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‘Best interests of the child’: not just words

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When the State of Ohio says that decisions about everything from living arrangements to financial support must be structured to serve ‘the best interests of the child,’ what does that really mean? Here are some basic principles:

What a parent wants for a child is not synonymous with that child’s best interests. To put it bluntly: It’s about your child, not you. While many parents firmly believe that they are parenting experts, parenting during divorce is often an entirely different matter. It sometimes happens that parental desires, while well-meaning, are not the best measure. It is realistic to understand that experience, recommendations of child development experts, and a great deal of research on the impact of divorce all have a balancing influence on judges and magistrates.

An example: A child often becomes aware that his parents do not like each other. To deal with the stress and avoid taking sides, a child may begin to say what each parent wants to hear. A child who loves both may express dislike for one parent while with the other, and vice versa, even though she wants parenting time with both. Each parent may take her statements as gospel but courts seldom act on them without proper investigation and verification.

Best interests vary depending on such things as age and gender. In general, however, courts tend to be guided by traditional values that the statute sets forth. These include: the wishes of the child’s parents; the child’s wishes and concerns as determined by the court’s interview or an independent report; the child’s interaction with parents, siblings, extended family; the child’s current adjustment to his home, school and community; and the mental and physical health of all involved persons. The law also speaks to parenting values, such as the likelihood that each parent will facilitate parenting time with the other parent, including whether one parent has refused parenting time to the other in the past; whether either parent has failed in economic support; whether a parent plans to relocate outside of the State of Ohio.

Objectivity helps in figuring out what an individual child’s best interests may be, especially when parents display to the court an inability to remain objective or to reach agreement. Dislike of a soon-to-be ex-spouse as evidence of his or her inability to parent is not something courts generally accept as objective evidence. Where there is conflict or uncertainty about what serves children best, the court often appoints a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to talk with parents, family members and the children to identify their interests.

Families matter. Parents divorce each other. Kids cannot divorce their parents or abandon their families. When you litigate your divorce, you give the court responsibility for allocating parental rights and responsibilities. When they have heard from parents, the GAL, and other interested parties, they will take one of two avenues:

Shared parenting so that both parents retain custodial rights to the children. In shared parenting, all aspects of parenting time and responsibilities are negotiated. A required, written shared parenting plan then governs the relationships of the family to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the wishes of the parents. Read more about shared parenting and how to create a parenting plan.

One legal custodian and residential parent, granting to the other parent a specific schedule of parenting time. This means that parental rights are terminated for the non-custodial parent. This is usually thought to be appropriate when there is high conflict and one parent is relatively inactive with the children. A parenting plan may be appropriate in these cases, too.

Sometimes, courts appoint parenting coordinators to help high-conflict families resolve issues so children are not caught in the middle. They also help parents in their efforts to implement a court-ordered parenting arrangement.

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