In December 2023, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard the case of R.H. v M.H., SC 20882. The parents had filed hundreds of motions in their battle, all apparently justified by the “best interests” standard. The details are dwarfed by over four years of litigation. How can this serve the needs of children? These change every month and every year.
Children are not well served by the precedent set by the Trial Court’s decision to allocate all decision-making authority to the father. The Court can and should do much more to redirect petitioners away from litigation and toward professionals skilled in the emotional trauma felt by the Defendant upon separation from their children, redirecting litigation towards therapy and conflict resolution. Scientific evidence shows that children have better outcomes when they have access to both parents, grandparents, and other family members. In the absence of domestic violence, neglect or abuse warranting curtailing or termination of parental rights – following DCF standards of timely investigation – parents and families should determine the best interests of their children. In SC 20882, antagonistic and complex Court processes have defeated the Court’s goal of serving the best interests of the children, one of whom will age out of the system in two years. In general, allocating all decision-making authority to one parent does not serve the best interests: i.e., the precedent set by the trial judge is incorrect.
I. Importance of Parenting Time
The argument emphasizes the significance of parenting time for children and rightly highlights that it should not be denied unless there is clear and convincing evidence of danger (physical, emotional, psychological). This approach aligns with the best interests of the child. Research evidence discussed below overwhelmingly supports a central role for parental involvement.
II. Problems with the Court System Illustrated by R.H. v M.H.
The 2002 final report of the Governor’s task Commission on Divorce, Custody and Child Support chaired by the Hon. Ann Dranginis and Thomas Foley (hereafter, “2002 CDCC Report”) is available from the library of Congress or at this link). This report clearly states the problem now addressed by the Supreme Court in SC 20882:
However, a small minority of parents engage in persistent conflict because of anger, characterological or mental health problems, or the force of personality. These families over consume system resources pursuing their conflict and frequently harm their children in the process. The ability of this population to use the constitutional right of access to the courts as a means for revenge or punishment against the other parent is an unintended negative consequence of the legal process.
Unfortunately, cases similar to R.H. v M.H remain all too common today because the adversarial environment in family court encourages parents to litigate rather than collaboratively negotiate the emotional, financial, and logistical problems associated with parenting from split households. The Hon. (retired) Elaine Gordon’s May 22, 2013 video observes, based on years with Family Court that litigation typically harms children and that the damage to them extends throughout their lives (source).
In 2017, the Family Justice Advisory Committee and the Family Justice Initiative (FJI), established under the National Center for State Courts, were tasked to study the handling of domestic relations cases across the country. In 2018 they presented their data in The Landscape of Domestic Relations Cases in State Courts. Based on that data, the FJI highlighted the need to turn parents away from litigation:
“Offer families a choice of dispute resolution options to promote problem-solving and to minimize the negative effects that the adversarial process has on families during the court process and afterwards.”
Several decisions by the Hon. Judge Moukowsher point out that Connecticut courts fail to focus “laser like” on the best interests of children. Instead, the Court has allowed precedent and procedure to be used so as to prolong conflict in processes that are too lengthy and expensive. In the case of R.H. v M.H. which began in 2019, one of the children will age out of the Court system in 2025. Family Court was too slow in 2002, and it is still too slow to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of children. It is essential that the Court adopt more timely methods such as those currently practiced by DCF, where parents typically do not pay.