Parents who stop visitation rights
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Parents who stop visitation rights

When they're fighting about me especially, I really feel like I just want to get away. - Matthew (a child). [Quote: Nancy Lee Greenfield, Advice For Parents Calming Your Child's Fears, 29 Fam. Advoc. 35 (2006-2007)]

Let me draw up an unfortunate common scenario involving visitation disputes: one of the parents unilaterally decides to stop visitation rights, that is, stops the child from being taken to see the other parent. What happens next? The other parent reports it at the local police station and the next step is back to court to try and determine why the parent did not bring the child to the parent with visitation rights at the scheduled time. There are many other similar scenarios but they all boil to one thing: the child is being denied access to the other parent.

When dealing with separation proceedings, one of the main bones of contention is custody and visitation rights. And even when separation proceedings have been terminated and everything seems to be settled, still there are many situations when the battle over visitation rights goes on and on. All this to the detriment not only of the separated spouses, most of who would like to put the separation ordeal behind them, but most of all to the children, who are left standing in the middle.

In, Child And Family Characteristics Of Children's Post-Separation Visitation Refusal, Helen Radanovic, Mary Motz, Eric Hood and Frances Tam say that "Approximately 20 per cent of separated parents are unable to settle custody and/or access issues regarding their children and seek the intervention of the courts. The children involved in these battles are at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioural problems" [25 J. Psychiatry & L. 33 (1997)]. This is very alarming - we are subjecting our children to an increased risk of being dragged into never-ending custody and visitation disputes.

Children are literally left standing in the middle and some ally with one parent, whereas others try to please both parents (and is that so inherently wrong?). Others might disassociate themselves totally from the battle. Ideally, during separation proceedings and after these are terminated, and custody and visitation rights are set out, if parents adhere to what the court has laid down there will not be any access problems because the child will live with one parent and visit the other - thus enjoying and benefitting from the company and love of both.

Marital separation does not also mean filial separation. Only in extreme cases are parents denied access to their children - and only if it is shown that such visitation rights would be detrimental to the best interests of the child. It is not only the right of the child to keep contact with both parents, as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but the ongoing visitation battle will surely leave its unforgiving mark on the child.

When dealing with visitation disputes we cannot merely look only at the best interests of the child but also at their rights.

"The challenge... is to acknowledge children's rights in custody cases in a manner that does not treat them like small adults [but] that takes account of their essential difference, and that respects their complex needs for nurture, protection, identity and connection," states Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, in Talking About Children's Rights in Judicial Custody and Visitation Decision-Making [114 Family Law Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 1, Spring 2002].

The Revised Code of Washington (Visitation Statute) states that: "Visitation is the right of the family, including the child and the parent, in cases in which visitation is in the best interests of the child. Early, consistent and frequent visitation is crucial for maintaining parent-child relationships and making it possible for parents and children to safely reunify." As one can see from the language used in this statute, although a couple decides to separate, the bond between the child and the mother and father carries on. In fact, such bonds and emotional ties that are presumed to be present between the parents and the child continue to live on despite the breakdown of the parents' relations with one another, and that is why visitation is the right of the family, that is, the right of the child and of the parents as a family.

When parents deny each other the right to see their child they are not only hurting and severing the relationship between the other parent and the child but they are also harming their child. A child needs the love and attention of both parents and not just of one of them. Children and parents need to have a loving, caring relationship irrelevant of how much time they spend together.

annmarie.mangion@gmail.com

The author is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family law and child law.

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