Advice from someone who has been in your shoes
  Search entire web
Supervised Visitation Directory
Return to list of questions Return to topic groups
Stepmom thinks custodial mother is very neglectful of child and that mother blocks father's access to the child

Your Question:
I am a stepmother-to-be who has been bonding well with my soon-to-be-stepdaughter, including helping her with homework, driving her to school, ensuring good nutrition, instilling responsibility for chores, sharing recreational activities and hobbies, and modeling values of love, reassurance and a happy home.

I have remained as neutral as possible in all issues between my fiance and his ex-wife for the sake of my stepdaughter, and ignore her comments that occasionally suggest they came from a jealous ex-wife (i.e., "are stepmoms ugly?" "you can't get money if you don't have babies" ". She has been donating to a thrift store any gifts we give to the daughter. After we recently announced our engagement, my fiance's ex-wife went all-out to make us miserable when we should be happy.

She began "hiding" his 8-year-old daughter from him, refusing his phone calls, access or visitation, even going so far as to call the police pretending she was afraid he would kidnap his daughter when he came to pick her up. Not willing to engage, he just drove home. He has always paid his child support and is loving and involved with his daughter. He is a wonderful dad but I have never seen him so devastated and deeply depressed. I am sad for what this is doing to negatively influence a young girl's trust and love for her dad.

We learned the ex-wife is taking the daughter out of the country to Mexico for the Easter holiday which was supposed to be his time. At the time of their divorce, he was deployable active military. The court awarded sole custody to the ex-wife and specified visitation rights to the father. Since there was no specific parenting schedule, he cannot file a police report on her for contempt to stop her. My fiance just retained an attorney to ask the court for Joint Legal Custody and modification of Child Support (now that he earns less income since military separation than she does).

My fiance wants custody to improve his daughter's education. She is in a district school that has low test scores but she could go to a nearby charter school that tests among the highest in the state. We discovered the daughter is failing all core subjects, unable to read, spell, write or do math at grade level, and has had high unattendance. We work hard to catch her up, and then she goes back to mom to watch tv, shop and stay home sick from school. But the ex-wife, who happens to be an elementary school teacher, refuses to allow a change to a better school.

My fiance wants to protect his daughter's health. She eats nutritious meals with us, and we sit together as a family at dinnertime. Her mom sends her to school without a breakfast and they live on fast foods, sodas and candy (which may contribute to her attention deficits and academic problems). Last summer, the mom allowed daughter to play in a green, stagnant above-ground backyard pool teaming with larva at the same time the city was fogging their neighborhood for West Nile Virus. We were horrified to pick up this little girl covered with mosquito bite welts (we took pictures and my fiance took down the pool)!

The point here is that the mother is not abusing her child by hitting or doing anything blatantly dangerous. Yet it is the cumulative effect of benign neglect of her daughter's education, health and safety. My fiance's attorney recommended seeking Joint Custody, but I am not so convinced. Would presenting this information to a judge be compelling enough to persuade him to order sole custody in favor of the father?

Need a Supervised Visitation Provider?
Try the Supervised Visitation Directory - Over 1500 providers listed by state.

My Answer:

First answer: Dad needs to start sticking up for his rights. This means threatening contempt and then following through on it.

Second answer: You know that dairy council ad campaign that says, "Got milk?" For every allegation you've outlined above, I ask the question, "Got proof?"

That's a very important question because that's what is important to the judge.

Let's look at your case, item by item:

  • You're a well-bonded, doting stepmom. Awesome. But irrelevant. The only relevance would be if you were a threat to the child.
  • Biomom hates the stepmom, and it intensified upon the engagement/wedding. Join the membership of 10 million hated stepmoms. Fair? No. Justified? Only if you're mean. Relevant? No.
  • Biomom donates all your gifts to the daughter. This is a minor sign of alienation and showing disrespect for dad's relationship with the child. Relevant? Yes, but not huge. Got proof?
  • Refusing phone calls from dad, refusing to release child for visitation (an awful word, I prefer parenting time or custodial time). Relevant? HUGE. Got proof? Proof would include police reports, contempt rulings, and a personal log.
  • Taking daughter to Mexico. Only relevant if court orders prohibit international travel. Got proof?
  • Taking daughter on vacation during dad's court-ordered time over Easter. Relevant? HUGE. Got proof? Police report, contempt ruling, personal log.
  • Daughter failing all subjects, unable to read, spell, write, or do math at her grade level. Relevant? If she's not retarded, ADD, or special needs, this is BIG-- but only if biomom is doing nothing to help the situation. Got proof of both the poor performance and biomom's refusal to help it?
  • Sending to school without breakfast. Relevant? Sure, but only minorly so. Got proof? I mean, does some medical professional examine her stomach contents every day at 9AM, or has the mother admitted to do such?
  • Mom allowed daughter to play in a green, stagnant above-ground backyard pool teaming with larva at the same time the city was fogging their neighborhood for West Nile Virus. Got proof? I mean, did an endocrinologist identify larva that meet "teaming" levels, did a newspaper announce the mosquito fogging to prevent spread of West Nile Virus, did the neighborhood newsletter announce such, did you get videotape of the child swimming in the pool while cropduster airplanes were flying overhead and little larva were dancing all around her in the water?
  • It is the cumulative effect of benign neglect of her daughter's education, health and safety. Based on what you outline, if all is true, I agree with you. But.... the court will want to know.... got proof?!

Usually, when a fiance of a parent writes to me, I suggest that the parent himself/herself make it a priority to write to me, read books, go to discussion boards, attend local divorce support groups (i.e., to learn how family law works), etc.

I've given you far more attention than I typically give to a stepparent. I suggest that-- for your own sanity and the health of your upcoming marriage-- that you back down from this fight and transition to a role of being your soon-to-be husband's biggest cheerleader in this battle.

You mentioned that there are no specific parenting schedules in your court orders. Your orders suck because they can't be enforced, so all of the above frustrations with parenting time have no consequences.

That said, I would immediately have my attorney go back to court, outline all the frustrated attempts to spend time with the child, and demand a specific parenting schedule. You'll get it... but it may not be what you want at this point.

Thereafter, dad needs to act diligently to enforce every aspect of what the orders say, and he needs to document in a way that would be viewed as PROOF for everything you're describing.

A year later, I think that would be the time to gear up for the big attempt at switching custody. It's not like biomom is going to suddenly change her ways. She'll continue to screw up. But from here on out, husband will turn from depressed to empowered, because he'll have a bigger plan in place.

His depression and frustration is why you need to be his cheerleader, not his leader. Keep him empowered to look at the long-term goals. Buy him the book "Win Your Child Custody War", which is filled with strategies and tactics. There's a convenient link to it on my Resources page.

Good luck, and please have him write to me when something happens.


This website gives common sense advice that is not intended to act as legal guidance nor psychological guidance. The author is neither an attorney nor licensed psychologist. For specific legal guidance or specific psychological guidance, consult with a licensed professional.

© 2005 ~ 2012 All Rights Reserved.