In high conflict litigated cases, a Judge will often appoint Minor’s Counsel in order to assist them in determining orders that are in the best interests of the child or children of the marriage. Minor’s Counsel is an attorney who represents the children. They are not a therapist or a custody evaluator, however they will gather evidence to present arguments to the Court as to what orders are best for their client or clients [the children]. Minor’s counsel is able to access the confidential records for the child such as medical records, educational records or any records from therapists that have been treating the child.
When I have been in the role of Minor’s Counsel, I try to meet with the child in a neutral setting such as a park or a setting that will be comfortable for them. If I know that they like animals, I may bring one of my dogs with me to the first meeting. My goal in the first meeting is to provide the child with a safe space so that they can talk to me. In most litigated cases, the child has been exposed to the conflict of the parents for a long time. They may be coached by one or both parents or fearful that what they say to me will be shared with the parents. I also schedule meetings with each of the parents individually and each of the parents with the child.
Often the parents are so engaged in their negative feelings towards the other parent that they lack insight as to the damage that the conflict is causing to their children. While I am meeting with the family, I am also gathering evidence from outside sources which can help me understand what is in the best interests of that child. If the child has a therapist, then I will speak with them. If one of the parents has been taking the child to therapy without the involvement of the other parent, the evidence obtained may be weighted less. If the parents do not have the child in therapy, I will often recommend that a therapist be put into place for the child so that they have ongoing care and a safe space that they can speak about the children.
Prior to a return hearing with the Court, I will discuss my recommendations with both parents together and the attorneys if they are represented. Generally, parties that are in litigation are so entrenched in their own positions and what they want or what they think is right that they are unable to see the impact that their hostility has on the children. While I do not share all that my client has told me, I will ask permission to share certain statements. It often surprises the parents to learn that their child loves both parents and wants to have time with both of them. If there are issues of addiction or abuse, then we are able to discuss how to maintain that relationship in a manner that is safe for the child. My goal in sharing my position with the parents prior to the hearing is to see if there is a way that we can come up with options and work out a parenting plan together that will be in the best interests of the children. Unfortunately, if we are not able to do this then I will present my case to the Court and the Judge will make orders based on evidence that is presented by each of the parents as well as my evidence that is presented. In litigated cases, my role may continue for several years as most parents are not happy with orders that are made by a Court.
In a Collaborative Case, the parties who choose to participate in this process are able to use minor’s counsel before significant damage has been done to the children. Minor’s counsel may be used in a collaborative case where the parents need additional assistance in communicating with each other or where there has been a history of domestic violence or substance abuse or where there are older children in their teenage years who want to have a voice in what their life will look like after the Divorce. In Collaborative cases, there is often a parent child specialist involved as well. My role in a Collaborative case is to be part of the entire team and to represent the interests of the children while continuing to work with the entire team to guide the family through the process without causing damage to the children. In a collaborative case, my role is to gather information to be shared with the team as opposed to a litigated case where I would be gathering evidence to be presented to the Court.
I conduct the children’s meetings in the same manner as I would in a litigated case, meeting on neutral ground and establishing rapport, I will also meet with the children and each of the parents alone. However, as we are in a collaborative process, I will meet with the parents and children together and just the parents together. I coordinate with the parent child specialist as they are going to be working with the parents on communication and assisting them in getting through the Divorce without damage to the children.
In team meetings, I am able to present options to be considered by the team as a whole and those options can be discussed with the parents, the coaches, attorneys and parent child specialist. The parent child specialist is also able to weigh in. In collaborative cases we are able to structure a parenting plan that works for the children and for the family and will enable them to avoid litigating issues in the future. My role as minor’s counsel ends at the time that the Collaborative case is concluded as parents who work together on a parenting plan are generally happy with that parenting plan and do not continue to litigate the issues.
Minor’s counsel can be a vital role in both litigated cases or collaborative cases where the children need to have a voice. Although the process varies, the role of Minor’s Counsel remains the same, to provide information about what is in the best interests of the children and to assist the children in having a voice in their parents Divorce.