Should Children go to Jail for Refusing to Visit a Parent?

Should Children go to Jail for Refusing to Visit a Parent?

Should children go to jail for refusing to have a relationship with one of their divorced parents? That’s close to what happened recently in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Oakland County Circuit Judge Lisa Gorcyca, seeming to be at her wit’s end with three children, ages 14, 10 and 9, who refused to comply with her order to have lunch with their father, were found to be in Direct Contempt of Court. They were sentenced to do “time” in a juvenile facility until they comply with the judge’s directive or until further order from the court – which Judge Gorcyca stated may stay in place until the children are eighteen.

I don’t know Judge Gorcyca  or any of the participants in this case. Like most others who see the headline about children being thrown in jail for not wanting to visit a parent, I was shocked enough to do a double take. As a Family Law attorney, I immediately asked myself: “What’s the REST of the story here?”

Reading the article at Yahoo Parenting and hearing the Detroit’s Fox Station report still left me with more questions. How could a family law judge who cared about children throw them in jail just because they felt strongly about not visiting with a parent? Especially when one, the 14-year-old, states that he has seen his father be violent and hit his mother?

It was only when I read the transcript from the actual proceedings that I started to get the bigger picture. It was clear this judge had been dealing with this family for years. She believed the children had been brainwashed by their mother who, apparently, has consistently been negative about the children’s father and has reinforced and encouraged their hostility toward him. “Parent Alienation” is a term often used to describe such conditioning. Not being a psychologist, I’m not going to try and explain that term with regard to any psychological criteria it may involve, but as a Family Law attorney who frequently represents children as a Guardian Ad Litem, I can tell you I have had first-hand experience with such damaging parental behavior.

From what I have witnessed, one parent deliberately undermining the relationship between the children and the other parent is often a result of a parent hating the other spouse to the point that they can’t (or choose not to) see the damage their venomous behavior has on the children. They hate the other parent more than they are concerned with the emotional well-being of their children. Although most parents engaging in such behavior will swear that they are doing it for their children, to protect their children from that other horrible parent. The deliberate creation of the “us against him/her” culture can be a bonding force between children and a parent which the offending parent selfishly enjoys. When the outcast parent is a good person who really loves the children, it is a devastating loss for children.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, following are examples I’ve heard from parents talking to children I have represented. Imagine each being said over and over in different ways and reinforced by other like sentiments:

  • He doesn’t love you, he’s only trying to get custody so he doesn’t have to pay child support;
  • She’s only trying to get custody to get back at me because she knows that I can’t live without you kids;
  • I’m the one who has always been there for you and cared for you – he wanted me to have an abortion and I refused because I loved you so much;
  • Mommy would be so, so sad if you had to go live with him, I would cry every day that you were gone – and he’s trying to take you away from me.

So, when someone with years of experience in dealing with such-minded people sees the damage being caused to children who are being taught to harbor hatred toward someone who loves them, is there any way possible they can undo that damage? Apparently Judge Gorcyca fervently hoped that if the children just had lunch with their father, there would be potential for the relationships to take a turn. But the kids weren’t having it. Even though the mother (apparently for the first time) was encouraging the children to do as the judge was ordering, the children just would not. Even in a desperate moment the mother couldn’t undo the conditioning she had fostered that, the judge implied, had gone on for years.

Defying a judge’s order while in court is, indeed, Direct Contempt of Court – punishable in most states by both fines and incarceration. The judge in this case actually sentenced each of the children to be housed in a juvenile facility called Children’s Village, emphasizing they would have to use public bathrooms, lose all comfort, and not see their mother or their siblings. At the time of the article, the children had been incarcerated for two weeks and their mother (and anybody on her side) was prohibited from visiting.

Is this going too far? What are the alternatives if counseling doesn’t work and the offending parent will not cooperate in facilitating a relationship between the children and the other parent? From the children’s point of view, doesn’t it seem like this is just one more horror that is the father’s fault, thus, increasing their animosity toward him? Is there a way to punish the offending parent without punishing the now-defiant children?

There are way more questions than answers here. Indefinite incarceration for children who are behaving as a parent taught them to behave doesn’t seem to be a good answer. But in spite of the fact that I think the judge got this ruling wrong, I see the emotion that drove her there – my guess is it started because of how much she cared for children.

If you want to refer to this as a rant, know that it’s not a rant about a judge who screwed up and, in my opinion, should modify a particular ruling. It’s a rant about selfish parents who get so consumed by their own animosity for the other parent – whether justified or not – that they cruelly take away the child’s other parent by deliberately alienating the child from that parent. They let their children think that one half of the team that created them is scum. What, long term, does that child think of himself? How does that prepare daughters and sons to have healthy relationships with future spouses and offspring? How does it accomplish anything good for anybody – except maybe creating satisfaction for the parent who “won” by getting his or her children to hate the ex-spouse with the same intensity that he or she does?

This article has nothing to do with domestic abuse and other terrible situations spouses sometimes find themselves in – circumstances that require they protect their children. This article is about parents who use society’s loathing for such situations to their advantage by manufacturing facts and manipulating children to accomplish their end goals of punishing their exes – or just getting those exes out of the picture any way they can so they don’t have to share the children.

Who should REALLY go to jail under such circumstance??

Shel Harrington

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