When Parents Separate, Family Courts Make Bad Situations Worse

Published by EducationNews.org — The legal system is about winning and losing, not about helping a broken family heal.


A Chicago firefighter and the mother of their 10-year old daughter Alyssa agreed to live close to each other so Dad could see his child every day.  The extended family, especially two doting grandpas, wrapped themselves around the girl and her parents — the picture of a modern, amicably-separated family.

Then Mom got an appealing work opportunity in Hawaii.  Bill Heenan, Dad, wasn’t thrilled, but figured that since the job was temporary, Mom and Alyssa should have a tropical adventure.  After the move, though, communication slowed to a crawl.  Then Mom found a permanent position out there.  Whoa!  That was totally not okay.  Now angry, Heenan ordered Mom to bring the girl back, or else.  She chose “or else.”  They both got lawyers.  And so war began.

Every year couples head to Family Court armed with lawyers who fight for the best deal for their client.  With or without legal marriage, the Law treats couples mainly as an economic institution.  Courts adjudicate the division of property and arrangements for the children.  The legal system is about winning and losing, and certainly not about helping the broken family heal.

So, kids become pawns and bargaining chips.  As if the family break-up is none of their business, kids have no role, except on paper, somewhat like property.  Even the parents themselves have limited roles in Court, since the lawyers speak for their clients.

Dad won custody.

But while his lawyer was happy-dancing about the victory, Heenan was miserable.  Moving Alyssa to Chicago, away from her mom, would rip the extended family apart irreparably.  The girl would resent him.  He was in a lose-lose situation.

In a unique twist of fate, though, their wise judge, Martha Mills, also foresaw misery on this family’s horizon.  She was interested in restorative justice (RJ), whose focus is healing.  As such, she knew that two members of Chicago’s RJ community, Peter Newman and Elizabeth Vastine, had begun to facilitate restorative “conferences,” which offered families the opportunity to sort out their issues themselves in a structured, supported conversation.  Both family-law lawyers themselves, Newman and Vastine had seen so much social carnage in the wake of Court decisions that they felt compelled to offer families an alternative to winning and losing.  Mills sent the Heenan family to them.

When Heenan opted to go to conference, his lawyer freaked.  They’d won, for God’s sake!  What’s not to like?  The lawyer stormed out.  Who needs clients who can’t enjoy vengeance?  Mills and Heenan were hoping the conference facilitators could help them craft an agreement that worked better for everyone involved.

Mom and Alyssa had come from Hawaii for the Chicago Court dates.  To get them back to work and school ASAP, Newman and Vastine had to speed through the preparatory conference work.  They did add that in their experience, well-prepared conferences were the most successful.  At the conference meeting, the two grandpas were able to join Mom, Dad and Alyssa.

During the long meeting, Alyssa talked a lot.  She talked about liking her friends in Hawaii, liking her school, and hating feeling torn between one parent and the other.  Couldn’t they figure out how to stay in touch?  Work out visits?  Dad utterly lost it, crying audibly, until Alyssa held up the “talking piece” to remind him that it was her turn.  Poor upset Dad pulled himself together.

At one point the grandpas took Alyssa out for food to allow her parents to get into gritty money issues.  Dad had been paying child support, but was vehemently unwilling to touch the college fund he’d started years earlier.  He’d had little education and wasn’t going to let that happen to Alyssa.  But by allowing some of the college fund to pay for flights between Hawaii and Chicago, the adults managed to negotiate regular visits.  The grandpas were very happy.  Alyssa had a great visit with her big Chicago family.  And the conference ensured that her future graduations and other family gatherings could be happy occasions.

But the last, fabulous twist in this story drives home the incalculable value of healing family ties.  Mom got cancer.  A bad one.  For the first round of treatments, Heenan’s dad stayed with Alyssa in Hawaii while Mom was in the hospital.  But the aggressive cancer returned.  Heenan’s new wife, now Step-mom, researched extensively and found cutting-edge Chicago doctors using promising new techniques.  Mom stayed with Heenan’s dad while undergoing treatment there.  In the end, they couldn’t save her, but her illness galvanized the family.  Grandpa even moved to Hawaii to allow Alyssa to finish high school there.

None of that good stuff would have happened if Heenan had just taken his custody settlement and asserted his legal rights.  The legal system has its time and place, but efforts towards social healing should always be tried first.  Cynics can scoff, but actually, happy ending are possible.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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