Q: My children's mother and I are breaking up and I do not want to share custody of my child with her. When we met in high school she was sort of laid-back and very chill and that was attractive when I was a teenager, but now, 15 years later, a child, and in the midst of a breakup, it looks like neglect to me and I just don't think my daughter is safe alone with her. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: It's rare that people agree on anything when they are in the midst of a breakup, so your feelings are understandable, but someone being so "laid-back and very chill that you feel she is neglectful" is not enough for the courts to award you sole custody of your child. The key word here is "safe." Even though you may not agree with mom's parenting style, if your daughter is safe — that means if she is well-fed, clean and doesn't live in a shack crawling with vermin, then authorities will not intervene.
When might they intervene? Let's say your child's mother left firearms out within reach of your daughter or the home is more than just messy — there are roaches everywhere, feces on the floor and/or walls, etc. If there's no running water or electricity, or there's not enough food in the home — again, an agency will intercede. In other words, if you want sole custody of your daughter, you'd better have real proof that she is unsafe. It can't just be opinion.
What's proof? One example might be that Child Protective Services has done an investigation and has made a substantiated assessment of neglect or abuse. Or, police reports documenting an arrest for domestic violence when a child was present. Criminal records for crimes that could affect the child's safety or failure to protect your child from abuse by the other parent. Abandonment or addiction issues that interfere with an ability to properly care for a child. All these things might be a reason that one parent could be awarded sole custody by the courts.
So, what do you do? If you don't have proof of any of the things I've mentioned, it's time to put your issues aside and look for ways to coordinate efforts in the name of your child. (Good Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 1, "Put your children first.") You may also want to take a co-parenting class together or if you can afford it, co-parenting counseling that will help you establish proper boundaries and educate both of you on your responsibilities to each other and your child now that you are no longer together.
Finally, if you absolutely cannot get along, the courts will assign custody for you, and the parent who will receive primary custody will be the parent who is most likely to share. "Most likely to share" means the parent who will continue to cultivate a relationship between the child and other parent after the breakup — because your child has a right to have both parents in her life — and how you navigate that in her best interest is what good ex-etiquette is all about.
Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.