The McNamara Law Firm has recently tried two relocation cases representing the non-custodial parent. In these cases, the custodial parents remarried and sought to modify the geographical restriction so they could move with their children to live with their new partners. Our office relied on the latest social science to persuade the court not to lift the geographical restriction. In both relocation cases, the jury denied the custodial parent’s petition to lift the geographical restriction.
This post will be broken into two parts. The first part will discuss the latest social science regarding the geographical restriction. The second part will look at important segments of the trial process in relocation cases: voir dire and the jury charge.
Today’s Social Science
In a paper presented at a National Family Law Conference, the authors explained that the social science of a couple decades ago taught that “a child’s best interests is closely linked to the best interests of the custodial parent.” (“Relocation: Long Distance Families,” page 5.) This widespread belief resulted in many custodial parents moving to raise their children a long distance from the non-custodial parent. In contrast, the social science of today concludes that “having two parents in close proximity is better for children regardless of other factors” (Id., page 11). Texas codified this this modern approach: “The public policy of this state is to assure that children will have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the best interest of the child.” Texas law accomplishes this goal by making “joint custody” the default parenting designation and by setting and enforcing a geographical restriction against the custodial parent.
The social science of a couple decades ago is credited to Judith Wallerstein. (See her article published in Family Law Quarterly, “To Move or Not to Move: Psychological and Legal Considerations in the Relocation of Children Following Divorce.”) “Wallerstein claimed that there was no evidence that frequency of visiting or amount of time spent with the non-custodial parent over the child’s entire growing-up years was significantly related to good outcome in the child or adolescent.” Rather, “the children’s relationship with only one parent was central to their welfare.” (Richard Warshak, “Social Science and Children’s Best Interests in Relocation Cases: Burgess Revisited,” Family Law Quarterly.) The first study contradicting the Wallerstein position came from Arizona State University in a 2003 article titled “Relocation of Children After Divorce and Children’s Best Interests: New Evidence and Legal Considerations.” The study showed that college students with divorced parents living a long distance away were “significantly” disadvantaged compare to college students with divorced parents who lived near each other.
Since 2003, the research supporting a child’s need for both parents has grown. Dr. Richard Warshak, one of Bill’s favorite authorities researching family law issues, recently co-authored an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of California. Below are some of the notable conclusions Warshak and the new social science make.
At five years [the] positive contribution of the father’s role emerged with clarity. Specifically, good father-child relationships appeared linked to high self-esteem and the absence of depression in children of both sexes and at all ages. We were interested to find this significant link in both sexes up to and including those in the thirteen-to-twenty-four age group. (page 7)
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It is noteworthy that the divorce appeared not to diminish the importance of the psychological link between father and child. This connection was especially obvious at the five-year mark in those children who were between nine and twelve, or entering adolescence. Children in this age group took intense pleasure in the visiting and when they were not visited they grieved. It seemed possible, in fact, that in this nine-to-twelve-year-old group the visiting father might sustain a youngster even in the care of a disorganized mother. (pages 7-8)
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Aside from pleas to reunite their parents, the most pressing demand children brought to counseling was for more visiting. . . . The intense longing for greater contact persisted undiminished over many years, long after the divorce was accepted as an unalterable fact of life. (page 9)
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It is not contact, per se, that is important, but rather other dimensions of involvement that go along with contact that are beneficial to children’s lives. Indeed, contact may be a mixed blessing if the contact is enough to tantalize children but not enough to satisfy. . . . Nonresidential parents who maintain parental roles (providing guidance, discipline, supervision, and educational assistance) may affect their children more profoundly than those who are limited to functioning as occasional visiting companions. (pages 15-16)
Hire an Expert
To get the above social science evidence before the jury or judge, you should hire an expert witness to educate the jury or judge about what is in the best interest of the child.
Jury Questions and Sample Jury Charge
Here is an outline of juror questions that Bill uses in relocation cases.
“Never leave a lawyer on your jury.” –Bill’s practice tip in jury selection
Here is a sample jury charge for a relocation case.