I'll never forget a custody case I had some years ago. I sat in a judge's chambers and watched while he asked three girls between the ages of 6 and 13 if they'd rather live with their mother or their father. The 13 year old had shut herself in her bedroom that morning, refusing to come out, and we didn't know if we'd even be able to get her to come to court. All three were crying. They told the judge that while they wanted to spend time with their father, they wanted to live primarily with their mother. So, after many hours of negotiation, the judge entered an order giving the mother primary custody of the girls. I represented the mother, and she was ecstatic. This was considered a victory. Somehow, it didn't feel like it to me. As a mother of two children the same age as those girls, I couldn't get the image of them sitting in a judge's office and crying out of my head. Although this was before I had ever even heard of "collaborative family law" I knew then that there had to be a better way. Children just don't belong in court. Since that time, I've had occasion to see many more children crying, yelling, even throwing tantrums in court. It's never gotten any more bearable to watch.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago. This time I represented the husband in a collaborative divorce. We had just finished a session with my client, his wife, and her attorney. The session had been very productive, and we all sat around the table just talking. I asked everyone how they felt about the collaborative process, now that they were engaged in it. My client gave an interesting response. He and his wife were the parents of two college aged daughters. He said that not only had their own kids commented on how cordial their divorce was, but their kids' friends did too. Imagine that - the friends of their children noticed how differently these people were handling the break-up of their marriage. While their kids were too old for them to worry about custody, still my client and his wife were modeling for their children - and their friends! - problem-solving behavior that was mature, amicable and civil. What a great lesson for them to teach their kids, and what a gift they have given their children.
At that moment, I knew that if I never handled a "traditional" divorce case again, and never walked into a courtroom again, I wouldn't miss it. I knew that, going forward, if I only handled collaborative divorces, I'd be the world's happiest family law attorney! Even in cases where there is a disagreement about custody, I never have to worry about bringing crying, traumatized children to court. Instead, we send the parents to a child specialist, who helps the parents, together, to develop a co-parenting plan that is suitable for their family and their children. They will have the opportunity to do what they should be doing - parenting their children - rather than sitting as adversaries, looking at each other across a courtroom. And I can feel that I helped a family move to a stronger future, rather than contributing to its destruction.
Joanne E. Kleiner, Esq has her practice at 261 Old York Road, Suite 700-34, Jenkintown, PA 19046. She can be reached at 215-886-1266. Her web page is www.jkleinerfamilylaw.com