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Winning Custody: A Woman's Guide to Retaining Custody of Her Children
     

Winning Custody: A Woman's Guide to Retaining Custody of Her Children

by Deedra Hunter, Tom Monte
 

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You never wanted to be in this position, but you are. Now, faced with the prospect of a custody dispute, you need to make smart choices. Winning Custody can help. this book-written by a woman who is an experienced psychotherapist, a mom, and a veteran of a bitter custody dispute-will help you find your way, maintain your sanity, and keep your kids from being

Overview

You never wanted to be in this position, but you are. Now, faced with the prospect of a custody dispute, you need to make smart choices. Winning Custody can help. this book-written by a woman who is an experienced psychotherapist, a mom, and a veteran of a bitter custody dispute-will help you find your way, maintain your sanity, and keep your kids from being caught in the custody cross fire.

Winning Custody is geared specifically toward women seeking custody of their children. It offers advice on how to navigate the complicated legal maze of the custody process, giving step-by-step guidance on:

-How to find a good-and affordable-lawyer
-What to wear in court (it's more important than you might think)
-How to effectively communicate with you ex
-How to parent your child firmly, lovingly, and consistently throughout the crisis period
-How to defuse your fears of losing your children
-And how to love and believe in yourself during this most difficult time

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312252656
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
01/06/2001
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
192
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT LAWYER

On August 14, 1994, a man from Miami's Dade County Sheriff's Department rang my doorbell and presented me with a set of legal documents that informed me that I was being sued by my former husband for custody of our three children. I had been divorced for more than two and a half years. As part of the divorce settlement, we had agreed that I would have custodial care of our children and that he would have liberal visitation rights, which he exercised without any restrictions by me. I had no forewarning that a suit was in the offing. This turn of events came as a complete shock to me.

As I looked at the pages, an electric fear ran through my body until it rattled all my nerves and blurred my vision. I went into the living room, sat down on my couch, and tried to get a grip on myself. The man from the sheriff's office followed me. "What does this mean?" I asked the process server.

"He's suing you for custody of your children," he said, making no effort to hide the embarrassment and apology in his voice. He looked around the living room and then said awkwardly, "You have a really nice home. I'm sorry to have to deliver this bad news to you."

"Thank you," I said as if to myself. I was still looking at the paperwork, but not seeing the words. There was a long gap in which nothing was said. Finally the man said that I had to sign a page to acknowledge receipt of the documents. "I'm sorry," I said. " I guess I'm in shock." I signed the papers and showed him to the door.

Everything will be all right, I kept telling myself. But inside I knew that a lot of trouble was brewing. I was possessed by fear, too numb even to cry.

Until my doorbell had rung, the day had been utterly normal. I am a psychotherapist with a busy practice. Earlier in the day, I had seen several clients. Normally, I come home in the afternoon to be with my children and make dinner arrangements for everyone. I do not cook. Ever since I was a child, I have had a very conflicted relationship with food, and when I was twenty-four I developed bulimia, which would last for the next sixteen years. Now, at the age of forty-eight, I had been free of the disorder for eight years, but I was still unable to prepare real meals like most mothers. Instead, I kept easy-to-prepare breakfast and luncheon foods in the house and ordered our dinners out. On this August day, my two younger children, Brandon, then twelve, and Kristina, then ten, were outside playing with friends. My oldest son, Rob, then fourteen, was with his father on a camping trip, which somehow made the receipt of these legal documents all the more threatening. I wanted to gather them in my arms and protect us all from the storm on the horizon.

I felt more alone than I had ever been in my life. In the time it took to read a single page, written of course in the most threatening language of all, the lawyer's tongue, I was engulfed by real terror. He's got a lawyer and they're going to take me to court, I said to myself. They're going to do everything they can to take my children away from me. They're going to attack and embellish every flaw in my character, every mistake I have ever made. What am I going to do? What can I do? I've got to get a lawyer. Whom can I call? Where do I find the right one? Can I even afford a lawyer? Can I defend myself against all that he knows?

Similar questions probably popped into your mind on the terrible day when the bad news arrived, or may still be haunting you if you are still at the outset of your custody suit. Whether you realize it or not, this is one of the most dangerous moments in the entire child custody process. What you do after you receive those papers will determine to a great extent the tone, character, and outcome of your custody battle. It will determine how much the suit costs you, and how you and your children are affected by this process. In other words, once you receive the papers, you are vulnerable. Be careful. Don't do anything until you understand all that you are facing and what every step in the process will mean.

The first thing you must do is hire an attorney to represent you. Before you start calling friends, relatives, or the local bar association for referrals, you must understand how much your attorney can influence what you face, for good or ill. In fact, this knowledge should help you determine which lawyer you choose to represent you. In this chapter, I want to tell you what you need to know before you start interviewing lawyers. Right now, you may think that this battle is exclusively between you and your former husband. It's not. The battle is often four-sided. The contestants are you, your former husband, your lawyer, and his lawyer.

In a very real sense, you and your former husband can become pawns of your respective attorneys, who may have their own objectives — objectives antithetical to yours and your children's. It's your job to secure the right lawyer, one who will represent your concerns and those of your children before his own. To find the right attorney, you must first understand what many lawyers care about in custody battles.

• THE LAWYER'S INTERESTS ARE NOT NECESSARILY • YOUR INTERESTS

You must keep in mind, above all, that you and your former husband have the health, well-being, and future of your children at stake. You may also have some property issues to work out. Many lawyers, unfortunately, have one overriding interest: their fees, You might argue that they also have their reputations at stake, but as one lawyer informed me, reputation is not nearly as important as you might think, especially if you live in a big city, "If you practice in a big city," this attorney told me, "you're always going to have clients, because the city itself is too big for word to spread, and of course the population is changing and usually growing. Unless you create a scandal that appears in the news-papers and on television, your business is pretty safe."

Obviously, it is in the best interests of your children, you, and your former husband to resolve your case quickly, preferably within thirty to sixty days. However, there is a very real temptation for lawyers to extend your case for as long as possible, for the simple reason that they make more money the longer your case runs. Lawyers can extend a case in a variety of ways, and they can do so with complete impunity.

Ironically, you can even abet them in their efforts if you do not understand the many behaviors that you, your husband, and the lawyers can engage in that will protract your custody battle. You should never lose sight of the fact that the longer the battle goes on, the greater the pain caused to your children, to you, and to your former husband.

I am not mentioning your former husband out of altruism, I do so only to be realistic. The more upset both of you become with each other, the more vulnerable you are to self-destructive emotions and behavior, especially anger and revenge. As the emotions become more intense, as the stakes get higher, and as the demands become more intractable, the length of the proceedings will extend. Meanwhile, the human and financial costs will increase and it will become increasingly difficult to reach a settlement out of court.

• HOW LAWYERS CHURN A CUSTODY CASE •

By their very nature, custody cases are adversarial situations, meaning that one parent is pitted against the other. Both people have already failed at working out a life together, which is why they are divorced and embroiled in a custody battle. This means that they have negative and often hostile feelings about each other sitting just below the surface, waiting to emerge. All your lawyer has to do is go to your former husband's attorney and make a lot of outrageous demands in order for the underlying feelings to surface. Your former husband's attorney then comes back with a set of equally exaggerated counterdemands, which anger and terrify you. Now you have a lot of emotion to resolve before the two of you can start talking sanely to each other. Meanwhile, the two attorneys can make matters even worse by taking additional depositions from you and your former husband. Those depositions often make both of you mad and entrench you even more deeply in your respective demands, making compromise all the more difficult to reach. In effect, the process actually drives the two parents further apart. With the encouragement of both lawyers, you and your former husband are now building a wall between the two of you, a wall that ultimately will come down on one or both of your heads — and the heads of your children.

I am reminded of one of those street fights in which the two combatants are being egged on by their so-called friends. In the legal profession, such behavior is referred to as churning a case, meaning that both lawyers stir the emotional pot just enough to get the two parties angry at each other. It is done every day in tens of thousands of cases. The lawyers, of course, are protected from any accusations from you, because they can argue that their opening gambit was merely a negotiating strategy designed to get the most for their clients. In fact, that strategy, either inadvertently or by design, inflames the emotions, polarizes the parents, and extends the process. Meanwhile, the lawyers are billing you for outrageous sums of money for every minute they even consider your name.

But higher legal fees are not the only cost. As compromise and settlement become more and more unlikely, the situation becomes more and more complicated and destructive. Ultimately, of course, you will wind up in court, where things can really get ugly.

The courts are overcrowded, which often means that your case may not be heard for at least six to nine months. Very often the case may not get to court for more than a year, perhaps two. {My own case took, eighteen months before a judge made a decision.)

However, long before you get to court, there will be more depositions, interrogatories, and investigations into your life, your children's lives, and your former husband's life by court-appointed psychotherapists and human resource personnel. As I will explain in greater detail later in this book, these people will evaluate every detail of your life and the lives of your children. These investigations are not only disruptive but often personally injurious.

As the proceedings drag on, emotions become frayed, hostilities increase, and demands become more intractable. The level of stress becomes unbearable — not just for you but for your children.

At some point, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem, which is an attorney who will represent your children. If the court appoints such an attorney, you will have no choice but to hire that person, at your and your former husband's expense. The cost of such a lawyer can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. The purpose of the guardian ad litem is to represent your children's interests. This attorney will sit down with your children and ask them about their lives, their present living arrangements, and whom they want to live with after the proceedings conclude. The lawyer will also determine if the children have any special need for legal representation. Their answers may have an impact on the judge's decision, but they are rarely decisive. The judge will decide whom the children will live with on a much wider range of evidence. Ironically, the guardian ad litem may not render any specific service to your children at all. Many parents get a letter and perhaps a phone call telling them that a guardian ad litem has been appointed, but that may be all they ever hear from such a person.

My own experience is that the guardian ad litem is a costly and useless appendage to the process. In the end, the guardian ad litem will do little or nothing for your children except add to their stress and your own. The attorney will merely complicate matters, being just another person to place in your schedule and to make sure your children meet, if in fact he or she deigns to meet your children at all. And after the suit is over, the lawyer presents you with a significant legal bill. In my case, the guardian ad litem actually slowed down and complicated the process, making it more costly in every way for all of us.

Still, the demands placed on you mean nothing to many lawyers. Their ultimate goal is to move the process all the way to a court hearing and a judge's decision because that's the point at which the legal costs will have reached their maximum.

Many women find themselves in situations in which their lawyers are churning their cases. Attorneys are able to do this because they know the women they represent are terrified of losing their children and will do almost anything to keep that from happening. They have their clients over a barrel and they know just how to work the system to achieve maximum benefit — for themselves!

Women inadvertently fall into the lawyer's trap by thinking that they must be tough with their former husband, especially at the outset of their negotiating process. Being tough translates for many women into being intractable and angry. What women forget is that the more intransigent they become, the higher the financial and emotional toll is to themselves and their children. Certainly it takes two to reach a settlement. And former husbands are usually just as intractable, if not more so. After all, they are usually the ones that initiate the lawsuit. So there's good reason to be angry, hurt, and demanding. There's also a natural desire for revenge. But there's a big difference between having those feelings and basing your strategy upon them. If you have an attorney who wants to churn your case, he or she will play on those emotions, which will only make matters more complicated, expensive, and painful.

My purpose in this chapter is to help you avoid that situation. Here's how you can do it.

• FINDING THE RIGHT LAWYER •

The best place to start in your search for the right lawyer is by asking friends, business associates, a family doctor, clergy, or other lawyers for a referral. Ask people you trust and respect. Do not hire someone who is shouting the loudest on television or in the yellow pages. Very often these people are more hype than substance. At the very least, you do not know what you are getting. Remember, your children are on the line here. Try to avoid hiring someone who doesn't come highly recommended.

Places to look for a lawyer, especially if you are concerned about costs — and who isn't? — include the following:

• Local legal aid societies

• County courthouses and their "lawyer of the day" programs

• Battered women's shelters

• Mediation programs and counselors

There is a reference available in most libraries called the Martindale Hubbell Law Directory that rates attorneys. A lawyer with an A rating is considered preeminently qualified; B is eminently qualified; C is qualified. Each state's bar association reports any disciplinary actions taken against an attorney, but these reports — or the lack of them — are a poor guide, since even bad lawyers usually avoid disciplinary action by local bar associations.

In general, you want someone with a quiet, understated competence. You do not want anyone who is attempting to make a name for himself by trying your case in the newspapers. For the same reason, you do not want a high-profile attorney, one who by his very nature attracts attention. A child custody suit can be among the most humiliating experiences you will ever undergo. You want to hire someone who is sensitive and discreet, who can keep your experience private, and who is able to support you as you go through a very trying time.

Do not hire a friend unless your friend happens to be the best family attorney in the country — and even then think twice. Never choose a lawyer who is a friend of your husband. He or she will be compromised from the start. If you have a friend who is a lawyer, ask him or her for a referral.

You want to hire the best and most competent attorney that you can afford. You are about to be thrown into the lion's den. Hire a person who has been there before and has come away from the ordeal with the client's children safely in hand. You should not hire anyone exclusively on the basis of sex, race, ethnic background, or religion. Be very clear with yourself that such factors mean nothing when it comes to a person's competence. However, you should ask yourself whether you feel more comfortable talking to a woman than to a man, or to someone of the same ethnic origin, race, or religious affiliation. I ask you to consider these factors only because you need to talk openly and honestly to this person and because communication is second only to competence. If you feel that you can talk more openly with a woman, or with a man for that matter, then let that be one of many factors that you consider in deciding which attorney will represent you.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Winning Custody"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Deedra B. Hunter, M.S., L.M.H.C., and Tom Monte.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Deedra B. Hunter, M.S., L.M.H.C., lives in Maitland, Florida, where she has been a mental health professional for more than twenty years. She is the founder of Custody Coaches, a group of lawyers and therapists who help women cope with the issues and traumas of custody battles.

Tom Monte is a popular health writer. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including World Medicine: The East-West Guide to Healing Your Body, The Touch of Healing, with Alice Burmeister, and Recalled by Life, with Anthony J. Sattilaro. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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