Over my nearly 30 years of practicing law, I have seen tens of thousands of clients, and I have heard all of their stories, their sorrows, their hopes/dreams, and their lived experiences. It can be exceedingly difficult to hear, but my role is to listen, to advise and to represent them. As challenging as it can be for me to assist family law clients when they are dealing with one of their worst problems of their lives, it is often compounded when clients “blur the lines” and put their faith and trust in misguided places. It is already trying enough to deal with opposing parties who are both overly emotional and hostile towards me and my client – not to mention dealing with their lawyers (if they have one) – but it makes my role even more confounding when the client finds allies in the strangest of places: their children.
This blog will be a short one, but an important one. I want to talk about the legal perspective of involving your children in your own litigation. As with all my blogs, this will not be a comprehensive review of the issue, nor will it reference cases or legislation in any great detail. Rather, it will be based on my lived experience of being a family law lawyer, and seeing firsthand the harm that can be done to the client’s case when a client makes their child their confidant, and more importantly, the unintended yet severe harm to their child in doing so.
(For the sake of not having to say, “child or children” every time, I will use the singular “child,” and I ask that you amend it as needed if you have “children.”).
In many family cases involving a child, the parties will seek to present to the court the evidence of the child themselves. This can be done by way of the asking for the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL) to get involved, to represent the views, wishes and preferences of the child. In some cases, parties seek a “Voice of the Child Report,” to hear directly from the child in written form. Less often these days, the parties will seek an assessment, but that’s usually to gauge the ability of the parent, and less so the needs of the child.
But in almost every family case involving children, I see one parent (and sometimes, it’s both parents) who will share the entire history of the spousal or domestic relationship – the good, the bad, the ugly – with their child. When I say “entire history,” I do mean exactly that – issues pertaining to the dating relationship, the intimacy, the emotional connection or lack thereof, the abuse, the betrayal, the sadness/loneliness, and other such details. I have seen this happen with a child as young as 4 or 5, but more often than not it is with a child who is a pre-teen or a teenager.
I can appreciate the need for a parent, as with any adult, to be able to discuss what they are experiencing with someone, to have someone feel sympathy, empathy, and provide you with emotional support. That’s when we should make use of adult friends, family members, and professional support people. The child is not to be the parent’s best friend, their confidant, their “whisperer.” A child should always be spared from such adult information. They are a child, with the necessary underdevelopment to manage or understand the adult information they may hear from their parent. The child is already trying to process the end of the relationship as it impacts them (from a child’s perspective). They should always be sheltered from hearing the adult version of details relating to harm, abuse, substance abuse, betrayal, infidelity, financial instability, and other such concerns. It is a parent’s job to protect the child and keep them secure and confident, knowing that you, as the adult, will be handling the family law matter properly, and that they can be assured to continue living their life as a safe and happy child (whether or not that is true). It does the child irreparable harm to hear that the “sky is falling” and it is all mommy’s or daddy’s fault.
Unfortunately, many parents go even further and share these details with their child for other/ulterior motives. They do so to prepare, to coach, and to alter the perspective of the child vis-à-vis the other parent, and to create an ally for court. Knowing that the child will eventually voice their thoughts to other adults (e.g. teachers, parents of their friends, extended family, doctors and other professionals), some parents in family law cases will take the opportunity to influence, persuade, and even bribe a child to tell a biased version of the events, whether it is true or not. Anyone reading this blog is probably not shocked by this statement, but you should be shocked by how often, anecdotally at least, it happens in family law disputes.
Up until now, I have avoided the term “parental alienation” as it is a loaded expression that is not necessary universally defined. I am not talking about “parental alienation” in this blog – I will save that for another day. Rather, I am talking about the aspect of creating a false narrative for a child, to have them repeat it to a court, whether through their own lawyer or social worker, or through some other adult.
In some cases, the parent’s efforts to “weaponize” their child against the other parent is easily exposed in a court setting, or even in negotiations, and the said parent usually suffers the legal consequences of having done so. That usually means being unsuccessful in obtaining the result they wanted by such improper tactics, or by getting ordered by a judge to pay the other side’s legal costs for such irresponsible behaviour. Judges take a very harsh view of parents who take such actions and involve their child in legal battles. They make their disdain for such behaviour clear in their opinions and their judgments, and they impose their consternation as a clear deterrent, so such bad behaviour is not rewarded.
In other cases, however, the offending parent’s efforts to coach their child’s has been award-winning and ultimately successful. In such cases, the court and/or others have accepted the child’s evidence as gospel truth, and thus, the “wronged” parent loses in court, and is often ordered to pay costs to the other side. “All is fair in love and war” is usually the response from the victorious party and/or their lawyer.
Unfortunately, as a lawyer, and an objective observer the matter, I have seen the long-term harm that such conduct has on a child. Having practiced as long as I have, the children of clients years later have told me that their mother or father, or their grandparent, made them tell lies way back when. This destroyed their relationship with their parent, and in doing so had a tremendously negative impact on their own intimacy and trust-based relationships as adults.
I often hear from clients who have lost contact with their child because of this conduct, resulting in psychological trauma, loss of trust with others, consumed with anger and bitterness, only to find solace in substance abuse. Sounds like a “made for TV” movie, but sadly, this happens in everyday life.
On other occasions, I will hear from an offending party who has employed the tactics in the past (not with me as their lawyer or as the opposing lawyer, though). They advise me that, in the years following court, when the child was old enough to understand what took place, their own relationship with the child has been irreparably harmed, with their child accusing them of robbing them of their childhood. So much for “winning” the case.
But sadly, I will usually hear nothing. The damage is done, the consequences play out just as the offending party intended, and there is no karma or any sense of justice. More often than not, that is the harsh reality. To the victor go the spoils, some will say. But I see it differently, and I paraphrase a famous quote: “What good is my victory if, in doing so, it cost me my soul?”
So, before you consider sharing your family law “war-stories” with your child, understand that, if you go down that path, not only are you risking your immortality, you are risking something more beloved and more tangible: your child and their long-lasting wellbeing.