Child Custody—A Balanced View
OFTEN, the real challenge comes after the divorce, in a struggle for the affection and control of the child. The saying “It takes two to fight” is not always true. It may take only one domineering parent who wants his or her own way. A family attorney in Toronto, Canada, observed: “In family law, everything is very emotionally charged and close to the heart.”
Instead of thinking of the child’s best interests, some parents keep the dispute going by filing motions on irrelevant issues. For example, some have tried to prove that custody should be changed because the other parent is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and will deprive the child of a ‘normal way of life.’
The non-Witness may make an issue of celebrating birthdays, Christmas, or even Halloween. Some may complain that the child’s association and social adjustment would be restricted if the child decided not to salute the flag. Or some may suggest that the child would be psychologically damaged by accompanying the parent in talking to others about the Bible. Some non-Witness parents have even alleged that the child’s life would be endangered because the Witness parent would not give consent for the child to receive a blood transfusion.
How does a Christian meet the challenge of such emotionally charged arguments? An emotional response—“fighting fire with fire”—will not be effective. If the matter is taken before a judge, each parent will have an opportunity to be heard. It is most important to keep in mind the Bible counsel: “Throw your burden upon Jehovah himself, and he himself will sustain you. Never will he allow the righteous one to totter.” (Psalm 55:22) By meditating on this and by applying Bible principles, parents can, with Jehovah’s help, cope with any eventuality involving child custody.—Proverbs 15:28.
The best interests of the child are the key issue. If a parent is overly demanding, he may lose custody and even find his visitation privileges restricted. The wise parent conducts himself in a peaceable manner, keeping in mind the Bible counsel: “Return evil for evil to no one. . . . Yield place to the wrath . . . Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.” (Romans 12:17-21) Whether in court, in a lawyer’s office, or with a child-custody evaluator, parents need to “let [their] reasonableness become known to all men.”—Philippians 4:5.
Sometimes an estranged spouse will try to deceive others by introducing misleading and speculative problems. It is wise to fight the human tendency to overreact to these verbal attacks. Health, religion, and education are favorite subjects that estranged spouses use to fabricate mischief at a custody-dispute hearing.—Proverbs 14:22.
Reasonableness includes the ability to consider the facts and negotiate a fair agreement. No parent should forget that even after divorce, the child still has two parents. The parents have divorced each other but have not divorced the child. Therefore, except in extreme circumstances, each parent should have the freedom to act as a parent when he or she has the child. Each should have the freedom to express his or her feelings and values and have the child share in the parent’s lawful activities, religious or otherwise.
Let us consider the possible outcomes of a hearing: (1) joint custody, (2) sole custody, and (3) limits on visitation privileges. What is the difference between joint custody and sole custody? How can you cope when you lose custody? What if one parent is disfellowshipped?
Some judges feel that it is important to maintain contact between the child and both parents. Their reasoning is based on research studies showing that children may suffer less stress and emotional harm after divorce if the parents are able to share custody. Rather than feeling abandoned by one parent, the child would have a sense of being loved by both parents and of being involved in both households. “Joint custody is a way of keeping both parents involved,” says a family law attorney.
However, Dr. Judith Wallerstein, executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition, in Corte Madera, California, warns that to make joint custody work, you need parents who are cooperative and a child who is flexible and gets along with people. These qualities are essential because in joint custody both parents retain the legal right to share decision-making on major issues involving the health, education, religious upbringing, and social life of their child. But this works only if both parents remain reasonable in considering what is in the best interests of their child rather than what is in their own personal interests.
The court may award sole custody to the parent who, in its opinion, is better equipped to provide for the needs of the child. The judge may decide that the custodial parent be the sole decision-maker regarding important issues concerning the child’s well-being. Often, the court arrives at the decision after listening to the findings of assessors—these are usually psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers.
Proponents of sole custody feel that the arrangement gives the child more stability. When parents are unable or unlikely to communicate effectively with each other, many trial judges prefer this custodial arrangement. Of course, the noncustodial parent is not cut out of the child’s life. Visitation rights are generally awarded to the noncustodial parent, and both parents can continue to provide the child with needed guidance, love, and affection.
It is unrealistic for parents to view child custody as having a “winner” and a “loser.” Parents are successful and “win” when they see their children grow into mature, competent, respectable adults. Success in child rearing is not directly tied to legal custodianship. By heeding court-ordered conditions in child-custody matters, even when these appear to be unjust, a Christian shows “subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1) It is also important to remember that this is no time to vie for the affection or loyalty of your children by belittling the other parent in an attempt to destroy his or her relationship with them.
There are Bible examples of God-fearing parents who, for various reasons, were separated from their children. For example, Amram and Jochebed, the parents of Moses, acting in the best interests of their child, placed him in a little floating ark “among the reeds by the bank of the river Nile.” When the infant was retrieved by Pharaoh’s daughter, they maintained their trust in Jehovah. These wise and faithful parents were rewarded with generous “visitation” privileges that they effectively used to train the boy in Jehovah’s way. Moses grew up to be an outstanding servant of the true God.—Exodus 2:1-10; 6:20.
What, though, if one of the parents is disfellowshipped? Should the Christian parent make the child available for visitation? The disfellowshipping process of the congregation only alters the spiritual relationship between the individual and the Christian congregation. In fact, it severs the spiritual bonds. But the parent-child relationship remains intact. The custodial parent must respect the disfellowshipped parent’s visitation rights. However, if the noncustodial parent poses an imminent and substantial threat to the child’s physical or emotional welfare, then the court (not the custodial parent) may arrange to have visitation with the child supervised by a third party.
You Are Never Alone
Divorce proceedings and subsequent child-custody disputes are emotionally draining experiences. A union that started so promisingly has been shattered along with the couple’s dreams, plans, and expectations. For example, infidelity or extreme abuse may force a loyal wife to seek legal protection for herself and her child. Yet, feelings of guilt and inadequacy may persist as she contemplates what went wrong or how the matter could have been handled more effectively. Many couples worry about their children’s reaction to the family breakup. The court struggle for custody may become an emotional roller-coaster ride that not only tests one’s integrity as a caring parent but also tests one’s faith and trust in Jehovah.—Compare Psalm 34:15, 18, 19, 22.
When an innocent mate chooses to take action because of child abuse or extreme spousal abuse or to protect his or her health against the risk of sexually transmitted diseases from an unfaithful spouse, there is no need for that innocent mate to feel guilty or to feel abandoned by Jehovah. (Psalm 37:28) The unfaithful or abusive spouse is the one who has violated the sacred contract of marriage and “dealt treacherously” with his or her mate.—Malachi 2:14.
Continue to “hold a good conscience” before man and Jehovah by applying Bible principles, treating your estranged spouse honestly, and showing flexibility in your custody agreements. “It is better to suffer because you are doing good, if the will of God wishes it, than because you are doing evil.”—1 Peter 3:16, 17.
As for the children, they need reassurance that the breakup of the family was not their fault. Sometimes things just do not work out as planned. But the application of Bible principles can soften the impact of divorce by encouraging open and understanding dialogue between parents and children. For example, this can be done by letting the children have an active part in planning for postdivorce family life. By being patient and kind and by being interested in the children’s feelings and listening to their expressions, you will do much to help them adjust to new schedules and living arrangements.
Others Can Help
Parents are not the only ones who can help a child who experiences the breakup of a family. Family members, teachers, and friends can do much to support and reassure children of divorce. In particular, grandparents can do much to contribute to the children’s stability and emotional well-being.
Christian grandparents may offer the children spiritual instruction and wholesome activities, but they must be respectful of the parents’ decisions about religious training, for it is the parents, not the grandparents, who hold the moral and legal authority to make these decisions.—Ephesians 6:2-4.
With such support, children of divorce can survive the breakup of their parents’ marriage. And they can continue to look forward to the blessings of God’s new world, where all families will be free from “enslavement to corruption and have the glorious freedom of the children of God.”—Romans 8:21; 2 Peter 3:13.
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“The tongue of wise ones does good with knowledge,” and a Christian parent has a fine opportunity to correct misunderstandings or half-truths. (Proverbs 15:2) For example, as to the health care of their children, “Jehovah’s Witnesses accept medical and surgical treatment,” but when designated as the custodial parent, a Witness reserves the right of informed consent for any procedure.*—The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Jehovah’s Witnesses take their religion, which is based on God’s Word, the Bible, seriously. This makes for better fathers, mothers, children, friends, neighbors, and citizens. Christian parents administer discipline in love, building respect for authority and equipping their children with a set of sound values for life.*—Proverbs 13:18.
See the brochure How Can Blood Save Your Life?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
See the brochure Jehovah’s Witnesses and Education, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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A custodial parent should listen patiently when a child tells about his or her visit with the noncustodial parent