Remedying the visitation of an emotionally abusive parent

A reader left a comment today on my blog, Calling bullsh*t on custodial parents who let the children decide their visitation that I found deeply upsetting. He begins:

I honestly hope you’re still reading these comments, since your original post is a few years old. I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on you and the court system. I am SICK of the courts deciding that blood=best. Did you grow up in a split home? I highly doubt it. My mother faithfully had me visit my father until high school, when I said I absolutely would no longer go. My father was not physically abusive, but the damage from his emotional abuse still lingers and I am in my 30s.

His comment already inspired the blog, It’s called vigilantism, but I wanted to write a more specific blog addressing the concern raised by his comment. Undoubtedly many children visit with emotionally abusive parents because they are court ordered to do so and many children are damaged by having to visit with these abusive parents. However, as the vigilantism blog notes:

[I]t is often hard to determine whether a child is resistant to visitation because the non-custodial parent is abusive or because the custodial parent is alienating. Sometimes it is a bit of both: the custodial parent’s alienation and the non-custodial parent’s emotional abuse build off each other and the parents lack the ability to stop the cycle.

The issue of how to handle visitation when the non-custodial parent is (allegedly) emotionally abusive is one that occurs frequently. Two common methods are highly problematic. Allowing the custodial parent to unilaterally withhold visitation is problematic for the reason the blogs mentioned above both discuss. However simply forcing the child to continually visit an emotionally abusive parent leads to the problem my reader’s comment legitimately highlights.

There is another way of addressing this problem that experience shows is highly effective: utilizing a child counselor to document and address the emotional abuse. The chosen counselor should specialize in children, be able to handle high conflict cases, and be comfortable making recommendations to and testifying in court. Because there is always a possibility that the visitation problems are being caused or exacerbated by an alienating custodial parent, this option works best when the custodial parent begins with an attitude that the counseling is intended to fix, and not merely document, the emotional abuse.

A child counselor can document the emotional abuse and attempt to work with the non-custodial parent to remedy the emotional abuse. When beginning counseling for their child, custodial parents should be aware of concerns the court may have that the counseling is possibly just further manipulation by an alienating custodial parent. To minimize this concern, the custodial parent should allow the non-custodial parent full access to the counselor–ideally the custodial parent may even allow the non-custodial parent some input into the choice of counselor.

However, the custodial parent should always inform the other parent that the child is beginning counseling, sign a release allowing the non-custodial parent to communicate with the counselor and participate in the counseling as recommended by the counselor, and begin the counseling with the goal of helping the child and non-custodial parent address the emotionally abusive behavior. By doing this, the custodial parent maximizes the possibility that the counseling will actually remedy the emotionally abusive behavior and further maximizes the likelihood that the court will find any counselor’s recommendations to be the product of an emotionally abusive non-custodial parent rather than an alienating custodial parent.

Sometimes this counseling is effective in getting a non-custodial parent to understand how his or her behavior is emotionally abusive and reducing that abuse. This enables visitation to go forward in a manner that benefits the child. More often the emotionally abusive parent refuses to participate in counseling, refuses to acknowledge the emotionally abusive behavior, or is unable to remedy that behavior. In those cases, most counselors will make recommendations to the court that the visitation be terminated or limited until the non-custodial parent is able and willing to address the abuse. I have been able to use these recommendations to file a visitation modification action seeking to limit a non-custodial parent’s visitation–sometimes, if the abuse was severe enough, on an emergency or ex-parte basis.

The remedy of sending a child to a counselor who can document and attempt to remedy the emotional abuse is vastly more productive than unilaterally withholding visitation or continuing to send a child into an abusive situation.

Put Mr. Forman’s experience, knowledge, and dedication to your service for any of your South Carolina family law needs.

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