(Unwittingly) Coaching the children

To most people “coaching” children in the context of custody and visitation cases is telling a child to lie to the judge (or the guardian, or a mental health professional/forensic evaluator) about that party’s or the other parent’s behavior. Two classic (but overstated) examples are telling kids to lie about sexual or physical abuse in order to avoid spending time with the other parent or telling them to lie about one’s own misbehavior in order to keep custody or avoid a DSS removal.

However most coaching is less obvious and more subtle. Any behavior that encourages a child in the context of a custody case to reveal bad things about the opposing party or say good things about oneself is coaching. Further manipulative behavior that encourages a child to prefer that party or dislike the other party (a textbook example is buying a sixteen year-old a sports car in the middle of a custody case) is coaching.

A classic example of this unwitting coaching is a parent who asks a child, repeatedly, if the other parent is touching his“woo hoo.” Any child old enough to know body parts knows this is a weird question: the child is probably not asked many questions about the other parent’s activities with the child; the child is probably not asked if that parent touches his shoulder; the child is probably not asked whether other people touch his “who hoo.” If the child is asked this question often enough, he will assume what answer that parent wants to hear. If the child wants to please that parent (most children–especially younger children–want to please their parents), eventually he will give the answer that parent wants to hear. And then a sexual abuse investigation will begin.

In the context of custody litigation, a parent asking the child about custodial preferences is similarly manipulative. The child knows what the parent wants to hear and answers accordingly. Many custody cases in which the parents give conflicting accounts about the child’s custodial preferences are those cases in which one or both parents have directly asked the child. If a child’s custodial preference is in dispute, it’s better to allow a neutral third-party (guardian; mental health professional/forensic evaluator; judge) ask that question.

Other forms of coaching are even more subtle. A parent who tells the child before the visitation transfer that “you’ll be fine” is being coached. That child is rarely spontaneously reassured that “you’ll be fine.” Usually “you’ll be fine” presages an unpleasant but survivable experience, such as getting vaccinations at a medical appointment. What may be intended by the parent as reassurance can be heard by the child as a warning. The child now has reason to fear the other parent.

Telling the child particular topics to discuss with these neutral third-parties during the custody litigation is coaching. Reminding a child to discuss “the time when your father called you a sissy” is to elevate what is meaningful to that parent over what may be meaningful to that child. When my custody clients have specific issues or incidents they want the guardian (or other neutral third-parties) to investigate with the child, I send that third-party a list of topics to explore with the child during interviews. That way the investigator can discuss these issues in a manner that does not manipulate the child into one parent’s agenda. If the guardian or third-party fails to address that issue in the child interview, this deficiency can be noted when the report is issued, along with a request for follow-up investigation. If the issue still remains unaddressed, it can be raised in cross-examination at trial. However putting the burden on the child to raise these issues during the investigation is coaching.

Parents rarely understand they are coaching even when the coaching is obvious. A few years ago I brought a custody modification action based upon a claim by a father that the mother and stepfather were sexually molesting his son. He came to me after DSS refused to remove the child from mother’s care. He provided counselor reports in which his son acknowledged the abuse, and I was able to obtain a temporary change of custody. During the guardian’s initial investigation he informed the guardian of videotape in which his son acknowledging the abuse. Everyone–the judge, myself, the guardian, opposing counsel–was interested in viewing this videotape.

When he finally produced it, he sunk his own case. It in, his son and some family members were jumping together on a trampoline. Another family member was videotaping the proceedings, while yet another family member was shouting out “tell us what your mother and stepfather did to you.” Watching that videotape was mortifying–perhaps the most obvious case of coaching I’ve ever encountered. Yet my client and his family failed to see anything problematic with their behavior. In their minds, they were simply asking his son to reveal what had happened.

Clients who coach are rarely aware they are coaching. However the guardian, the opposing attorney, and the judge are likely to see it as manipulative, and have it lead to adverse consequences for the client. Thus clients who engage in coaching behavior need to be informed they are coaching, need to be educated on how their behavior is coaching, and need to be discouraged from further coaching.

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