During a presentation to teachers in Houston, Texas Charlotte Hardwick author of the “Win Your Child Custody War” manual and six other books on child custody, addressed the problems that school teachers encounter when a student is the object of a child custody case.
The affects of child custody battles on children and their school performance, behavior, and morale, are increasingly apparent. As the new school year starts a child entering your classroom may introduce himself as a previous student’s younger brother, and add the information that the older child now lives in a different home because of a divorce. An accomplished student’s grades take a nose-dive, and you find out that she no longer has the advantage of a two parent home, and her remaining parent must be absent from the home to work additional hours to make ends meet. Verbal and physical confrontations between parents, in the presence of the children at parent-teacher conferences, school functions, drop off and pick up from school to facilitate parental custodial visitation have become more common in recent years.
The long term ramifications for the children, parents, teachers, schools and administrations are so dire that it's best for teachers to have an action plan. Professionals wonder about an appropriate level of involvement, how to protect themselves from legal entanglements, and how to keep the stress of the situation from impacting their classroom time.
Most of all, how can teachers help the child?
First of all, it's best to be proactive. Be sure you have a clear understanding of your school's and districts’ policies regarding the handling of custody disputes from within the classroom and when things require the input of your supervisor. If you know these procedures before the situation arises, you have a better chance of avoiding missteps that might jeopardize your employment.
When you suspect a custody dispute in the life of one of your students, inform your supervisor, principal or school counselor. Keeping everyone on the same page will help everyone to do their jobs more effectively.
It's possible that one parent or the other may ask for your support in the legal fight. It's best not to take sides. Your district may have specific policies regarding what you can and cannot say and do, but in general, it's best to avoid supporting one parent or the other with letters or opinions in any way.
If you must become involved, attempt to keep your input professional and child-centered. The books Win Your Child Custody War and Child Custody Letters have examples of letters teachers have written to the court.
Sometimes teachers are subpoenaed into custody hearings. In this case, stick strictly to the facts of your observations of the child at school and your personal interactions with the parents. Leave out anything that gives opinions or could be construed as hearsay. Be truthful, but remember that you do not have to volunteer any details that you are not specifically asked to address.
On the practical side, custody battles can make daily classroom life difficult. Be sure you understand who actually holds legal custody of the child, and release the child only to that person or with that person's permission. Get administrative support if a noncustodial parent tries to pick up the child without permission. In situations with joint custody, try sending duplicate copies of school announcements, newsletters and the like to the parent having visitation rights. Inform the parent with primary custody that you are doing this. Invite the correct adults to any official school meeting, such as a parent conference or IEP meeting.
If parents are feuding to the point of not being in the same room together, try to facilitate some sort of alternating privileges at school functions to avoid scenes. Of course, you cannot deny a parent the right to attend the play or game, but you can suggest taking turns or sitting apart from each other to keep the peace. It does no one any good to have emotional or angry scenes in public over whose turn it should be to watch the show.
Helping the child is perhaps the most difficult part of the equation. Children caught in the middle of custody battles often experience strong emotions that they don't know how to handle. Keep the parent with current legal custody informed of your observations and actions. Be sure to help the child access school services, such as counseling, as needed. Watch for signs of emotional turmoil, such as changes in behavior, falling grades, social isolation and so forth and take action immediately if you notice them. Watch for signs of depression, anger management issues, or even excess stress, such as lethargy, changes in eating habits, decreased emotional control, and so forth. Be a good listener, and remember to nonjudgmental. Provide the child with appropriate avenues for self-expression, including art, puppetry and music.
With your guidance and sensitivity, hopefully you can avoid or minimize confrontations between feuding parents on school property. With your sharp eyes and compassionate observation, you should be able to monitor the child's well-being. You can guide the student into improved self-awareness and self-expression. You just may be one of the few stable points in the youngster's life, and that alone is worth a lot.