How professionals can help when a co-parent is out of control
It is very important for the non-PD to not argue with the PD about anything.
It is hard, in the face of what the PD is saying, to not explode in a string of expletives. Even the most mild-mannered non-PD can be tweaked to the point of losing it. That is exactly what the PD wants. The PD is very experienced at being as master manipulator. DO NOT ARGUE WITH ONE. That is exactly what they want. Ignore, ignore, ignore.
It is essential that the non-PD construct as many boundaries as possible as to time, manner and content of communication.
Professionals assigned to combative couples (or “high conflict families” as they are called in certain legal circles) must learn to recognize when one person is trying to “up the ante.” Unfortunately, when the PD is stopped at just about any juncture, they have more stops on the manipulation train.
Usually when a PD is stifled, they will increase the barrage by introducing new, unfamiliar people to the scene such as teachers, churches, doctors or Child Protective Services. They try to enlist the aid of more outsiders when the usual outsiders start to grasp the reality of what is really happening in this troubled dynamic.
A PD will subject the children to investigation and scrutiny of CPS and others where no abuse or neglect exists on the part of the non-PD. The PD will instigate needless and traumatizing investigations and examinations by social workers, doctors and nurses and therapists. They are on a crusade to destroy the non-PD and subjecting their children to senseless disruption is part of the crusade. The scary part is that they see nothing wrong with it.
The public is told, whenever a child is hurt by a parent, and CPS has been involved, that the case workers are overloaded. Part of their overload is senseless reports that they have to deal with from vindictive and vengeful PDs. By taking caseworkers away from the children who need the attention to place it on children that don’t, PDs harm people – children – they don’t even know. This is part of the outrageousness that has to be seen for what it is: abuse of the system, abuse of the non-PD, and abuse of the children.
Making false reports to CPS is a crime in many states. The problem is that many non-PDs are so worn out, they don’t pursue it. These are things the PD banks on. It is a terrible thing when PDs waste the resources that need to be spent on children that really need the help of the authorities. Fight any unfair charges by CPS and file abuse of process and false CPS claims when possible. These things must be stopped.
CPS should look for litigious parents. They will take their other parent to court over anything and everything. THEY LOVE BEING IN COURT. As both an attorney and a mental health professional, I can tell you that only disordered people love being in court. And they lie. Lie lie lie. They lie to the police, to CPS, to Housing Court. Everyone. They lie in different courts. A good therapist, a good CPS worker, a good lawyer and a good judge will have staff keep an eye out for multiple cases and when they are about to lose a case, what gem of an excuse they come up with.
When their back is against the wall they will scream abuse, they will say they were never served…they will say someone else is to blame. It goes on and on and on…in different forums, different courts, different judges. Someone needs to put the pieces together. They know the system and they know that no one is watching. No one is seeing their total disregard for the system. And they have such disregard because they are playing it. So the system…all of them…are just suckers. They are smarter than everyone…they know the game and they play it. None of you can game them…they are better at it than everyone else. And unfortunately, I have seen so many therapists, so many parenting coordinators, so many judges – be completely owned by the PD. They get away with so much for so long because the system sees them as normal. But if one person stopped and gathered up all the professionals they are working with and all the different stories they have told and how many lies they have told and how many people they have blamed…even the most clueless person should be able to see it.
But they do things to shame others…they accuse people of abuse, sexual abuse, stealing, lying, cheating…so many things that no one wants to go to war over…it’s EMBARRASSING. But they lie to so many over so much and they need to be stopped. A good lawyer with a non-PD client should be able to track down all the stories, all the dockets, all the excuses and lies…and judges and parenting coordinators and CPS should be taking this seriously. And do something FAST. The system is painfully slow and these things should have a way to be fast tracked.
Even if they don’t take it that far, they still suck up resources wherever they can. One PD actually joined a nearby church, though he never had attended any church prior, and never mentioned having gone to church in his entire life. After only a few months in the church, he enlisted the help of his well-meaning but unskilled minister who believed every outlandish lie the PD told. The minister encouraged the PD to file another motion for full custody (the two previous ones had failed.) The attorney was beginning to understand the antics of the PD and bowed out of the case. The new attorney was convinced his client had been wronged and it was off to the races for all of them. The non-PD was flabbergasted when the motion for change of custody came. She could not believe they were there yet again.
The minister, who had no contact with the family prior to their divorce, testified to the “virtuous” nature of the PD and the despicable and “evil” nature of the non-PD. Over her lawyer’s objections, the minister detailed several incidents that never even happened, describing the PD as upset to the point where the minister had counseled him for hours in his distress and concern for his children. As incredulous as it all seemed to those of us versed in the rules of evidence, the judge allowed the minister to recite chapter and verse of the PD’s “plight” and the non-PD’s questionable character. This sort of grandstanding should not be allowed in child custody hearings. PDs are masters at pulling people into their sphere and recruiting them to fight in their crusade.
Another client fared better. When the PD ex literally cried to the judge that she could not bear to subject her children to her ex’s “ruthlessness” and that he would only “back off” from corporal punishment when she reminded him of the times he “went too far” during their marriage. The man had never “gone too far” and no allegations of any abuse of her or the children had ever been brought during the marriage. As soon as they separated she filed for a restraining order based on an assault that allegedly happened the night before.
When they went to court for a hearing to turn the temporary restraining order into a permanent one, he presented evidence that at the time of the alleged assault, he was on a plane 35,000 feet in the air. He had left her a voicemail that he was going to be out of town but she typically deleted his emails and voice mails and would later claim he was lying about sending them. At one point his attorney attempted to get a forensic analysis of her computer to find the deleted emails, but the judge denied it. So she continued to delete his emails and voice mails the minute they arrived, and this time it came back to haunt her. Had she known he was on a plane, she would have constructed her story a bit differently.
However, PD’s do not give up their narrative easily. They are convinced they are smarter than the rest of the world and this woman was no different. Despite being revealed as a liar, she claimed that she was merely confused from so many hits in the head by her ex.
She refused to back away from her story. She continued to maintain that he was abusive to her and the children throughout the marriage and continued to try to use it as leverage throughout the divorce and custody hearings. She also emailed him long, lengthy accusing, inflammatory emails detailing hosts of episodes that had never happened. He printed them all and presented them to the judge.
After reading through them, the judge came down hard on her and said she was harming all the actual victims of domestic violence with her pretense and if she accused him one more time of these made up assaults, he was going to penalize her.
The judge also went on record to say that when courts encourage email communication, it is to document exchanges between two people who cannot agree on parenting. Therefore, said the judge, there must be parameters around it. He stated that if she continued to maintain that he wasn’t sending emails, he would order a forensic examination of her computer. At the same time, her emails needed to be brief and to the point. And, by the way, there had to be a point, not useless ramblings.
However, I have met so many judges who leave orders too ambiguous, too open or try to lean too heavily toward the PD. You cannot give meaningless orders. The PD will pounce on that and give the meaning that HE or SHE wants it to have. I have seen PDs pull so much out of vague orders that they have the next judge’s head spinning or the parenting coordinator or the CPS worker or the therapist….if you are a judge and you leave it open to interpretation or you try to let them work things out, you are setting up the non-PD and the children. Judges have to work harder to make their Orders clear and concise. Also the PD will run the show if the judge allows it and way too often, the judge allows it and it needs to stop.
As I detailed in Parts 1 and 2, the judge said that most divorced couples are not co-parenting in an optimal way but they manage to do it without the involvement of a cadre of third parties. Those who need third parties, said the judge, obviously cannot be left, week after week, to their own devices. There must be clear limits and boundaries for these parents much more so than others. This judge would agree with me that a constant flow of email communication is unnecessary. Some couples, each upholding their end of the custody/support/visitation orders never have to talk about it. They just do it.
The welfare of the children depends upon the ability of a parenting coordinator, social worker or judge to quash the PD’s manipulation of everyone. If you are represented by an attorney, ask your attorney to make a motion laying out the parameters of emails and communication. If your ex uses exchanges to harass you, make a motion to have the exchange take place at the police station or a well-traveled location such as a mini mall. Look into getting a dash cam so that you can record the exchange. If you are self-represented, talk to attorneys who work for the court system (some states have family law coordinators, I was one when I went to school in California), and ask them to help you draft and file motions based on the following suggestions:
- If a parenting plan is in place and a parenting coordinator is assigned, the parenting coordinator needs to recognize that clear parameters for communication have to be drafted and followed.
- Parenting coordinators must understand that giving a PD unfettered email access to the other parent is like giving an arsonist a match.
- There must be some time/subject limitations on email. Email must be contained to a) important changes only b) limited number per week and c) limited word count per email. For example, email on Tuesdays and Thursdays only when something is pressing (schedule change, school event, financial obligation due). Email is restricted to 5 sentences MAX with information only. No opinions, insults, rehashing of past issues/incidents, barbs, etc.
- There must be no recounting of stories by the children (daughter told me you….), no personal attacks or accusations, no rehashing of the past. Clear “off-limit” topics must be drafted so there is no mistake as to what is and is not off topic. Other people are off-limits (other step children, new love interests, ex-in laws, friends etc.).
- Clear records should be kept as to the amount of texts or emails, phone calls, letters etc. if a new party is brought in, such as CPS or a doctor, the history of the communication should be readily available for them to understand the dynamics and history of the parties.
- There must not be any communication regarding anything but the children and their tangible needs (schedules, school, finances).
- How to discuss a disagreement should be crafted by the parenting coordinator. For example, the coordinator can draft clear guidelines for certain situations such as: If a parent fails to uphold their responsibility, the other should note it in an email in a non-accusatory way such as, “I noticed that you have not paid your half of the day camp bill, I will pay it if you agree to reimburse me by July 1.” If there is no answer or an insulting barrage, the parent should simply repeat the request and ignore everything else. On the third time, the parent should say, “I am going to pay the bill and would appreciate reimbursement by July 1. If I do not have the reimbursement, I will file for reimbursement through the court.” By crafting clear, well-defined procedures for dealing with violations to court orders, the coordinator helps everyone focus on the task at hand (supporting and caring for the children.)
- There is to be no communication except in a written form unless it is an emergency.
- If one parent uses child exchange to harass the other, the exchange should take place at a police station or video recorded or by third-parties. If a professional thinks that exchange at a police station is “too much” (as one client reported to me), they are not thinking in terms of the child’s welfare. Children do not need to know you’re in the parking lot of the police station. If that doesn’t work, suggest a public place such as a strip mall where others are around and no one will be subjected to harassment.
- The parenting coordinator monitors all email and if there are any violations of the rules, the violating parent is notified that continuation of the violation may bring a contempt of court charge.
- Parents should be discouraged from making conclusory allegations such as, “Your failure to comply with the parenting plan shows a lack of concern for our children.” All conclusions are to be drawn by the parenting “team” and not either of the individuals involved in the case.
- If a person cannot follow a parenting plan, a judge should look for alternatives such as angermanagement, parenting classes, therapyor a change in custody and visitation. The courts must limit the time, money and energy that PDs take up and get them help or figure out a way to suppress their dysfunctional acting out.
- Professionals should be more inclined to penalize for the abuse of the system, whether it’s the parenting coordinator, the courts or social services. There must be some penalty for the senseless waste or resources.
- Check the dockets. Check family court, housing court, traffic court, criminal court. Follow the PD through the system and let each judge and opposing side to the PD know what else the PD has going on. PDs leave lots of charred bodies in their wake and chances are the bodies don’t know about each other. Keep a reminder to yourself to check the dockets once a month (most are available via public websites). Look for rescheduling because the PD “didn’t receive an order,” or something similar and contact the opposing attorney and let them know how many times the PD pulled that one on you. Judges LIKE to know about litigious people. Let them know how many courts the PD is appearing in. Show the inordinate amount of times the PD just happened to not get served. Judges will listen to that kind of information. Clue in the attorneys and they will clue in the judges.
Parenting coordinators, judges, attorneys and social workers must learn to recognize when a parent is abusing the channels of communication. When one parent is allowed to send a constant barrage of emails that veer from the subject at hand, the PD is abusing the privilege of communication. If the PD cannot conduct him or herself in a business-like manner where the children are concerned, the parenting coordinator must step in and lend guidance to the PD as to how to conduct communication.
The parenting coordinator must redirect the PD to cease from all non-“matter at hand” communications. When parenting coordinators fail to intervene, they give the impression that this kind of all out attacking email communication is okay.
Another client was listening to the PD’s nightly telephone tirades over nothing. The court had granted temporary full custody to him and the PD was very angry. She called every night for hours and hours. If he hung up, she called back. His own lawyer told him to just “deal with it” as getting full, permanent legal custody would be an uphill battle and if he tried to rein her in, he might lose. Afraid to say anything, the non-PD listened to this night after night, often neglecting to help the children with homework or bedtime because he was directed to listen to this insanity.
The attorney’s advice was completely wrong. The PD was so unhinged there was almost no way for her to regain custody. After custody was decided in his favor, the PD was instructed to only call on Tuesday and Thursdays between 7 and 9 for 20 minutes tops. The judge was appalled at the number of calls, the length of calls and the content of the calls. Once restricted to 2 nights a week, the PD stopped calling at all. That is how to stifle the PD.
Clients depend on attorneys to give them good advice. Perhaps the attorney did think that not making waves was best for his client’s case, but he should have been keeping detailed records of the calls and even recording some (they were in a one-party state, meaning that it was legal in that state to record someone’s telephone conversation without their knowledge…check your state laws before you do that or advise that. In some states, it’s not legal – in other states it is.) If there is to be a “laying low” strategy, there has to be some benefit to it. The best thing to do here would have been to record the phone calls, keep detailed records of the phone calls, and later on present those to the judge. There also has to be some kind of request for the phone calls to stop, otherwise they may appear to be giving permission.
With both emails and telephone calls, the person being harassed should make an explicit, clear request, using “I” language (my books spell out the importance of using “I” language in communication), that the phone calls or emails stop. Do not accuse or use conclusory language (such as “this is harassment!”). Simply state, “I would appreciate it if you could confine your emails to the issue at hand. I would better understand the problem if it’s briefly defined. Please help me understand the issue by concisely defining the problem in two or three sentences. Thank you.” Don’t mention, “Stop insulting me! Just get to the point!” Even though that is hard.
For telephone calls, this client should have been advised to send a certified letter that simply said, “I am trying to get the children to bed and help with homework between the hours of 7 and 9. If you have an issue, please call and let me know, in a few sentences, what it is. I need to spend the rest of that time with the children. Thank you.” If the PD changes the time to later in order to conduct the inquisition, put in writing, “I appreciate your concern for the children but I need to get to sleep early so we can get up in the morning. Please confine your phone calls to between 9 and 9:30. Thank you.” Attorneys and coordinators need to teach these practical, useful guidelines to clients in order to effect peace in the communication. There is no reason for anyone to veer from these boundaries. They make sense. If a PD can’t live with them (and most of them can’t), let them whirl about it but don’t bend the rules. Not once, not ever.
To live a life in peace, a non-PD must have protection from the PD. Too often the thing that is needed is protective boundaries around how much the PD is able to say. By allowing the PD to have unfettered access to the non-PD couched in “co-parenting” is to leave the non-PD without any protection of any kind while no actual “co-parenting” is happening.
If parenting coordinators are not skilled at setting boundaries, they have no place being parenting coordinators to disordered parents who are making a mockery out of the concept of “parenting plan.” To protect the children, the non-PD must be protected from the manipulative, maniacal manifestos of the personality disordered. Without the support of the parenting coordinator, the non-PDs are placed in a very difficult, if not impossible, situation.
Most PDs are manipulative, insulting to the point of being verbally abusive, angry, accusatory and they perseverate on every past wound, real and imagined. Once the litigation is final and the courts are no longer involved, there should be no reason for either party to ever bring up the past to the other. If a parenting coordinator, attorney, judge or social worker sees the past being mentioned, they must counsel the writer that it is not acceptable.
To those of us who have worked with the psychologically challenged and have spent years counseling the non-PDs, we know that the PD’s victimhood is a carefully planned ruse designed to keep their well-honed claws deeply in their ex-partner.
It’s a hostage situation of the highest order. The initiation of a parenting plan and a parenting coordinator should be to protect the children and to protect the non-PD from the ruthless assault of the PD who will never “give it up.”
When courts and social workers refuse to take charge by directing the PD to limit non-essential communication and to act in a civilized, mature manner, they are fueling the dysfunction of the situation and being part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
The parenting team assigned to assist couples in parenting needs to be part of the solution. They can start by recognizing sickness for what it is and designing steps to minimize the impact on those it hurts the most: the children of the divorcing couple.
The well-being of the children gets lost in this thing. The PD uses the children as excuses to sidestep healthy boundaries and to pound on the table, allegedly, with their welfare in mind. The PD sprinkles, “I only care what your neglect does to the children!” throughout the communication. They use conclusory language to tarnish the image of their ex-partner. They only see the ex as the culprit and never feel anything but obligated to point this out. Their mission is to make their ex pay for whatever perceived sins have been committed over a long period of time. There is no relief in sight if the courts and parenting teams don’t assist in making it stop.
Harassing the parent of your child is never in the best interest of your child and if someone can’t understand that, they are not fit to be a parent. You must love your children more than you hate your ex. The PD cannot grasp that simple concept because love has nothing to do with their senseless and ceaseless diatribes.
Professionals who are tasked with intervening in situations that involve a personality disordered person have their work cut out for them, but with a clear plan in place, it can be done and must be done to protect the well-being of the children.
Copyright 2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
“I Teach What I Know. I Have The Degrees, but I Have The EXPERIENCE and I don’t ask anyone to do anything I have not done.”
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