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Doing What’s Best for Children by Refusing to Hear From Them on the Subject (And Other Nonsense).

Recently an attorney posed a question on a forum for fellow Utah family law attorneys. The question involved how to find out what the children’s experiences have been with one of their parents (this parent was dealing with some personal demons) and what kind of contact they should have with that parent.

I responded on the forum that if this isn’t a scenario in which both the commissioner and the judge should be interviewing the children themselves, so that those who hold the fates of these children in their hands have the best possible idea what is going through these children’s minds at this time, what they have experienced, how they feel, what they desire, and whether those desires are in line with their best interests, then there is never an appropriate time for the court to interview children.

Who could gainsay that?

Many tried (and failed).

One attorney who responded to my suggestion commented that this would be the worst time for a judge or commissioner to interview the children but did not explain why. This attorney claimed that a private guardian ad litem (PGAL) should be appointed for, and to interview the children, instead. I asked for an explanation, and further commented by asking what ostensibly makes judges and commissioners so innately bad at interviewing children, and what makes PGALs innately so good at it? I don’t know where the myth of the angelic, “child whisperer” PGAL and the demonic, “couldn’t interview a child effectively if his/her life depended on it” judge dichotomy came from, but it’s nonsense.

Another attorney (like many who comment on this subject) commented that children should never be interviewed or even “exposed to the legal system unless absolutely necessary” without identifying a scenario in which it would be “absolutely necessary”. This attorney claimed that because minor children’s brains are developing that being interviewed by a judge or commissioner  “is incredibly damaging to the child.” In response to that comment I asked, “Where’s the evidence?”

The response I got was similar to what everyone says to me in response to that same question:

  • “every single child development book ever created, academic case studies, nonprofits that specialize in it, etc.” advises against judges or lawyers interviewing children.

o   This is false (which should come as no surprise when any speaks in those kinds of absolute terms), but it’s widely believed (or asserted as believed) in the family law profession.

  • “Commissioners and judges are not specifically educated in this area of law as those who practice it day are.”

o   But that argument erroneously presumes

  • that unless a judge, commissioner, or lawyer is “specifically educated” in how to talk to children about what they have experienced, how they feel, what they desire, and whether those desires are in line with their best interests, that judge, commissioner, or lawyer will inexorably make a mess of interviewing the child; and
  • that those who are (or are “certified” as) “specifically educated” in how to talk to children are incapable of being incompetent child interviewers.
  • When I responded with, “Well, if it’s so obvious and the research so voluminous and overwhelming, please cite it,” I got this in response: “You can do the research yourself.”

The legal system needs to stop believing that which is untested in the name of “protecting children.” It was widely accepted as fact in America that tomatoes were poisonous to humans. It was not until Robert Gibbon Johnson (no relation to me) ate a tomato on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey in 1820 that he proved otherwise. Dispelling that myth has been a culinary and economical boon to the entire world.

I recently deposed a 14-year-old child in a parent time dispute case. She was not only willing to testify but was grateful for the opportunity to have her voice heard and her viewpoint considered. She was a particularly compelling and credible witness. The evidence she provided could not have come from any other source. After her deposition the case was resolved in a week.

The notion that any child testifying in any child custody or parent-time dispute case does terrible damage to any and every child is simply not true. I know this because I have deposed children to the benefit of child and truth seeking alike.

Blanket prohibitions on child testimony (on the grounds that they are nothing but harmful to all children) are not only false, they are also contrary to fundamental concepts of fact finding and subserving the best interest of the child.

I know that eliciting child testimony is not harmful to all children because I have real world data to the contrary. And not just someone else’s claims, but my own experience.

It has, unfortunately, become an article of faith in Utah family law practice that child testimony does more harm than good. That has not been my experience. I am one of the few attorneys in Utah who has that experience. It is therefore hard for me to give unverified claims the same weight as my own experience. I would be lying if I asserted that child testimony inexorably and/or irreparably harms most (let alone all) children. Blanket prohibitions on child testimony are antithetical to fundamental principles of our legal system, i.e., diligent investigation, careful, impartial analysis, real respect for children’s rights and best interests, and honest judgment.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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