Keep Children at the Center, Not the Middle, of Your Divorce

Written for mostenguthrie/blog It was July of 2020 when I first decided to be a Full Time Mediator. I had just finished my last case in Family Court. My case settled after almost a decade. My client’s whole life was spent in Court – being brought to see her lawyer, the Judge, her therapist.

Career as an Advocate for Children

I should pause here for a moment to say that I was a lawyer for children. I was a born litigator and was lucky to have found my dream job, which allowed me to be the zealous advocate I was meant to be. I had a purpose. I knew I was making a difference. For over 20 years, I represented children in Child Abuse & Neglect cases, Juvenile Delinquency cases and PINS cases (Person in need of Supervision) in the New York City Family Court System. For the two years following, I represented children in high conflict custody cases – children with two parents – generally not facing the systemic issues the previous families I had worked with faced (drug abuse, mental illness, poverty). It was the children in this last group who made me feel helpless, and who inspired my career change to become a mediator, and practitioner of any and all alternatives to Court Resolutions.

Negative Impact of Litigation on Children

On my last day of litigation, I watched this fragile child walk away. Over the ten years, she had her life dissected in order for the Judge to gather information so that she could make a decision on how this child should spend her days and nights. The Judge, not her parents, and not even her therapist. Over the nearly two years I represented her, I watched her deteriorate from a confident and steady eight year old to an anxious, depressed and exhausted 10 year old. Just imagine the money spent on litigation, the hours wasted, and the emotional toll taken on everyone involved. We settled the case on my last day, but I took no pleasure in that, as I feared the damage was done. I doubted the parents would be able to co-parent successfully, the animosity and hatred were too great. I could only hope my client would recover and learn to live a life with both of her parents and go back to focusing on her job – to be a kid -rather than meeting with lawyers and judges and negotiate parenting plans. I could go on and on with stories of children who were not well-served by protracted custody battles. I am sure you all have stories too – your own – or those of people close to you. I know that some situations do require litigation, and my heart goes out to those families. I also know that many families do not need outsiders to decide how their families should function.

New Career as an Advocate for Families

Seeing how painful court was to this child led me to wonder whether she, and so many others I had encountered over the years, might be served equally well by alternatives to court. And so began my new dream job and the start of my company, FamilyFriendlyMediation. I chose the name because, while children were the impetus for my entrance into the world of Family Law, I know that children do best when they are a part of families who are functioning harmoniously. So, my new passion is helping families separate, divorce and handle conflict in a family friendly rather than adversarial way.

Benefits of Mediation

Mediation allows families to choose their own path forward. Meditators help families work together to find solutions to their own unique circumstances. In mediation, children rarely need to be part of the process. Parents are the adults, they can and should be making decisions for their children. I represented many children who gained an unhealthy amount of control over their parents. I represented children who became more and more aligned with one parent during the course of the litigation, becoming alienated from the other. I represented children who wished away their childhood so they could be free from the constant fighting, and to go off and live their own lives. I witnessed trauma, broken relationships, and toxic stress occurring in front of my eyes. Much if not all of these difficulties can be avoided or minimized with mediation. Mediation can help you restructure your family without unnecessarily involving your children in the process. I always tell people to keep your children at the center of your divorce but not in the middle.