breaks down from the pressure and turns to substance abuse, delinquency, or self-destructive behavior.  Likening teenagers to sports cars, our family court culture tells parents to drive as hard and fast as possible but make sure one doesn’t damage the engine.  A culture that had a broader understanding of success and achievement and that was less goal oriented in guiding teenagers might lead to better results in young adulthood.

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