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Stepmom wonders if father has chance to get sole custody due to mother's unimpressive parenting abilities

Your Question:
My husband has two boys with his ex-wife. During the divorce she was institutionalized and diagnosed with Bi Polar Disorder, and for a while he had primary placement and she only recived supervised visitaion. His attourney dropped the ball and all that was changed and they were both given joint custody and placement in 2000. We met later that year and I moved in with him and in 2003 we were married. Since I have been with him I have documented many of her short commings and have exact dates and times as well as witnesses in some cases. Some of these include her keeping the children on our time, her neglecting to feed the children a proper meal (by that I mean the children only having ate cookies and M&M's all day, her neglecting to help them or at least make them do their homework, her repeatedly taking them out of school to go on vacations (aproximatly 3 weeks of school per year missed for non-medical reasons) She has been witnessed calling the younger child stupid and ignorant quite loudly in public settings by both myself and husband as well as other people. It was also witnessed by an impartial person her hitting the younger child repeatedly while he was strapped into a carseat. The younger child has been diagnosed with ADD and she refuses to put him back on medication even though he has shown documented improvement. The oldest child is continuiously becoming ill while at her house yet very rarely becomes ill at ours. Since being with my husband I have tought the youngest child with the help of teachers and my husband how to read, tie his shoes, and speak (he had to be put in speech therapy against her wishes because of his impediment). Both children have come to expect that at our house school and homework come first while there is only fun, fun, fun to be had at hers. We are currently waiting to go to court, we are the petitioners asking for full custody and placement. I am now 26 and do not have children of my own yet and can not imagin how a mother could do the things she has done or care so little about her children. I have been more of a mother to those children than she has. My question is how can my husband and I make the courts see this? We live in Wisconsin and unfortunatly the judicial system here is really biased against fathers.

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My Answer:

Thanks for writing.

Regarding judicial bias against fathers, long ago I stopped worrying about it as a possibility. If it's there, all you can do is your best. If it's not there, all you can do is your best. Right? It really doesn't matter if the judge is allegedly biased or not-- you have to present your best case-- and you have no control over how the judge will rule. So quit worrying about that.

You outlined a number of things that in their sum may be enough to change custody, though it's certainly not a slamdunk by any means. To win, the husband will have to provide clear and convincing evidence and/or testimony.

I'm gonna challenge you to build your case now.

So, let's look at some of your allegations against the mother:

  • She received her Certificate of Mental Illness sometime around 6 years ago. This is only relevant if it's not being effectively treated. Even if she's not being treated, you have to PROVE how a mental health issue actually results in actions and behavior that are threatening to the children. PLENTY of people with bi-polar conditions are excellent parents. Why is this relevant NOW? (i.e., you must ask yourself, not answer me).

  • She only feeds them cookies and candy. You got evidence of this? I mean, do you take them to some doctor immediately after picking them up, to run some analysis on the content of their stomachs or feces (if even possible) to conclude that Chips Ahoys and M&Ms are the only digested food matters present? Or do you have a hidden camera hidden on one of the kids' teeth that records every bite taken while at the mother's? I'm being silly, but you should understand my drift-- you need to PROVE it. Without strong evidence or the mother's admission... nix this accusation as playing a role in a judge's decision.

  • Missing school is significant. Get the attendance records, match up the missed days to the mother's custodial time, and find some way to prove the kids weren't sick or attending a family emergency (e.g., a funeral). If you can prove that it was purely recreational vacation, this is a relevant consideration. Again, you need to PROVE it.

  • Repeatedly hitting the child in the car seat could be significant, but I think you want to exaggerate how serious it was. Know why I think this? Because if it was serious, a witness or you or your husband would have alerted the authorities. Or would have taken the child to the ER or doctor. If no one called the authorities, then there's only two possible reasons: A) No one cared about the child, or B) the hitting didn't rise to the level of abuse. Corporal punishment is not against the law, though it's something many of us (e.g., you and me) find less than ideal and perhaps despicable.

  • Calling the kid stupid is an indication that this mother is not going to win Mother of the Year. But when I go to the mall, it seems like half the adults are saying equally hurtful things to their kids. At most, I could see the court ordering parenting classes so the mother can learn greater sensitivity in her parenting.

  • Failing to enforce homework is significant. You'll need to PROVE it. Get records from the teachers that show dates of missing homework is highly correlated to prior overnights with the mother.

  • Failing to administer prescribed medication for a diagnosed condition is significant. How do you PROVE it? If she's sent correspondence saying that the pills are stupid, she doesn't care what the doctor says, then you've got your proof. But if it's speculation, or if the child claims it (and that's your only proof), then you need to work harder.

  • The oldest child repeatedly becoming ill at her home, but not at yours? What's your conclusion? I mean, are you proposing that she has vials of bacteria that she drips in his nose while he sleeps? Or that she straps him down while preschoolers sneeze in his face? Again, you need to PROVE that A) he's routinely sick in her care, and B) it's because of bad parenting or inadequate home environment.

If I were in your shoes, I'd be concerned that I don't have a strong enough case (i.e., due to lack of strong evidence) to warrant a change of custody for me to get sole.

However, based on the above, I'd be pretty confident that I could probably reduce or eliminate overnights prior to school days (i.e., to ensure attendance and homework completion). It'd be worth it to try to get orders that parents shall administer prescriptions recommended by the pediatrition (you may not get the orders, but that you have to ASK for them is pretty telling).

I'd suggest a slight adjustment of perspective. Your husband should not care so much as what the type of custody is CALLED. He should care more about the parenting schedule. It's possible to keep joint custody, but perhaps modify the schedule to every other weekend with a mid-week afternoon/dinner period.

Such a request is supported by the more significant things described above... i.e., that parenting schedule should resolve nearly all of the concerns laid out.

Now, in terms of where you start? Go to my Recommended Books and look at "Child Custody A to Z - Winning with Evidence." That book should be really helpful to you.

Good luck.


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