This is a touchy subject, as it involves divorce and child custody issues. These topics rarely bring out the best in people, and quite usually very strong opinions and emotions. Everybody knows somebody who has experienced a messy divorce where children have been used as pawns; it’s not pretty to watch and much worse to be a part of.
High conflict custody battles refer to situations whereby parents are fighting over the custody or visitation rights of children in a divorce. These battles are often emotionally and financially costly for all involved and many parents will do anything in their power to ‘win’ them, including purposely alienating their children from the other parent, slandering the other parent, and turning children against the other parent via accusations of abuse. Why do members of the educational community need to be aware of this? Because we are often sought out as pawns in this game.
More troubling is the complete absence of guidelines for educators when dealing with children and parents in child custody conflicts. As a teacher of 15+ years, this topic has NEVER come up at a staff meeting, professional development meeting or conference. Teachers and other educational professionals have been given no tools to deal with these situations, so how can we expect them to navigate them with awareness and impartiality?
My experience with the education system in the context of high conflict custody disputes is twofold: both personal and professional. It is from these two points of view that I’ve had the realization that our profession is entirely unprepared to deal with families in these trying situations.
In my personal life, I’ve unfortunately witnessed how easily educational professionals can be manipulated into supporting the alienation of a legal parent via a purposeful lack of communication, unfounded accusations of neglect and/or abuse and professional letters used for the purpose of legal documentation to support one parent in a custody dispute. It is my hope that the actions of these educators were not malicious, rather a result of their general lack of knowledge and education regarding how to properly navigate family dynamics and professional responsibilities in high conflict custody disputes.
Due to the aforementioned personal experience and my own self-education concerning families in high conflict custody disputes, I became fully aware of the tendency for parents in these situations to recruit those in positions of power to support them in their custody case. It was in the context of this awareness and my own experiences that I began to realize that I had also been manipulated by parents in custody disputes many times throughout my career. Upon reflection, there had been instances where I’d been told by one parent not to ‘contact’ another parent regarding a student’s attendance, behaviour or achievement. I’d also heard more than one parent accuse another of emotional or physical abuse. Furthermore, at times I’d been a sounding board for parents who were open to slandering the other verbally or through email and had never really done anything to stop it, rather lend a sympathetic ear. I had also once been asked by a parent to ‘report back to them’ regarding the attendance, behaviour and achievement of a student so that they could use this information in their custody battle (which I refused to do).
I was an educator who was coerced into unconsciously supporting parents in a custody dispute without really giving any though to it. This realization both angered and frustrated me. Why was there no education about this issue in our PD sessions, especially considering how many families experienced this reality? If this had happened to me both in a personal and professional context, I was certain it had happened to others – especially those with more ‘power’, such as administrators, guidance counsellors or school social workers. Why wasn’t anyone talking about this or sharing experiences of how to deal with families in high conflict custody battles?
My experience with families in custody disputes both at home and in the classroom has given me a new perspective on the issue, and when faced with situations where I have students who have divorced parents I try to stick to the following protocol to ensure that I remain impartial and open minded in my role as a professional educator. My hope is that by sharing these strategies with other professionals, I can shed some light on this controversial issue.
- Keep an open line of communication with both parents (unless there is a legal document stating otherwise).
- Offer both parents access to information about student activities, achievements and experiences (including extra-curricular).
- Ask parents who speak negatively or make unfounded accusations about the other parent to avoid these conversations unless they have legal documentation to support them (other than their own affidavits), or unless they pertain directly to the child’s education.
- Refuse to write an email or letter of support that favours one parent or slanders another – especially if it will be written for the purpose of a custody battle.
- Refuse to call or report a parent based on information shared by the opposing parent in a custody dispute to authorities for accusations of abuse unless you have substantial information to support your claim. If, upon reflection, you feel the need to report, inform whatever authority you call that the family in question is in the midst of a custody dispute that could be impacting the situation.
- Refuse to ask students about experiences with their ‘other’ parent or act as a ‘spy’ for one parent, reporting back to them about behaviour, attendance and achievement.
How can educators protect themselves from being pawns in a custody dispute? Easy – don’t take sides. As educational professionals, we have a duty and obligation to our students to be impartial when speaking about or communicating to their parents.
What is your experience with students and their parents in child custody disputes? Do you feel like you’ve been manipulated or coerced into supporting the plight of one parent? How did you deal with this? Comment below!