To complete my divorce, the state of Texas required I take an online parenting class. My class was written by an attorney and [unintentionally] demonstrates the blindspots lawyers (and judges) often experience in family law. The "The Co-Parenting Project" kept sending emails asking for feedback, so I sent them my critique (shown below) and bcc'd the entire Texas legislature, Texas Supreme Court, several Austin and San Antonio news outlets and a few journalists...no one wrote me back.
Note: I've slightly updated the feedback here from the original email.
To “The Co-Parenting Project”,
You asked for feedback on a number of occasions, so here goes…
The summary of my thesis is this:
The best interests of a child cannot be met when one or both parents’ best interests are ignored or contravened.
After slogging through your online parenting class (legally required by the State of Texas to complete my divorce) I was left with a number of questions about the veracity of your claims and the utility of the course. You make a number of unsupported/weakly supported claims throughout and fail to follow the plot on key issues.
I’ll address the most important claim from your class first: ‘When parents live apart, it is all-too-common [sic] for the parent without custody to become disengaged from the child…’ You further claim studies show nearly 50% of non-custodial parents [that is, fathers] see their child once a year or less just two years after divorce or separation.
This lack of contact strikes me as the most important issue you cover by far, yet your class does nothing to contemplate why it happens or how to prevent it. You drone on about why both parents matter without considering why so many fathers disengage and how to close the floodgates. If one believes your uncited research, either there are a lot of ‘deadbeat dads’ or your efforts are painfully misguided.
If your goal is to help children of divorced parents, your primary focus should be on this uniquely impactful issue. Your class misses the mark in seemingly innumerable ways, but this is the most egregious.
Clarifying point: I have a young son with my ex-wife and a teenage daughter from a previous relationship. I am already a bit player to my firstborn; my ex-wife is pushing me in that direction with my second...
My personal experience (citing ‘personal experience’ is not meant to exclude custodial parents or anyone else from the conversation - just a relevant fact) has led me (and so many others) to the conclusion that most family law attorneys like you (and many judges) are simply rent-seeking while turning a blind-eye to the destruction left in their wake. Below is a common scenario:
- Divorcing parents are forced to create a parenting agreement.
- Attorneys are consulted.
- Family law attorneys fight for their client, not represent the child. (When you practiced family law, how much time did you spend with the children to determine what’s in their best interests? Unless you are unlike every other family law attorney in America, the answer is precisely: none.)
- Family court judge chooses a winner and loser under the guise of the morally-confused doctrine ‘the best interests of the child’. It’s used along with ‘creating a stable environment’ to justify grossly unequal divisions of real decision-making power and parenting time.
- Decreed parenting agreement favors parent-child relationship stability for one parent at the expense of the other by giving one parent custody or "placement".
- Winner has the power: parent with placement is given license to bully the other parent and stop communicating.
- That power, and the Agreement, are often weaponized: winner picks and chooses what parts of a parenting agreement to enforce and when - backed by the threat of attorney and state violence...creating more chaos, upheaval and financial turmoil for everyone (and counteracting the intent of the vapid doctrine quoted above).
- Massive instability and uncertainty continues for both parents.
- The aforementioned floodgates are pushed wide open.
Stability, routine and familiarity are important for children no doubt, but you don’t arrive there by creating instability and uncertainty for the parents. My relationship with my daughter (where I had to make 20ish court appearances and spend more than $25,000 in attorney’s fees to codify the illusion of court-ordered parenting time) is no longer that of a parent and child even after moving 1,200 miles to follow her across the country...twice. I now see her a couple weeks out of the year. I have my pre-school aged son 20% of the time even though my ex-wife lives less than ten minutes away (update: she moved from 3 miles away to 95 miles away, violating our divorce decree and a court injunction in the process; the move was ultimately allowed by a judge - and has caused considerable harm to my son and our relationship). There is a short window of magic that occurs from age 2 to 5; by threat of state violence I am expected to be complacent with 20% of it.
Yes, of course, you can say we’re all parents 100% of the time, but that ignores day-to-day reality: I had my children together less than two days during Christmas break, per the parenting agreements; my daughter spent precisely zero minutes with my son from August of 2016 until a few weeks ago (*wrote this in January of 2018). Life is short and happiness ephemeral. I have a hard time faulting anyone who throws their hands up and walks away when faced with outcomes common after family court litigation.
My story is common and I suspect you already know what I’m about to say: one of the main reasons so many non-custodial parents see their child[ren] once a year or less just two years after divorce or separation is because non-custodial parents are given second-class rights - duh. Statutes pay lip service to the idea that both parents start on an equal footing - and yet temporary orders belie this bullshit notion from the get-go. Final orders codify the two classes of parents for good.
I find your lack of focus on the ‘why and how’ of this issue disappointing to say the least. If you’re concerned about the mass exodus of non-custodial parents, focus your efforts on ensuring both parents are treated with dignity under the law. It’s absurd to presume a lawmaker, judge, or attorney has any notion of what’s in the best interests of an individual child; the presumption must be that the parents know best (surely you agree). If they can’t agree to a parenting plan, the starting point must be an equal split of time (excluding infancy) - particularly during the magical ages where 50-50 is most feasible. As attorneys, you are in a unique position to effect change. Instead, you joined the army of rent-seekers extracting money from divorcing parents while destroying value.
In part two of the class, you assert many seemingly obvious claims without proper context. You state over and over that children must be shielded from parental conflict; you later claim in part three “Children learn positive social skills by watching conflict get resolved through negotiation and compromise.”
You’re failing to follow the plot here: the rules of the game virtually guarantee conflict will be treacherous and compromise impossible. Where the end-game creates two classes of parents, attorneys do what they’re trained to do: submit the opponent and win. To ‘watch conflict get resolved’ honest conflict must occur; seems tautological, but worth pointing out because you seem to want your cake (shield children from parental conflict) and eat it too (learn positive social skills by watching conflict get resolved).
You list several seemingly straightforward “truisms” (though they’re often not true in practice) about child support while ignoring the moral panic surrounding “deadbeat dads” - a tired trope which condemns fathers for, as often as not, being poor or lacking budgeting skills. This is such a toxic topic I’m going to take the cowardly route and say very little about it here.
You make the uninformed claim “no one can make us angry” which ignores the epistemology required to reach such a judgement and demeans the experiences of the overwhelming majority of people. You then turn it into a true/false question and force people like me to give a dishonest answer to pass your class.
To make such a bold claim requires an exploration of evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, agency, free will, etc. Aside from the fact I believe you are wrong, you don’t back your claim with evidence. Please remove this from your class.
To be clear, I understand there are far greater injustices in the world than the family court system of Texas (and Indiana). I consider myself blessed to have happy healthy children who are a joy to be around. I feel grateful that I have a beautiful honors student with a sharp wit and a competitive spirit - and that she loves me even if I can’t spend much time with her face-to-face; that I have a gorgeous magical pre-schooler with a sharp mind, adorable laugh, startling athleticism and a wit well beyond his age. In the oppression olympics I haven’t made it to a qualifying race, much less have a shot at the medal stand. Nevertheless, if your mission is to help the children of divorced parents you are ringing all the wrong alarm bells.
Your class gives the impression it provides tools for introspection while providing no such thing. Instead, the system in which you actively participate facilitates one parent robbing the other of the most precious commodity that will ever enter their lives - time with their child. So is it any surprise that within two years so many fathers check out instead of being bound by the whims of a wounded ex who commands the threat of state violence? How does it help children to drive non-custodial parents out of their children's lives???
P.S. I never subscribed to your newsletter yet continued to receive emails long after I unsubscribed; I received over twenty emails from you with unsolicited/unwarranted advice, marketing tripe and forwarded clickbait stories. Please stop spamming people forced to take your parenting class.