It is incredibly sad when a child is being abused physically, sexually and/or emotionally. When parents are consistently engaged in conflict with one another and put their children in the middle it is a form of emotional mistreatment. Helping families understand the potential long-term effects on their children and ways they can make changes is embedded in the mission of Co-Parenting Solutions, LLC.
Physical and sexual abuse tends to be much more concrete, and unfortunately, in my role as a therapist (and previously as a school principal), I have seen many of these situations and had to file reports to Child Protective Services (CPS). As a mandated reporter (along with several other professions, such as teachers, doctors, dentists, and clergy), it is not my job to investigate allegations, but simply to report any suspicion and allow the capable professionals at Child Protective Services do their job to find out the truth and bring in appropriate supports for the children and family if warranted.
In high conflict divorce situations, one of the most frustrating issues that I have witnessed is the occasional use of CPS to “get revenge” on an ex and/or gain sole custody of the children—often there is a potential financial gain that accompanies sole custody in states where child support is determined partially by the number of overnights. It is cruel to put children through this, especially if they are encouraged to lie and make up stories about one of their parents. It is disturbing to witness lives being ruined over something completely fabricated. Observing this behavior of some parents, and how they waste the time, energy and resources of CPS for their divorce war is heartbreaking. They take time away from families who truly need help and they create situations where it is difficult to differentiate the real stories from the false ones. The entire system of trying to protect children in need suffers.
Life is complicated being divorced, and in these high conflict divorce situations, parents work against one another rather than as a team. Suddenly, any normal circumstances surrounding the children become a way for one parent to prove that the other parent is “bad.” Let’s look at the differences between families parenting in the same home, parents Co-Parenting effectively in separate homes, and parents who are engaged in constant battle with one another:
- Here is what typically happens in a two-parent household: The child falls down on the sidewalk and scrapes their leg and their cheek and they are bleeding. Everyone comforts the child, and the parents calmly handle the situation. The child goes to bed and goes to school the next day. The wounds heal and life returns to normal.
- Let’s say this is a divorced family who Co-Parent cooperatively together. The incident happens at Mom’s house and she calls Dad after calming down the child to tell him what happened. She may even text a picture. Dad asks to speak to child and sympathizes with his “boo-boo,” Mom puts ice on child’s injuries, and the child goes to bed and goes to school the next day. The wounds heal and life returns to normal.
- Here is the scenario I have often seen play out with high conflict divorce families. The child falls and hurts himself. Parent who is with the child panics, comforting the child with the injuries but all the time distracted with worry that marks are going to appear and their Co-Parent is going to accuse them of abuse. Parent consults attorney about what to do. Parent contacts the other Co-Parent—possibly by sending a picture and a brief explanation. The Co-Parent either does not respond or calls to speak to the child and makes damaging statements insinuating to the child that it must have been the on-duty parent’s fault for not watching them closely enough. Child goes to bed and goes to school. The child wonders if that could be the case and now feels frustrated that maybe the accident was somehow their parent’s fault. At school, the child is pulled out of their normal school day and into an office with strangers. CPS is there to interview them about the incident. Their other parent contacted CPS claiming that the child was abused by the on-duty parent. The child feels caught between the parents and does not understand why something as simple as a fall is creating this level of follow-up. They start to become confused and afraid. If there are step-parents or live-in romantic partners, they and their children are also interviewed. Their children’s lives are disrupted at school and they become nervous as well. CPS decides to conduct a full-scale investigation that is going to last weeks at a time, even though they have received other calls from the family that have been completely unsubstantiated and seems to be a ploy on the part of one parent who is trying to gain sole custody. Yet, they will not allow the parent who had the child during the fall to have the child back as a precaution. Over the weeks of not seeing the children, the parent who reported to CPS and now has the children full-time files an Emergency Motion for sole custody. They now receive this plus all the extra child support money for having the children all the time. They utilize this time to poison their child against the other parent. The CPS workers spend over 30 hours dealing with the investigation, updating the attorneys and parents, interviewing witnesses and the children and writing reports. The children are without one of their parents and have no understanding of why—possibly even deciding it must be their fault for falling and getting their parent in trouble. Or they start to believe that they were hurt by that parent because they have had a false memory implanted in them over and over by the alienating parent. Life may or may not return to “normal.” The external wounds heal, but the internal wounds grow. It goes on and on and soon you have a runaway train. The question of whether the original parent will see the child again on a regular basis is questionable. The state may require supervised parenting time for some period. The alienating parent may continue to block opportunities for the parent to come back into the picture successfully. Some parents get so frustrated or run out of money paying attorneys and therapists to deal with the issue that they give up on reuniting with their child.
Who wins in this scenario? Absolutely no one. The children who lose out on seeing one of their parents, and learn they can trust no one and/or live in fear of the potential of non-existent abuse. Some of the worst damage done in this scenario is to the children that CPS did not get to spend as much time with since their time had to be divided and spent on families creating false reports due to a high conflict divorce.
CPS has to take every report seriously and fully investigate, even if they have flagged someone for filing false claims because they cannot take a risk with a child’s health and well-being. I am glad they have to investigate everything. I also wish there were consequences of some sort for parents who file these false reports. Right now, it seems they are rewarded with more Parenting Time with their children and increased funding. Where is the justice for the children who are damaged through this process?
If you are in a high conflict divorce, I implore you not to use CPS as a weapon. If you truly suspect abuse, report it. Your children’s well-being has to come before everything, but if you know your child is not being abused by your ex, then you yourself are enacting abuse upon your child.