Bocott is a trial lawyer in North Platte, Nebraska. Bernet is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
A series of recent court decisions suggests Nebraska judges are losing patience with parents who violate child custody orders.
In the most recent case, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed a trial court decision that gave a mother a 60-day suspended jail sentence for “forcibly and intentionally placing the children of the parties in the middle” and then “using passive aggressive techniques to abrogate her obligations as the custodial parent.”
In this case, the trial judge found that the mother had encouraged her two sons, ages 16 and 15, to decide for themselves when to spend time with their father instead of following the schedule in their parenting plan.
In a second case, the Nebraska Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court decision that sanctioned a mother for violating several court orders.
Among other things, the mother encouraged her child to violate the parenting plan and violated a court order requiring both parents to facilitate counseling for their child. The court gave the mother suspended jail sentences of 48 hours and 30 days.
The trial court gave the mother an opportunity to avoid the 48-hour jail sentence if she wrote two statements — “I love my child more than I hate her father” and “I will never disobey an Order of this Court again” — 100 times each.
The court gave the mother an opportunity to avoid the 30-day jail sentence if she did not make disparaging remarks about the father in the child’s presence, stayed more than one mile away from the child’s school on days the father had parenting time and made sure the child attended scheduled appointments with her psychiatrist.
In a third case, a trial court stripped a mother of custody and awarded custody of the children to their father. The court found that the mother encouraged the children to violate the parenting plan and was alienating them from their father.
In response to the mother’s claim that it was up to her teenaged child to decide whether to see her father, the judge told the mother, “I’m going to tell you the law in Nebraska is very clear, 15-year-olds don’t make the decision about whether they attend visitation time with their parents or not.”
These cases are a welcome development. These behaviors are often red flags that a parent is trying to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent. This is extremely harmful to the child.
Research indicates that children who have been subjected to alienating behaviors by a parent are more likely, later in life, to have higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. These “adult children of parental alienation” frequently feel intense guilt and remorse if they realize they contributed to the rejection of one of their parents.
There are interventions for parental alienation.
When alienation is mild, a judge or a mental health professional might intervene by strongly admonishing the parents to respect each other’s relationship with the child and to encourage the child to enjoy his or her time with the other parent, and by sanctioning parents who don’t comply.
However, severe parental alienation usually constitutes child psychological abuse. When child psychological abuse has occurred, it may be necessary to remove the child from the custody of the alienating parent.
The Nebraska Supreme Court recently confirmed that trial judges have the authority to modify parenting plans in situations where the plans have been violated.
The judges in these cases acted appropriately. Unfortunately, some judges ignore these issues.
Judges need to take parenting plan violations seriously and should be quicker to modify them — including removing custody from alienating parents in appropriate cases.