Changes needed in Florida's complex family laws

Published Sept. 12, 2014

As she tries to envision her son — see his smile, recall his voice, remember his touch — tears fill her eyes.

She wants what any mother would want: a chance to see her son play with his younger half brother, enjoy rides at Disney, hug his grandmother — as the court ordered.

She longs to pick him up after school, check on his homework and meet his friends — as the court ordered.

She wants custody of her son — as the court ordered.

But she doesn't have it. Her ex-husband has defied every decree. Her son hasn't lived with her in more than a year. She has seen him only once since March. All because the father refuses to return the 10-year-old to his mother — as the court ordered.

It seemed so simple. As a contentious divorce that spanned years reached a judicial conclusion, the judge ruled that the mother would have primary custody and the father would see his son every other Wednesday, every other weekend and an extended period in the summer.

Instead, the father has ignored the agreement. From the beginning, he has turned Wednesdays into weeks and weekends into months. He has repeatedly kept his son beyond the prescribed periods.

The mother says when he first violated the custody order, she brought him before the magistrate but he only got a slap on the wrist. Some judges and magistrates tend to tell disobeying parents to play nice instead of putting the fear of God in them.

Florida family law doesn't call for an immediate penalty when a parent doesn't adhere to the order. You can seek to change the custody order, attempt to reverse attorney fees, but it can take months.

Allowed to violate the court order without immediate repercussions when they first divorced, the father has thumbed his nose at the judicial system again and again. When the mother calls law enforcement officials and ask them to force the father to return the child — her child — they tell her it's a civil matter and they can't intervene.

So she returns to seeking relief from the court: emergency orders, time-consuming and expensive appearances before magistrates and judges.

He promises to comply, but simply doesn't. He arrives at school to pick up the child even though it isn't his day for custody. He fails to show up for exchanges and once, they got into a physical altercation during an exchange and the child ran across four lanes of traffic.

Making matters worse, the father appears to be engaging in parental alienation — an effort to turn the son against the mother with lies and insults. At first, she spoke with her on son on the telephone. Now he sends only text messages: "Mommy, I'm fine. I don't want to talk to you."

For family law attorney Ingrid Hooglander, it's a story that's all too familiar.

"I'm not surprised," said Hooglander, who is not representing either parent in this particular case. "Parents in divorce tend to get very selfish, self-centered and in some cases, narcissistic. They don't have respect for court orders, they don't have respect for authority, and they're not putting the child's best interest at heart."

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Clearly, laws need to be changed. Hooglander and other family law attorneys I spoke with offered suggestions:

• Give parental coordinators who serve as mediators the power to give binding orders.

• Make custody order violations a misdemeanor. It would be easier for the court to levy fines under that scenario.

• Create a special team of family law enforcement officers whose specific job would be to enforce lawful custody orders.

The last suggestion could lessen the burden on family court judges and make parents more like to comply.

Family law remains a complex and difficult cauldron, filled with envy, anger and disillusionment. It's an issue that cries out for a movement: lobbying and legislative action to raise compliance, not just to protect custodial rights but to give children a chance to be more than pawns in an ugly game of tug-of-war.

In the end, it's the kids who get hurt the most. They need a society willing to fight for them.

That's all I'm saying.