Family Law: Children as Weapons of Choice
A Judge in the UK has made some very interesting comments in a family law case concerning care proceedings in relation to four children. The mother of the children petitioned for Divorce in January 2014 asserting that her husband was displaying “arrogance and endeavouring to show superiority and seeking power and control over her”. The care proceedings were brought by a County Council arising from concerns that the parents had failed to protect their children from the emotional consequences that beset them as a result of the breakdown of the marriage.
The Judge in this case put it bluntly by saying “The parents were at war following the breakdown of the relationship and the children had become the weapons of choice for the parents”. The Judge went on to say, after hearing evidence over 5 days in Court, that anyone “would be rightly appalled at how two intelligent, well educated, and well healed parents in the determination to fight with each other, had failed to protect their children from the “damaging emotional consequences” of the breakdown of their marriage. From the judgment it is also apparent the father admitted behaviour towards his children in efforts to hurt the mother.
Despite there being an order in the case that matters were not to be discussed with the children, it was clear from the evidence given to the Court that adult issues were being discussed with the children and the father in particular was found by the Court to be a man focussed solely on his own emotional needs and feelings. During the private family law proceedings the mother had complained that the father had told one of the children about the difficulties that the parents were experiencing in the marriage and had influenced that child’s perception of her mother as a result. The mother during the hearing said “I do not believe that the respondent father recognises the emotional harm that he is causing to the children”. In this case after hearing the evidence, the Judge agreed with the mother’s contention and for that reason the Court made an order prohibiting the father from discussing any aspect of the proceedings with the children. Unfortunately, the father did not heed the Court Order and broke it on numerous occasions by continuing to discuss the case with the children.
In a very detailed and significant Judgment, the Court also made the following findings:-
- That the children had suffered emotional abuse as a result of the disputes between their parents. In particular:
a) The mother had recorded conversations between the children and their father.
b) The mother had then advised the children that she is aware of what the children were saying to the father.
c) That the parents had discussed the proceedings with the children.
d) The father had encouraged the children to behave in such a way as to undermine the mother’s care of the children and thus promote his own case.
e) The children had been exposed to inappropriate material on the internet including 18c horror films and sexualised content.
f) The mother threatened one of the children with being placed in foster case.
g) The mother accused one of the children of being emotionally damaged.
h) The father had read completely inappropriate stories to come of the children with adult themes.
i) The children had witnessed domestic disputes between their parents.
- The mother and the father had failed to protect the children from suffering emotional harm as a result of their actions.
- The parents have shared details of in camera family proceedings with family friends.
- The father had formed an inappropriate relationship with one of the children which was controlling, manipulative and intense.
a) In particular, the father had influenced the child to have an extreme and hostile view of the mother.
b) The father controls and manipulates the behaviour and as a result, the child idolises her father to an inappropriate extent.
The case is a very stark example of how children can become emotionally damaged in the context of family law proceedings. In my experience it is important to discuss parent’s behaviour with their children as sometimes it is the case that parents do not realise they are straying down the road of influencing their children against the other parent. This Court Judgment in my view gives good guidance on ground rules in any family law proceedings that simple cannot be broken by parents. Some of these will include the following:-
- Parents should never under any circumstances discuss family law proceedings with their children.
- Parents should never speak in front of the children in a negative fashion about the other parent.
- Parents should never encourage their children to behave in such a way as to undermine the authority or case of the other parent.
- Children should never have to witness domestic disputes between their parents in the context of a breakdown of a marriage.
It is an unfortunate fact of family law proceedings that some if not all of these ground rules are almost always broken when there is a very serious dispute between parents. Unfortunately, parents can become so caught up in the emotionally rollercoaster that they cannot see that they are damaging their own children’s emotional wellbeing. It is important that at the start of any family law proceedings, especially where all matters are at issue and contentious, to get good advice from a solicitor on the ground rules and if at all possible to stick to some basic rules and a basic formula on behaviour within the context of a marital breakdown. Parents must realise that it is their children they are protecting if they can avoid confrontation in front of the children, talking negatively about the other parent and using the children against the other parent.
Maurice O’Connor- family law solicitor