Everyone has heard Pat Benatar’s famous hit “Love is a Battlefield”. No place is that more true that in a custody dispute. A parent’s love for their child is one of the most powerful, visceral emotions there is. There is a reason that phrases like “Going Mama Bear” or “Going Papa Bear” exist. Google “Mama Bear” and you’ll be surprised at all the sayings and memes that pop up. Why? Because it is a parent’s primal desire to protect their cub from harm at all costs. It’s an admirable trait.
The problem can arise when a parent feels that the harm from which they have to protect their child is the other parent. Sometimes, sadly, this is very true. There are definitely plenty of stories out there where a child needed to be protected from their very own parent. Child abuse and neglect cases are largely built on that premise. But that’s only part of it.
There are battles waged every day in Courtrooms all over the country where a child’s custody is at issue between their parents and neither parent is “bad.” Unlike child abuse and neglect cases, neither parent has been deemed a threat to their child, but one or both of the parents have taken the position that the other parent is “bad”, or at least “not good”, maybe with good reason, maybe not.
Think back to this time last year when the famous Brangelina duo had that huge fight on the airplane mid-flight and Child Protective Services and the FBI were called in to meet them at LAX when they landed. Brad Pitt was investigated, their children interviewed, Angelina Jolie interviewed, and Brad’s parenting time was suspended pending the investigation…. of which he was eventually cleared. No one knows what happened on that flight, but the molehill turned into a mountain and Brad Pitt’s face was plastered all over magazines, entertainment shows, the internet and social media decrying him as a bad parent who put his kids at risk and should be banned from seeing them so much so that Angelina filed for sole custody. Yet now, Angelina is supposedly reconsidering the divorce, they are healing as a family and Brad spends unsupervised parenting time with all of his children, even traveling with them around the world to care them for them while Angelina works.
In any custody or parenting time dispute, the Court’s paramount obligation is to ensure the children’s best interests. What “best interests” means is often a matter of opinion and can flex and change with the circumstances. What Angelina thought was in their kids’ best interest last year is not what she believes now. It happens. A lot. The problem is that the children are stuck in the middle.
New Jersey law provides that both parents’ rights are equal unless a Court determines otherwise in considering the statutory factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c):
(1) The parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child;
(2) The parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse;
(3) The interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings;
(4) The history of domestic violence, if any;
(5) The safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent;
(6) The preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision;
(7) The needs of the child;
(8) The stability of the home environment offered;
(9) The quality and continuity of the child’s education;
(10) The fitness of the parents;
(11) The geographical proximity of the parents’ homes;
(12) The extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation;
(13) The parents’ employment responsibilities;
(14) The age and number of the children.
Keep in mind that a child only has one set of parents. They are entitled to relationships with both parents regardless of the parents’ relationships with each other. They do not want to have to choose between you. At the same time, they don’t want to hurt your feelings by liking the other parent. The only people who lose in custody cases are the children. Keep that in mind when deciding what your definition of “best interests” is.