Today we are going to look more closely at Alan and Cherie, a couple we introduced in our last post.[i] Alan, a 45-year-old executive for a fast food restaurant chain, and Cherie, a 43-year-old small business owner, have decided to end their 15-year-marriage. They separated about 6 months ago when Alan moved out of the family home and into a separate apartment. Alan and Cherie are currently involved in a parenting time dispute regarding 11-year-old Alexis and 9-year-old Mike.
For the first few months after the separation, Alan saw the children on alternate Friday and Saturday nights. Now that the divorce is becoming a reality, however, he has decided to fight for equal parenting time. Cherie, who has always maintained a flexible work schedule and acted as the primary parent, does not believe that Alan can realistically accommodate the children for any additional time. She points out that he is living in a one-bedroom apartment, and that he has always worked long hours, often twelve hours a day. Alan’s response is that he is looking into getting a larger home, as well as either cutting back his hours or working from home once or twice a week.
Cherie reacts to Alan’s ideas with high anxiety. She believes he has no idea how much attention children actually require, and she honestly doubts his ability to put their children first. If Alan persists with his plans, she foresees a nightmare scenario. The children would be largely unattended during Alan’s parenting time. Meanwhile, Alan would simultaneously lose income and spend more money on his own living expenses. “Things are working smoothly now,” she tells him. “Why rock the boat?”
Alan decides to consult with a child custody attorney, Rhoda Blankenship. Ms. Blankenship tells him that in light of his historical parenting role, equal time will be a stretch, but he can almost certainly get more time than he currently has. “Your wife is being unreasonable,” she states.
Upon hearing that Alan has hired an attorney, Cherie also seeks legal representation. She hires child custody attorney Jake Ballan. Mr. Ballan tells her essentially the same thing Ms. Blankenship has told Alan, with one key difference: “Your husband is being unreasonable,” he says.
The parents proceed to court-ordered parenting mediation, but neither budges significantly from their original positions. Both Ms. Blankenship and Mr. Ballan have reputations for being aggressive, and neither attorney dissuades their client from pursuing court action as the next step. Upon attorney advice, Alan and Cherie obtain separate custody evaluations from child specialists. Eventually, the court holds a hearing to determine the best arrangement for Mike and Alexis. The custody evaluators present written reports and testimony. Alan and Cherie also testify extensively.
The Child Custody Evaluations
Cherie’s Child Specialist
Cherie’s expert, psychologist Mary Hale, interviewed both parents several times at her office, both individually, and with Alexis and Mike. Dr. Hale also made observational home visits and interviewed Cherie’s parents, who have always spent a lot of time with the children. In her written report and testimony, Dr. Hale focused on Cherie’s primary parenting role, noting that Alan, by way of contrast, had largely been an absentee parent. Dr. Hale also remarked, however, on Alan’s commitment to making changes. While her recommendation was that the current alternate weekend schedule stay in place, she also stated that a midweek dinner for Alan and the children would be a positive addition. She also suggested that the parenting schedule incorporate brief evening Skype calls between Alan and the children.
Alan’s Child Specialist
Alan’s expert, psychologist James Wright, also conducted home visits and office interviews of each parent, both separately and with the children. In addition, he evaluated each parent with multiple psychometric testing, including the MMPI-2, which focuses on personality and behavior. He also reviewed school and medical records provided by both parents, and telephonically interviewed several relatives and caregivers.
In his report and court testimony, Dr. Wright readily acknowledged that Cherie had been the primary parent during the marriage. He went on, however, to list various accommodations Alan had already made that would help him become a more involved father going forward. For example, Alan had successfully adjusted his schedule to allow him to work from home on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. He had also made plans to move into a larger apartment. Dr. Wright stressed Alan’s commitment to living no more than a few miles away from Cherie, in spite of the challenge posed by the high rents in that area. This showed, Dr. Wright believed, that Alan understood the importance of making it easy for the kids to travel back and forth between homes.
Dr. Wright recommended extending Alan’s alternate weekends from Fridays after school until Monday morning drop-offs. He also recommended that Alan pick up the kids from school every Wednesday and keep them overnight until Thursday mornings. Finally, he echoed Dr. Hale’s suggestion about incorporating Skype calls into the schedule.
The Court’s Findings and Conclusions
At the conclusion of the court hearing, the judge made findings of fact on each element of the child custody statute, N.J.S.A. § 9:2-4. The findings reflected his acceptance of all testimony and written reports regarding both Cherie’s historical role as primary parent and Alan’s recent substantial efforts to become a more involved father. The judge then noted that the child custody statute encourages frequent and continuing contact between children and both parents, and also supports parenting arrangements that encourage both parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of child rearing. The schedule proposed by Dr. Wright, the judge concluded, appeared to be more in keeping with this philosophy. The judge ordered the parents to immediately implement Dr. Wright’s schedule. They were able to modify the schedule by mutual agreement as it pertained to pick up and drop off times or specific dates, but neither of them was to change the split of parenting time without a written agreement signed by both parties, or a court order to the contrary.
Alan and Cherie Reflect on Their Results
While Alan was reasonably satisfied with the parenting schedule ordered by the court, he was appalled that he had ended up paying over $40,000 in fees to his attorney and his child custody evaluator. Cherie was even more appalled. She too had come away with astronomical fees, and her own custody expert had recommended that Alan have more time than Cherie thought was reasonable. She complained bitterly to her attorney about this result. Eventually however, she realized that Mr. Ballan had told her from the very beginning that Alan was likely to end up with more time. Cherie reflected that perhaps the result was fair after all. Alan had not received equal time, just a chance to become more involved and prove himself as a father. Cherie felt both frustrated and rather foolish. The result was in between the positions each of them had staked out originally. Why had they not been able to negotiate to the same place without spending all that money?
There is usually a better alternative than a contentious court battle to resolve a parenting dispute. Mediation is one of those alternatives, and there are flexible options available within the mediation process. In our next post, we will see how Megan and Derek approach their parenting dispute.
If you are considering using private mediation to resolve your parenting disputes, the talented mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help you negotiate a fair solution and stay out of court. Contact us today for an initial consultation.
[i] The couple in this story is fictional. The fact patterns and court findings and conclusions are hypothetical composites drawn from several actual cases.