• When Kids Are Caught In Custody Battles

'Supervised Visits' Mean No Visits for Some Parents

The writers argue that family court judges must take more care in arranging supervised visitation in custody cases because their logistical and cost burdens can be too much for low-income families.

Jayden*, age nine reported that during a visit he had been threatened by his mother with a large kitchen knife after he spilled milk on the kitchen table. Prior to age eight, Jayden resided with his mother. Jayden shared this incident several months after Jayden’s mom left him in the care of his father, at the time a man he barely knew and had never lived with. Jayden’s father went to court and asked for the court to allow the mother only to have supervised visits.

Unless you are involved in a custody or visitation dispute you probably have not heard the term “supervised visitation” and may not be familiar with what this term means. In some places it is called “parenting time” or “parenting access." Courts order it when there are claims of parental drug use, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental illness or the lack of a relationship between the child and the parent.
Supervised visitation means just that: All contact between the parent and child occurs under the watchful eye of a social worker or certified counselor who ensures the safety of the child. Supervised visits can also occur when relative or friend is asked to supervise, but those situations are limited because of safety issues or other concerns about the level of supervision and the accuracy of information provided to the court regarding the visit.

When a parent is alleged to be severely mentally ill or has a history of abusive behaviors that require long-term mental health intervention, parenting time without safeguards is risky. At the same time, supervised visitation arrangements can pose real obstacles to parents who want to maintain a meaningful relationship with their kids. Family Court judges must take all the complexities of supervised visitation into account when they set up permanent guidelines for how parents and children will interact in the months and years after their Family Court cases closes.

Jayden’s father was seeking a final order of custody. Jayden’s mother was evaluated by a court-appointed psychiatrist who described her as a “textbook” case of borderline personality disorder, and concluded that her symptoms would, in all likelihood, impact her parenting abilities. Based upon the doctor’s view the court ordered supervised visitation. Jayden was able to see his mother in a supervised setting for weekly one-hour visits over a period of six months, the maximum allowed by the agency.

In response to the sudden change of homes and the restrictions imposed on his contact with his mother, Jayden expressed confusion and sadness. In our experience as an attorney for children involved with Family Court, Jayden’s reaction was typical of kids who experience extreme loyalty conflicts and anxiety over the course of an emotional custody battles. Although Jayden provided a forthcoming account of life with his mother—specifically the fear and uneasiness he experienced on a daily basis when she behaved erratically, beat him and ultimately left him with a bag of clothing on his father’s doorstep—she was, at the end of the day, his mother, and he understandably wanted the relationship to continue, although with another person supervising. It is important to note that Jayden was protective of his mother and genuinely believed that he had the ability to understand her in ways others could not.

Jayden’s case starkly illustrates the difficulties faced by courts charged with balancing the child’s wish for a relationship with a parent against assertions that unsupervised contact will be unsafe. Short-term supervision programs do little to meet the need when long-term therapeutic intervention is needed until the child is able to protect himself, or simply reaches the age of maturity. And permanent supervised visitation plans are contingent on the parent’s ability to pay for the supervising professional. A child’s already fragile relationship with the parent that requires a supervisor to support access to the child may further deteriorate, or under extreme circumstances, cease altogether.

There are interesting difference between cases, like Jayden's, where Family Court is charged with resolving a custody dispute is between two parents and other cases where the child welfare system seeks to remove a child from her parent because of abuse or neglect. The latter cases actually result in more comprehensive visitation arrangements.

When the state has removed a child based upon allegations of parental neglect or abuse, the state is mandated to provide supervised visitation in their offices on a weekly or even a bi-weekly basis since at the outset of a child protective case reunification is the primary goal. Had the state removed Jayden from his mother’s care based on the same concerns raised by Jayden’s dad set forth in the custody case—mental illness and possibly excessive corporal punishment—Jayden would have been entitled to ongoing supervised visits as long as they were deemed necessary to ensure his safety during the pendency of the case.

We don’t want the state in families' lives if it is not necessary; we're not suggesting that Jayden's case should have involved the child welfare system. What we are saying is that parenting time should be important no matter the type of case before the court. Unfortunately for Jayden, despite the fact that his mother was granted a final order of supervised visitation, she was barred from having a relationship with him because of her inability to pay for a private social worker. Jayden’s relationship with his mother has been essentially reduced to telephone contact.

Contrary to the notion that supervised visitation is simply a temporary solution that enables children to maintain continuous contact with a parent, children engaged in these types of custody disputes may require a permanent solution to ensure they have consistent, meaningful contact with the parent. Right now, low-income families like Jayden’s often lose out.

Supervised visitation is considered a last resort, but for children like Jayden, it may be the only viable alternative to a complete end of contact with his parent. Given the rise in the number of custody and visitation cases over the last few years, it is critical that the courts, city, state and community programs work together to create a long-term, supervised visitation program that provides ongoing visitation services to children in custody cases that require long-term supervision. We wonder if community-based, preventive programs that are already well-established in neighborhoods for their work with child-welfare agencies and the foster-care system might be a good place for expanded, more accessible long-term visitation programs.

Though there was not a termination of parental rights, Jayden and his mother are lost to each other just because she is too poor to pay a social worker to supervise her parenting time.

* Jayden's name has been changed to protect his privacy.

The opinions here are those of the authors alone.


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