This month we are examining the impact of polyamory on child custody cases. Last week we reviewed who is at risk. This week, we are looking at ways you can protect yourself before and during a custody case.
Before a custody case
If the most important thing you can do, before any custody case starts, is to find out what your level of risk is. First, you’ll want to be sure that your local child services or equivalent cannot take your children away and based on your relationships style. At this time I don’t know of any jurisdiction where children can be taken just because of polyamory. But it’s better to be safe. The easiest way to be sure is just to make an anonymous call and ask about your jurisdiction’s rules. You may also be able to check their website.
Next, and perhaps most importantly, check with a lawyer or legal service about grandparents rights laws. Many lawyers offer a free 15 minute consultation. You may also find relevant information on grandparent’s rights websites online–but a local lawyer will be able to give you more complete information. In particular you want to know who, other than the other parent, can sue for visitation and/or custody and under what circumstances they are allowed to sue for custody.
Finally, if you and the child’s other parent/legal guardian are not married, determine (if you haven’t already) under what circumstances they can sue for custody.
Next, you need to make a choice (if you haven’t already) about whether or not to be out about your relationships. In an ironic way, once you are in a custody battle, the best protection for you and your children requires you to be out. However being out also increases your risk of ending up in a custody battle.
If you are out, or choose to be out, make sure your child’s teacher and doctor know your lifestyle. If the doctor disapproves, find a new doctor who is more open minded. You will probably be stuck with the teacher. With both, you want to do everything you can to be their favorite parent. Homework is always in on time. Vaccinations are always up-to-date. Be the first to volunteer as chaperon for class outings. Never miss a parent teacher conference. If the doctor asks for a test, get it done the same day. The same goes for your kid’s tutors, speech therapists, or anyone else who deals with your child in a “professional” capacity.
If you can, and have a good reason to, get your child into a therapist. If possible, you want a poly and/or LGBT friendly therapist. If not, be willing to take the time to educate your own poly-friendly professional. If you have any reason to believe a custody case is imminent, just tell the therapist that you expect to be in a custody battle shortly, and you want your child to have support for the stress and fears the battle might cause. Again, make sure the therapist knows your relationship style, and what your kids know about your relationships. This can be as simple as, “Kid may mention Uncle Ben, that’s my boyfriend who comes over for family movie night every couple of weeks. Kid considers him part of the family.”
By doing this, you are building up a group of people who can vouch for you as a parent, and know about your relationships. I told my kids’ therapist about my relationship style on a spur of the moment instinct. But when she was subpoenaed to appear in court, she said that yes she knew about my relationships, and she didn’t see what that had to do with the case. It didn’t effect the children in anyway. Her testimony didn’t have any impact on the trial (I had to “luck” into the most bigoted judge in the county), but it was a key factor in the appeals decision. If you have a less bigoted judge, and you can bring testimony from a therapist, teacher, doctor, or other professional that they knew about the relationships and didn’t see any harm (or better yet, saw some benefit), it can save your custody case.
If there is anything “alternative” in your approach to childrearing, now is the time to go mainstream. Co sleeping, breast feeding a child over two, skipping vaccinations, not having beds bc sleeping on the floor is better for everyone’s backs…any of that and more WILL be used against you in a custody case. A custody case, especially one between parents, often boils down to a “who’s the most perfect parent” contest. Polyamory is one black mark against you. You can’t afford anymore.
If your concern is the child’s other parent/legal guardian, and you are out, it is a huge, huge thing if they have ever participated in or approved of polyamory. Get that shit documented. Except in cases of a bigoted judge, having your ex being approving of poly in the past, and then try to use poly as a reason to take your kids, will just make them look like an ass in court.
If you are not out, bury yourself in that closet. You can’t prove a negative, folks. If your ex or other relatives have any inkling of your relationships, they can use it against you. In the US, innocent until proven guilty only applies in criminal court. In civil court, it’s your ord against theirs, and you can’t prove you are not poly–especially when you are. And if your ex has any kind of proof about your relationships, they CAN prove that you are lying. Being proved a liar in court is a quick path to losing custody. Judges don’t like being lied to. Seriously, if there is any chance that your opponent in a custody case might know or find out about your relationships, you are far better off being loud and proud, and fighting for acceptance. Before you end up in court, being in the closet may help keep you out of court. Once you end up in court, it’s an albatross around your neck.
Start saving for the appeal. Hate to say it, but its reality. Judges are a crap shoot. You can get one you listens to your ex’s arguments about poly, snorts and says “don’t waste my time.” Or you could get one who hears the word “polyamory” and immediately makes a decision from the bench saying he’s heard all he needs to, the kids are going to your ex bc you are obviously an unfit parent. I’ve seen the first happen (wanted to give that judge a hug). The second happened to my then-metamour. Who had tried the “hide in the closet route” and her ex whipped out a cell phone photo proving she as lying.
Point being, if you get the wrong judge, all your preparations won’t mean anything. If the judge does hand down a decision from the bench or ignores the testimony of Dr. Sheff or the therapist, or otherwise steps out of line in ruling against you bc of poly, an appeal may have a chance. But appeals are expensive. So start saving now.
During a custody case
Get everything else as perfect as possible. We’re all human, but if you can manage it, or if you can get help from others to pull it off, this is a time to be super human. Get the kids as close to perfect attendance as possible–no days off school w/o a doctors note. Be the parent that the teachers love. If you don’t have one, get a solid, steady income. Make your house immaculate, cooked dinner on the table at 5 every night, etc etc. Basically do everything you can to be Leave it to Beaver (w/o the 1950s gender roles, of course.)
This is a great place for the polycule and poly community to pitch in and support. Especially if the poly parent is in a situation of needing to work two jobs to make ends meet, struggling with chronic health problems, or anything else that interferes with creating “perfect” home life. Folks can help clean, offer to tutor the kids after school, provide transportation to doctors,grocery shopping, etc, donate cookware, whatever is needed.