Insight

My Lawyer Failed Me as an Advocate in My Parents’ Divorce

Here’s how to ensure your children are respected during a custody battle.

Representing Children in a Divorce
RR

Rebecca Rush

December 22, 2020 10:00 AM

According to the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut, back in November 1992, a 6-year-old girl was shot to death by her father during a supervised visitation session at the office of the Child Protection Council of Northeastern Connecticut. In the aftermath of this tragic event, both law professionals and parents sought to examine the way the system had failed. One major way was the absence of legal services specifically for children. This was how the Children’s Law Center was founded.

My parents’ divorce was not this contentious—my sister and I are still very much alive. But it was contentious enough that 10 years later, when I went to see a therapist in the town we lived in during the divorce, he brought it up numerous times.

Their divorce took over two years, much of which revolved around a custody battle for me. I wanted to live with my father. My father wanted me to live with him. But I was terrified of my mother, who was verbally and emotionally abusive. She would come home from a long day in court, yelling into the darkness, “They are saying that I’m an alcoholic! You have to go to court and tell them that I am not and that you want to live with me.” My mother is, in fact, an alcoholic. I could not do what she asked. But I couldn’t go against her either. She told me one night that if I went to live with my father, that she would never talk to me again. That I would no longer have a mother.

I was 12 years old at the time and did not feel prepared to make that kind of life-altering decision.

The Journey Toward Finding My Voice

A lawyer was appointed by the court to represent my sister and me. We met her for pizza on a snowy winter night in the center of town while she told us that her job was to fight for us. To the best of my knowledge, that meeting was the extent of her fight.

I texted my dad recently to ask him if he could get me in touch with the woman who represented my sister and me, as I began to think about writing this piece. “Why would you want to get in touch with her? She sucked,” he texted back. Harsh as his words were, a weight lifted off me. All these years, I’ve thought that my inability to speak up and state what I wanted, what I knew would be best for me, was my failure. Now I know that I was just a child. It wasn’t my job.

I am in recovery from addiction and work a 12-step program. In my first year of recovery, when I still did not feel safe standing up for myself in situations, my sponsor would tell me to say it was their idea. It was easier to say no when I could point to someone else and say, “They think this is best.”

I think a good child advocate is able to do that, to build trust with children in order to present their recommendations to the judge as their own. And for the children, that piece could be the difference between silence and having a voice. For some children, it’s the difference between life and death.

A Child Advocate’s Take

I asked a former staff attorney at The Children’s Law Center, Kathryn Bissonnette, who currently works at Brown, Paindiris & Scott, LLP, in Glastonbury, CT, to weigh in. “Typically, the parents aren’t in a good position to explain these things to their kids. While a parent may have good intentions, they may end up being too direct and enter the realm of telling the child what to tell the lawyer in order to further their own positions in a custody dispute context,” she said.

Bissonnette agrees that taking kids out to pizza once is not sufficient to establish rapport. “The attorney should speak with the parents about their child’s interests first so that they have a jumping-off point. When I represented kids, I met with them on multiple occasions,” she continued.

In these cases, kids need an adult they can trust to prioritize their best interests, or they will see no point in sharing their wants and needs. Beyond that, they need to feel confident that their parents won’t get upset about what they have said.

“There were times when I wouldn’t share certain things that a child said with the parents and then there were other times where I felt the parents absolutely needed to hear what their child was saying. A good attorney for children will know when sharing information is appropriate and when it will destroy the relationship between the attorney and the child,” she concluded.

Respecting Children Throughout the Divorce Process

Although I am no longer a child, and my parents’ divorce was decades ago, hearing that the system put in place does work was heartening. That perhaps my case was the exception rather than the rule. It is not enough to want to do right. One needs the proper training, effort, and the power to carry it out.

“It’s really about respect,” says Jeanne Milstein, former State Child Advocate of Connecticut.

“The goal has to be to promote the best possible outcomes for children and families in transition or crisis by providing quality, affordable access to resources, and legal support. We need to create safe and stable environments for kids, whose parents are in crisis or conflict, so they feel safe, heard, and like their voices matter. And in some cases, we need to give the parents the necessary tools to communicate. It’s most important to listen to the children and try to diffuse conflict as much as possible,” she continued.

Divorce isn’t easy for anyone. But it’s hardest on children, who lack agency and understanding. The ability to gain a child’s trust, to help ease communication, to seek out and present what is truly in their best interests is a complicated mission. It can, however, be carried out with grace and compassion.

Rebecca Rush is a comedian and writer who has appeared on Viceland and Funny or Die. She hosts The Vulnerability Show and Comic’s Book Club Podcast and is a regular contributor to Workit Health. She is currently finishing a collection of essays. She lives in Los Angeles with a tiny dog and gigantic kitten.

Editor's Note: This article was published in the 2021 Best Lawyers Family Law Issue. To read the full issue, you can find our digital edition right here.

Headline Image: UNSPLASH.COM/DANIEL NORIN, GUY BASABOSE

Related Articles

Crossing the Line


by Joseph Trotti

Divorce can be difficult, complicated and emotionally exhausting. Divorcing across state lines ups the jurisdictional complexity significantly.

Jurisdiction and Divorce Across State Lines

Trouble at Home


by Brittney M. Miller and James J. Vedder

Decisions about custody and parenting time after a separation or divorce are never simple. Family violence of any kind makes the process all the more complex—and the victim isn’t always the beneficiary.

How Domestic Violence Complicates Custody

Prenuptial Peril


by Laura Wheatman Hill

Prenups aren’t always bulletproof, but there’s hope if you end up exposed in a divorce.

Why Your Prenup Might Not Save You

My Husband Didn’t Want to Stay Married…But He Didn’t Want a Divorce


by Jennifer Billock

Patience—and the law—prevails when an uncooperative partner avoids divorce proceedings.

Divorcing an Uncooperative Partner

What If Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Had a Premarital Agreement?


by John M. Goralka

Oh, the gritty details we’re learning from the latest court battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This unfortunate airing of dirty laundry may have been avoided with a prenup. Should you think about getting one yourself?

What If Johnny Depp & Amber Heard Had Prenup?

How to Navigate False Abuse Claims in a Child Custody Case


by Ashley Jones

There’s hope for families to recover—a good lawyer is key.

False Abuse Claims in Child Custody

When DNA Isn’t the Tie That Binds


by Brittney M. Miller and James J. Vedder

Determining biological parenthood is as easy as getting a DNA test. Determining legal parenthood is more complicated altogether—especially as the composition of the American family continues to evolve.

When DNA isn't the tie that binds

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers: Family Law Publication


by Best Lawyers

Featuring the top legal talent in Family Law and Trusts & Estates.

Announcing Best Lawyers Family Law 2022

The New PPE


by Jennifer Stavros

How to plan your pandemic preparedness estate—all from the safety of home.

Planning Your Digital Estate Plan

Family Law – Sometimes All in the Family


by Justin Smulison

Led by a father-and-son team of Family Law lawyers and trial advocates, with the support and assistance of family members, Blevans & Blevans, LLP continues its tradition of excellence serving the Northern California Bay Area in 2020 and beyond.

Blevans & Blevans

The 2021 Best Lawyers in Family Law


by Best Lawyers

Featuring the top lawyers practicing in Family Law and Trusts & Estates.

The 2021 Best Lawyers in Family Law

What Happens to Credit Card Debt When I Get a Divorce?


by Hossein Berenji

In a community property state like California, credit card debt may be shared between partners.

Credit Card Debt After Divorce

New Year Ushers in New Formulas for Calculating Maintenance Payments in Divorce Proceedings


by Timothy E. Weiler

The anticipated outcome of the adoption of the increased income threshold is to reduce litigation about the amount of maintenance to be paid by simply applying the statutorily mandated calculation to more individuals with a much higher annual income.

Maintenance Payments

Important Considerations in Determining What Is in the Best Interest of a Child


by Hossein Berenji

When courts make determinations about child custody they will make the decision based on what they believe is in the best interest of the child.

Best Interest of a Child

Clients Should Understand Basic Financial Consequences of a Divorce


by Steven Fernandez

Spouses who get divorced will have to adjust how they file their taxes, what income and liabilities they must report for tax purposes, and even how they approach discussions about alimony and spousal support.

Divorce Finances

Trending Articles

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez


by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some


by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect


by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: The Best Lawyers Honorees Behind the Litigation


by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyers takes a look at the recognized legal talent representing Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in their ongoing defamation trial.

Lawyers for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

Why Cariola Díez Pérez-Cotapos Developed Its Own Legal Tech


by Best Lawyers

Juan Pablo Matus of Cariola Díez Pérez-Cotapos, 2019 "Law Firm of the Year" award for Corporate and M&A Law in Chile, discusses his firm's joint venture with Cognitiva in creating Lexnova, a legal AI system.

Cariola Díez Pérez-Cotapos Interview

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Canada™


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 16th Edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™ and 1st Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Canada™

Announcing the 2022 "Best Law Firms" Rankings


by Best Lawyers

The 2022 “Best Law Firms” publication includes all “Law Firm of the Year” recipients, national and metro Tier 1 ranked firms and editorial from thought leaders in the legal industry.

The 2022 Best Law Firms Awards

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch – The Future of Legal Talent Looks Bright


by Justin Smulison

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch is launching its second edition in the United States, and after talking with both a company leader and esteemed lawyers on the list, the importance of this prestigious list is evident.

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America 2022

Education by Trial: Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom


by Margo Pierce

The intricacies of complex lawsuits require extensive knowledge of the legal precedent. But they also demand a high level of skill in every discipline needed to succeed at trial, such as analyzing technical reports and deposing expert witnesses.

Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom

How A Claim Can Create A ‘Class’ of Its Own


by Justin Smulison

One civil claim can help a victim recover, prevent others from the same harm and even save lives. Tom Connick has experienced this directly, having been at the ground floor of injury claims that have led to high-value class action settlements.

Fire Consuming Paper Money

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Australia


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Australi

Caffeine Overload and DUI Tests


by Daniel Taylor

While it might come as a surprise, the over-consumption of caffeine could trigger a false positive on a breathalyzer test.

Can Caffeine Cause You to Fail DUI Test?

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers


by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Australia.

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

Georgia Laws Taking Effect in 2022


by Gregory Sirico

Three new pieces of Georgia legislation aim to improve medical bill transparency, lower the sales tax on vehicles and enact further safeguards to protect children in foster care.

New Georgia Laws Enacted in 2022