Last week I presented a program on custody, child support, and domestic violence at the “Advanced Issues in Divorce” seminar here in Atlanta. Of course, those topics could be the subject of a three-day intensive conference. Instead, I presented them in an hour and a half.
Of all the subjects I covered in the program, the attorneys were most interested in hearing about custody matters involving nontraditional families. Many of them have ongoing custody cases in which children are living with grandparents, other relatives, and even friends of the family. Sometimes parents are unable to care for their children due to drug, alcohol, or addiction issues. Sometimes their financial circumstances or work schedules prevent them from adequately supervising the children. And sometimes the children have grown up in a nontraditional family that is now breaking up.
Even though a judge’s job is to make decisions about the best interests of the children, judges are limited by the law. And of course Georgia law has failed to keep up with the times. Legal parents in Georgia have an almost unlimited right to retain custody of their kids when challenged by third parties. If a parent is not in the picture, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and certain other relatives may obtain custody of children; if a legal parent is in the picture, those other relatives might get custody of the children, but only with great difficulty. Nonrelatives–including stepparents, partners of parents, friends of the family, and those not related closely by blood–are rarely able to obtain custody of or visits with the children.
So what does all this mean? First, if you are litigating or thinking about litigating a custody matter, you’d better have a darn good and experienced lawyer. Not every family lawyer is willing or able to litigate custody matters.
If the case involves addiction, monetary, or nontraditional family issues, consider using the collaborative process to find creative solutions that benefit the children. By working with child specialists and coaches, the parties can consider all available options to meet the children’s needs. For example, they may implement a safety plan to help an addicted parent ensure the kids’ safety while maintaining a relationship with them. A creative parenting schedule and willing family members could help a single parent with a crazy work schedule support the kids without choosing between her job and her children. Or they might design a parenting plan and properly written documents that would ensure that the children can still maintain a bond with their a gay or lesbian parent’s longtime partner, even after a breakup.
Mom, dad, 2.5 kids and a dog doesn’t exist anymore. Every kid and every family is unique; no one size fits all. So it’s up to all of the adults in each case, with the help of a collaborative team, to find solutions that work for this family and these kids.