Q&A From the Judge's Bench™: Does it Reflect Poorly on the Mother in Court for Refusing to Have any Communication with the Stepmom?
Question from a Reader:
My partner and I currently have full custody of my stepdaughter and I am the primary caretaker as my partner is often at work. I speak with my stepdaughter's teacher regularly, I take her to after school activities, and sometimes doctors appointments. I recently reached out to the Bio Mom on a few occasions to update her with school information and a doctor’s appointment. I also try to open up communication by sending an email based around my step daughter's well-being and expressing some issues that were brought forward by her therapist. I view this as just trying to establish some form of a relationship, but we've recently received a letter from her lawyer, indicating that she will only communicate with my partner when it comes to her daughter. I respect that is her choice, I was just wondering if the Bio Mom’s refusal to communicate with me, would reflect poorly on her in court when it comes to our upcoming custody and child support case?
So, my response to this question, and to almost any other question of mixed law and fact is: “It Depends.”
President Harry S. Truman was once quoted as saying something like “I’m not sure how to define “common sense” but if you don’t have it, you better not get out of bed in the morning.” One can only answer the question by applying common sense to the specific facts of the actual family involved.
It may, in fact, reflect badly on the biological mom for refusing to have any contact with the stepparent, if that refusal is rooted in a desire to make life as difficult as possible for the stepmom and ex-husband. On the other hand, if the new stepparent is the party who is driving the conflict between the former partners (and this is unfortunately often the case) then the decision by the Bio Mom or Bio Dad to minimize or eliminate contact, thereby also minimizing the opportunities for bad things to happen in front of the kids, is a rational and defensible position.
So, again, it depends.
The judge’s perception of which person(s) in the blended family is the primary driver of any on-going conflict will definitely have an effect on the outcome of a post-judgment motion. In other words, if one parent is obviously creating constant conflict, it will reflect poorly on that parent and quite possibly affect the outcome of the judgment. While there is very little empirical research that helps judges decide which arrows in their quiver might have a positive impact on a high-conflict case, there is abundant research that makes clear that repeated exposure to conflict between parents or stepparents is the single factor that is most associated with bad outcomes for children in divorced families. After all, a good outcome for the children involved should be the first priority for all involved.
In general, family court judges will try to craft a decision that will create whatever schedule and environment that is best for the children, specifically looking to minimize the conflict that they are exposed to. Sometimes, the step-parents are the real adults in the room, and maximizing their contact will best serve the children’s needs. Other times, well, not so much.
Let me close by repeating the mantra I think every parent of kids in blended families should tell themselves each day.
Be nice. (Even if you have to fake it).
Take the long view.
Always take the high road.
Ret. Family Court Judge