Last year, Los Angeles attorney Fred Silberberg watched a courthouse scene that summed up the effect on children he had observed over nine years of working with parents locked into custody wars.
A judge had finally decided a 14-year-old, an object of contention since he was 6, should live with his mother. But as the family members were leaving court, each parent made a grab for the boy's arms. "They began a tug of war with the child. The bailiff got up and separated them," Silberberg recalled. "They were literally pulling him apart."
Los Angeles therapist Sally Hackman has seen the fallout. She once worked with a toddler taken away from her parents for a year and a half while they made increasingly bizarre accusations and counter-accusations in court. By the time the girl was 4 years old, she had the psychological and emotional development of an 18-month old, Hackman said.
Fighting parents, sometimes called "hostility junkies," don't understand that children under 7 believe they are the center of the universe. When something bad happens, they think they caused it, or it happened because they were worthless or unlovable. They may become self-destructive or control freaks. Some feel obligated to repair the mess themselves.
Professionals like Silberberg and Hackman have formed multidisciplinary centers to help divorcing couples resolve custody disputes outside of court without using their children as tools or weapons.
This year, Silberberg opened the Center for Custodial Dispute Resolution in Beverly Hills, an organization that provides therapists, parent educators and attorneys to help parents mediate their separation, draw up custody plans and learn new ways to communicate.
Hackman has joined the Family Resource Center, a new service of the Parent Connection in Los Angeles. At the center, educators, therapists and a paralegal offer parents divorce and custody counseling, mediation, financial planning and parenting classes.
Despite the lucrative income from ongoing court battles, even the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers recommends that couples recognize that in general children need both parents in their lives, and that court-imposed arrangements are inferior to those parents work out on their own.
One Los Angeles couple was already in the midst of a protracted, bitter custody battle when they learned there was a better way.
After two years of a personal and legal power struggle, their 5-year-old, an anxious peacemaker between his warring parents, started complaining vividly about his father, the mother said. Inflamed, she made wild, angry courtroom allegations of child abuse. The judge, exasperated with both parents, ordered counseling.
In therapy, the mother said she learned that her son had made similar complaints about her to his father. It became clear that the boy loved both parents and was saying what he thought each wanted to hear.
In an environment in which the parents could vent their grievances but keep the child's welfare at the forefront, they were able to work out an agreement, which was finalized by the court.
Their relationship is remarkably civil, both parents said. When problems arise, they call each other, not their attorneys. Best of all, their son is no longer caught in the middle. He is happy and doing well in school, they said.
The father said that in court, he and his ex-wife had no chance to talk to each other because the attorneys took over. If they had chosen mediation first, he would have saved $20,000 in legal fees that could have paid for his son's higher education.
Parents need to sit down as adults, put their differences aside and decide what is best for their child, he said. "Parents can make that decision better than a court."