Despite railing against adversarial divorce in my role as the UK's Alternative Divorce Guide, the one time that going to court can seem a necessary evil is over disputes regarding contact with the kids.
I have witnessed a father who - with the help of national charity Families Need Fathers - represented himself in court and achieved a defined contact order, which meant his ex-wife could not whisk their child away at will despite previously agreed contact being arranged - including holidays abroad where you just don't want the added stress of wondering if you will be getting on the plane alone due to the mother's sudden desire to keep the child with her.
However, having read the very thought-provoking article by David Burrows which I spotted via @RaydensLaw on Twitter, I shared this article today with a father who is currently despairing of a non-adversarial approach and wondering if he needs to go to court and instil some discipline into the parenting relationship using the law.
Evidence, Practice and Procedure: Rule of children law, and of control in children proceedings dlvr.it/38Jj5p is a disturbing article in some ways, but important. It is vital that people who use the legal system take a broad view of the chaotic nature of family law before going down that road.
They need to understand that the legal processes can turn initially reasonable demands into a whole new set of game playing on an expensive scale, and as for who wins and who loses, I recommend a coin is taken into the court room and tossed, as that is about as accurate a way of guessing outcomes as any.
Positive Steps You Can Take to Improve Contact with your Kids Post Divorce:
My advice to parents thinking of using the courts to gain regular access to their children, that they get their ducks in a row first. "He said - She said" dialogues are not productive. If you are really turning up at agreed times, on time, then it's easy enough to prove. Use a shared online diary (eg. Kids On Time) and when you arrive at the pickup point on time, use a Google Check-In (one of the Kids On Time features) to prove via GPS that you are indeed at that location at that time.
If the other parent will not allow contact dates to be fixed in a diary, then surely that indicates to any judge unreasonable behavior? Online applications remove some of the emotive upset that can occur when messages are sent via text, email or even Facebook, and reduce the miscommunication that beleaguers so many post-divorce parallel-parenting relationships.
If you and your Ex just cannot communicate, then don't drag in well-meaning friends to help mediate. That is a poisoned chalice that no friend needs to be handed! Mediation is a skill and requires training and experience. Family mediators can help resolve key issues regarding parenting and access - as can parenting experts. Even better, parents could consider individual coaching to help them get a less emotive perspective on their reactions to what they perceive as the button-pushing of their Ex partners, so that they are able to make the mediation or parent coaching sessions really work.
Whose Rights - the Parents or the Children?
Most of all, parents need to stop thinking about their rights, their needs - and focus on what the children need. Children benefit from spending regular time with both of their parents, in ways that fit into their (the children's) busy lives. Not what suits the parents best. Most of all, the children want mummy and daddy to grow up, stop fighting, and demonstrate how they can learn to treat each other with politeness and agree on at least one thing: what they want their children to learn about relationships.
Denying another parent access because they let the children play video games or eat junk food may seem reasonable at the time, but it is really a power struggle more than it is caring for the kids. The kids care more about their parents being able to resolve conflict and put their children's interests first, than they will ever care about how many burgers they ate on a weekend with dad or sleepless nights from a mum desperate to finish the washing up sticking the child in front of a computer game which leaves their brains buzzing.
I know that some of my earlier fears about how my kids were spending their time with their dad, felt totally reasonable - and they were. But the bigger picture was always what is best for the kids in the long term. Nagging their dad was never going to make him change his views, so setting an example (which luckily for me also happened the other way round) was always the best policy.
Managing Expectations in Child Contact Disputes
When a parent behaves in a way that is actively harmful to the children, or potentially so - or they resolutely prevent or block contact or create parental alienation telling the kids bad stuff about the other parent - then the law does need to step in. But it is often ill-equipped to do a good job, so any parent heading towards the courtroom needs to do their homework, question their own motives, and remember to take a coin in their pocket.