Having practiced family law in PA for almost 28 years, in addition to serving as a PA child custody conciliator and working with families in private mediation, I have looked at the issues concerning child custody from all angles. Here are some keys points to consider before moving forward.
Courts or Child Custody Mediation
You basically have two options when it comes to determining how your children will be spending time with you and his/her other parent - the court system or the private mediation process (This not to be confused with court-ordered mediation. While some court systems require mediation as part of the process, it may not be as in depth, nor might parents be as committed, since parents have already started down an adversarial path).
Courts or Mediation - A Quick Comparison
Adversarial vs Neutral
Understand that the court systems are an adversarial system designed to divide property and punish criminals - not divide children and punish parents. Because of its structure, the court system ends up pitting one parent against the other so that there are winners and losers.
Parents are most times represented by lawyers. The lawyers’ job is to advocate for their client’s position. The lawyer’s job is not to determine what is best for the child. (Yes, there is a difference.) The judge is assigned with that responsibility. In the end the biggest losers tend to be the children because they are put in the middle of their parents’ fight.
Unless there is abuse or danger between the parents or the children (either alleged or documented), mediation for child custody is the best way to decide how children will spend time with both parents.
In private divorce or child custody mediation, the mediator must remain neutral. A mediator guides the parents through a peaceful discussion process to help them to find a parenting plan together that is going to be best suited to meet their child’s needs. This allows the parents to focus on the children and the children’s needs as opposed to "winning the case."
A divorce or parenting mediator, however, is trained to help parents put aside their differences. Instead, parents focus on developing co-parenting skills - learning to raise their children separately, but communicate well together. It's understood that parents possess the best and most intimate knowledge about their children’s personalities, needs and schedules.
No Control in Custody Decisions vs. Total Control
A judge will not have much opportunity to get to know either you or your children. The judge will be fed cherry-picked pieces of information (by your lawyers) to put both parents in the best light. (S)he may talk to the children briefly or hear from a psychologist about their observations of the parents and the children over a period of several hours.
PA Custody Laws: A Judge Decides Your Fate
Based on this very limited amount of slanted information, a judge - with their own life experiences and opinions - will use their best judgment to fashion a custody schedule for the parents that the parents will have to find a way to make work. The judge will have total control over how your children will spend their time with you - the parents who brought them into the world.
Focus on Past Mistakes vs Learning to Raise Children in Separate Households
The court system sets up a scenario where parents bring up the past mistakes that both parents may have made. It allows each parent to pour more salt into old wounds. Instead of the parents focusing their energy on working together to raise their children in the future, they end up focusing their energy blaming one another for the past. This constant state of conflict is stressful for parents and children alike.
Court System Creates a Toxic Family Dynamic
The adversarial nature of the court system helps to perpetuate a toxic family dynamic.
I have actually seen come before me as the county custody conciliator, children of parents that were parties in cases that I encountered early in my practice and the relational dynamic the children are dancing is still the same toxic tango as their parents were dancing years before.
Custody battles in court are not only toxic, but costly. In PA, a custody evaluation and trial can cost a minimum of $20,000, and often much, much more. Not only can parents end up spending their children’s future college tuition in court on custody fights with expenses for lawyers and psychological evaluations and court fees, but it can also exact an emotional toll that can affect a family for generations to come.
Mediation Doesn't Make Children Choose Between Parents
Custody or parenting mediation encourages parents to focus on the future. Parents agree that they both love their children and want what is what is best for their children. They work together to create a workable parenting plan that allows the children to have healthy functioning relationships with both parents - without the children feeling guilty for loving either parent.
Mediation is Faster and More Peaceful
Mediation is more cost effective. It uses one neutral person to help parents reach a fair quick and peaceful settlement to transition their family from one household to two households, minimizing the emotional impact on the family. In addition with the money that is not spent on litigation, parents can afford to go to family counseling to improve their parenting dynamic to further assist the children in this life transition and to give them a better relationship role model to pass on to their children.
How will your children remember their childhood?
Lastly you should consider how you want your children to spend their childhood. In court torn between the two of you or embraced in each of your loving arms. Remember whatever memories you help create for your children at this time will last their whole life long.
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Is Divorce Mediation Right for You?
Lenore M. J. Myers is a divorce and parenting mediator with the Main Line Family Law Center. She has been practicing law with a concentration in Family Law in southeastern Pennsylvania for the past 28 years. In addition to her role as mediator, she serves as custody conciliator for Montgomery County, PA family court. In this role, she assists families in reaching peaceful agreements to avoid their custody cases being resolved by judicial intervention.