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

Posted by: Shel 23 Comments

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??

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  • Broderick

    It is totally wrong to jail a child because he or she doesn’t want to there non custodial parent. I feel that the parent should be held accountable for there actions. There is nothing to gain. My friends step kids would not see there father because of the things that the mother said about the father but now that the kids are in high school now the realize that what there mother was say was far from the truth and now they are living with the father which is a great father. The kids communicate with there mother but will not spend time with her.
    So parents dont win when they think they do when they try to put a wedge between the kids and the noncustodial parent.
    Now my kids tell me when there mother say bad things about me because they know its not true. My 13 year old son has said to me that mom has really been mistreating him and i know this for a fact because she did it when we were together. He left the house to come to my house and she stopped him and said to him, so you want to go stay with that homeless low life well when i started paying child support i had to let go of a lot of things like my car and home i was renting because i could not afford it and she has in text messages called me a low life bum that cant stay in one place.
    Like i said in the end parents talking about each other to gain the upper hand always lose bad because the kids suffer tremendously.

  • Proudstepmama

    Interesting story. I can tell you that in our particular county, the “bad apple” parents like those you describe are definitely making it harder for the rest of us who are moving through the family court system with nothing but the purest of intentions. In the recently concluded custody case involving my teenage stepson, my husband and I could tell from the beginning that the court officials suspected we’d been trying to “poison” him against his mother when we requested more time with him. In reality, my stepson, a thoughtful and mature young man, had come to the decision, completely on his own, that he didn’t want to spend as much time in his mother’s residence due to her untreated mood disorder and the emotional trauma he’d suffered as a result. The court officials spent an extreme amount of time picking apart what the three of us were reporting to them, and at times it didn’t seem like they believed anything we said, which was highly frustrating (one of the officials had the nerve to suggest to us that since my stepson’s mother has a college degree and a full-time job, that she can’t be “that sick.” This came from a professional counselor, whom you’d think would know better than that!) After almost a year, they apparently came to the realization that my stepson had legitimate reason for wanting a change, and that none of it had been “planted” by his father or me. We were awarded more time with him, but it seemed like the court was unfairly biased against us the whole way, and it caused my stepson to feel no one at the courthouse was truly listening to him, or cared about his well-being.

    • Shel Harrington

      That does, indeed, sound like a frustrating situation! I’m glad that it ended well, but I’m sorry you all had to go through that to get there.

  • This is so interesting, Shel. My daughter just paid $500 down payment for an impartial Guardian ad litem. Then, a bunch of money for her own lawyer over concerns for my grandson’s visitation and shared custody issues with a rather troubling father of her youngest son. I have mentioned, in my own experiences as a single Mom that it pays to be kind to ex, complimenting and mentioning positives of the other person. There were reasons why you chose add omeone, let your child know what they were. My first ex was a great cook and is generous at Christmas. My second wrote a book, liked hiking and was really good at reading bedtime stories. My daughter is still hurt and not ready to go this direction but has been at least not “slamming” him. 🙂 Great post and advice. Jail time or Juvie Hall is not the right answer. Counseling is better for families, a Guardian or neutral party situation.

    • Shel Harrington

      It sounds like you’ve set a great example, Robin, that hopefully your daughter will gravitate to after some of the pain has dulled. It’s such a difficult process – bad for the parents, worse for the child that loves them both. And I agree with you – child detention just isn’t a resolution that benefits anybody!

  • A child should never pay for their parent’s selfish behavior. This may sound harsh, but people like this couple, should never have had children. Thank you for going deeper into this sad, sad story, Shel.
    I still can’t figure out why I’m not receiving your post notifications. I’ll try to subscribe again.

    • Shel Harrington

      I understand your sentiment, Jill!

      I don’t get the disconnect either! There will be a new post in an hour or so – if you don’t get it you’ll know WordPress is still being obstinate! Frustrating.

  • While journalism is supposed to be unbiased reporting of the facts, headlines are designed to grab the reader’s attention and they often misrepresent the information in the article. And seldom does any article tell the full story. You were wise to do some more digging to get to the bottom of the situation.

    • Shel Harrington

      It’s so frustrating to hear reporting like that. The result was horrible, but unless we have an honest conversation about how the judge ended up making that wrong decision, mom gets to keep playing victim to both the media and the children. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

  • Amazing post, Shel. From the original premise to the layers of information, this was real fodder for consideration. The first facts are rarely the full picture.

    • Shel Harrington

      Ugly stuff, isn’t it? Years ago, my husband was in a building that was struck by a tornado. I was pinned in a basement with only a radio for information and no way to contact my husband. A reporter stated the building “had been decimated” and “no one could have possibly survived” and that search and rescue had “now turned to recovery efforts.” I’m sure you can imagine my reaction. Hours later I (thank God in the most literal sense) found out she was wrong. Not mistaken – just wrong. Yapping to fill air time without the facts. I have had a healthy mistrust of media reporting ever since – there’s always more to the story than what we can possibly get in their 3-minute (or less) news blurbs!

  • Gina

    Very well done Shel. Thank you for articulating this so well, and so kindly. After 20-yrs, I don’t see an easy answer, but I know that jail isn’t it. In one of my cases, a parent went to jail for 6-mo or so (after being admonished by the court many times), only to start it right back up upon release, which resulted in the child claiming sex abuse. It only made the jailed parent a hero, who, in the child’s eyes, went to jail rather than give up on trying to “save” the child.

    If what I read was accurate, one of the most telling parts of this was when he was at the park on a supervised visit. The mother kept circling the park, and eventually tried to take them away in her car. With that action, she told the kids that it was okay to disobey the court. Her presence, if not her words, told the children that they should be afraid and defiant. So very sad.

    • Shel Harrington

      You’ve had way too much first-hand experience with this dynamic, Gina. One of my major concerns about the children going to juvie here was that it would reinforce to the children that dad was a horrible person who was totally responsible for all that is miserable. Sad, indeed!

  • Kay

    Children should not go to jail for refusing to visit a parent. Even though this is not realistic, parents should probably be the ones having to go to jail for creating the negative/hate circumstances making the kids not wanting to visit them. My heart aches for children whose parents are going through divorce. It has to be a very insecure tough time for them, even if both parents have a good relationship.

    • Shel Harrington

      I agree 100{2303b849a176fc4c55cbcb5b49f44c0b6a86ba83e746fb3d962701d1b8d54085}, Kay!

  • kim powless-johnson

    Well written Shel.
    as someone who has/is dealing with this situation with two of my children, one 19 1/2 and has nothing to do with me and a 16 year old who says he has no feeling for me, your information was right on point.
    This mind control happens over time and is subtle. Other articles i have read refers to this behavior by parents who engage this behavior as CHILD ABUSE!! And it does significant damage to the child involved. They are not allowed to have both parents in their lives, but must choose one to the exclusion of the other. As a parent who has had a child alienated and trying desperately to hold on to the others, I can’t express the pain I feel for my children. Children such as these should not be the ones punished. They are already being punished, and will carry the scars Inflicted on them for the rest of their lives!

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m so sorry for what you have had to deal with,Kim – I can’t imagine the loss. I know you really understand the dynamic going on with the family in this article. And you’re right – the children will deal with the repercussions of that dynamic for years to come.

  • Gosh Shel – what an excellent thought provoking article! As someone who has seen defective people parenting defectively for many years I know the ultimate losers are the children who grow into adults with all kinds of trust, safety, personal and generational abuse issues that years of counseling can fail to heal! I grew up that way myself and have worked to help heal people who were victims of such parents on and off for a long time. I really believe that the only way to change things is to change the parents pattern of behaviour. Putting anybody in jail doesn’t help!

    • shaundre

      Parental munipulation What does a parent do when the other is trying to get the kid or kids to pick sides? I’ve witnessed a child say one parent loves me more because they buy more gifts and take me on more vacations than the other parent ? Its sad the kid suffers at the parents cost

      • Shel Harrington

        That is sad, Shaundre. A child who is taught that getting/giving stuff is required to prove love is being groomed to have dysfunctional adult relationships.

    • Shel Harrington

      God bless the work you do, Pauline! I agree with you that changing the parental behavior is the only thing that will work. I do think, however, that sometimes jail time, or the threat thereof, can be just the little motivation a selfish parent needs to encourage that change!

  • Divorce with children is always difficult, especially when one or both parents try to force the children to take sides. Children should never be punished for undue influence of a parent….the parent should suffer the consequences. I’m glad you took the time to research the case and expose the truth behind the headline. So sad.

    • Shel Harrington

      I agree, Patti – the kids were behaving in a way they were taught and the teacher-parent should be the one with consequences. Unfortunately, the children deal with the life consequences regardless of who suffers the legal consequences.

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