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The Impact of High Conflict Cases in Family Court: Are you tattling or telling?

Every lawyer currently practicing family law has those one or two, or a few dozen, cases in which the parties are at each other’s throats. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and speak for the entire profession when I say: high conflict parties aren’t doing themselves any favors.

First things first, if there are children involved, parents need to accept and understand that you will always be in each other’s life. Even after the youngest child has turned eighteen and left home, you will be in each other’s life. Parents will encounter each other during college graduations, weddings, serious illnesses, birth of grandchildren, major holidays and other family celebrations. Unless you want your children to dread your presence at these life events, you have to figure out how to get along with the other parent. Not to mention, once children are old enough to recognize that the parents are in conflict, a realization that occurs surprisingly early; the children forever feel as though they are center of the conflict. As a family Court’s legal obligation is to act in the best interests of the child, the Court will not look favorably on parties that are placing the child in the center of the conflict.

Growing up, my mother was an elementary school teacher, she spent a great deal of time teaching her second-grade students, every year, that there was a difference between “tattling” and “telling”. “Telling” is for when someone is about to hurt themselves or someone else, and needs to be stopped. “Tattling” is when you are trying to get someone else into trouble. There are a lot of adults in conflict, who don’t seem to understand the difference. The courts however, understand the difference very well.

The Courts don’t particularly care if one party is habitually twenty minutes late to an exchange, or if the other parent fails to keep the same bedtime schedule on the weekends, or doesn’t wash the child’s clothes before returning them, or happens to buy the child more Christmas presents then you do, etc. Reporting offenses like this to the Court is “tattling”, as it is designed to get the other side into trouble with the Court. Offenses like this are minor, and while they might be extremely inconvenient, they do not actually cause harm to anyone except one’s ego. Therefore, only if you happen to be very, very lucky and your particular judge is in a strange mood, will tattling on the other side have a positive effect in court for you. More often than not, you are simply going to annoy your judges. The main concern for the Courts is that the children are safe, loved, and receiving age appropriate care. If the other parent’s parenting style simply doesn’t match your own; unfortunately, that’s a problem you’re just going to have to live with. However, the Courts will be very concerned if the parents are actually fighting about their differences in parenting styles; and creating a high tension, or hostile environment around the children.

Now, if one side is neglecting the child and the child is always injured during that parent’s parenting time, or if one parent is always under the influence of alcohol or an illegal substance when the child is in his or her care, or if the other parent is habitually berating or emotionally abusing the child, or if one parent has destroyed all of the child’s possessions so the other is forced to replace the items; these actions actually cause harm to the child. Actions that actually cause harm, are the types of things the Courts needs to know. Reporting harmful actions to the Court is “telling” because one side is engaged in harmful and damaging behaviors that needs to be stopped.

High conflict cases most often contain an unhealthy mix of both offenses; those that cause actual harm and those that cause hurt feelings and bruised egos. Judges will take action in both situations, but if you are guilty of “tattling” judges are just as likely to take action against the reporting party for not attempting to cooperate and letting bygones be bygones. In general, if one wants to be viewed as the innocent party, and escape the various sanctions available from the Court; it is best to actually be an innocent party. Try to get along when and where you can.

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