If you are involved in a divorce or other court matter, you have to keep this in mind. You have to be careful to not be your own worst enemy in Court.
A couple of years ago, the Court decided the case N.J. Div. Of Youth and Family Services v. N.D. and E.W. The Judge (who is an experienced, intelligent and careful Judge) who took a child away from his mother and gave him to his father to raise. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court decided that the Judge made a mistake, that the Judge had not given the mother and her lawyer fair warning (“proper notice”), and “due process of law”.
Put that way, it seems simple.
It is not, and you should understand how the mother’s actions helped to strongly push the Judge in the wrong direction.
A child, “T.W.” (the Court only uses initials to protect privacy in these cases) was born in 1996 to the father “E.W” and the mother “N.D.” who never married. The mother raised the boy. DYFS was first called in 1999. From then to now, DYFS received three complaints from the father, two from the father’s mother, one from the mother, one from a neighbor and five more from others. Most were thrown out, two were pursued by DYFS but the boy was returned to his mother. The Court had told these parents to settle their custody fights without calling DYFS.
This was a troubled family right from the start.
In February 2008, DYFS took the boy (then 11 years old) away from his mother. DYFS did plan to return him to his mother when the problems were solved. The problems were bad, but not horrible. The mother’s apartment was heated only by the oven for over a year, and had electricity only from an extension cord illegally plugged into a socket in the basement of the building. The mother left the boy alone for three or four hours on days when she went to night school.
Now, none of that is good, but it can be fixed. The mother needed to pay her heating and electric bills, and arrange to not leave the boy alone. It makes sense for DYFS to take action to protect the boy. It also made sense to give him back to his mother when that was all done.
Things got off track, and DYFS had good reasons to become irritated with the mother. When questioned by the DYFS worker, the mother would not talk and told her to leave. The mother failed to appear for meetings, and would not cooperate with DYFS.
In July, five months later, the mother appeared for a trial (‘fact finding hearing’), but no trial was held. Instead, the mother and her attorney (she had a free attorney appointed by the Court) agreed in front of the Judge that DYFS should continue to supervise the child because there were still ‘child welfare concerns’, but also that there were ‘no findings of abuse or neglect’.
DYFS psychologists had talked to the child, who said he did not feel safe living with his mother. The Judge ordered family counseling before the child could be returned to his mother. The Judge ordered both the mother and the father to attend individual counseling before family counseling. The mother would not comply with individual counseling, and wanted family counseling to start right away DYFS became more irritated with her actions.
There was more conflict between the mother and the father, and the boy told the psychologist that this hurt him. The mother was fighting with the father in front of the boy; the father was fighting too.
In January 2009, DYFS filed a report recommending that the boy be given to the ‘non-offending parent’, the father. This was a direct result of the mother’s own actions.
In February 2009, the Judge had DYFS’ recommendation, and ordered that the boy be ‘reunited’ with his father. The Judge did grant the request by the mother to challenge this decision and hold a hearing and let witnesses testify.
A trial was held, and the DYFS psychologists testified that the boy was happy living with his father, and doing well. The Judge decided it was best for the boy to continue to live with his father.
It is true that the Judge just lost sight of what the Judge was supposed to do in a case like this. The Judge decided in January 2009 to do what was best for the child, forgetting that the child was happily living with his mother until DYFS took him away in February 2008.
But what makes this case worth talking about is the harm that the mother did to herself by refusing at every step along the way to cooperate with DYFS and with the Court’s orders.
When you ask the Judge to decide an issue in your case, you can be very sure the Judge will try to listen carefully to all the evidence, apply the law accurately, and make the correct decision.
But remember that the Judge is handling dozens of cases at the same time, all the time. Like all the rest of us, Judges can become confused, or lose sight of important points. And the Judge will give a lot of weight in custody cases to the recommendation of psychiatrists, social workers, or psychologists. In financial disputes, the opinions of accountants, employability experts and other professionals counts for a lot. And if DYFS, or Adult Protective Services is involved, their opinions will be very important. You want to cooperate with these people, not fight them.
Trials are always complicated. You and your lawyer want to keep it simple, so the Judge can understand it. Keep it accurate, so the Judge does not believe you are a liar and disbelieve what you say. Above all, keep it as short as possible. You will increase the chances that the Judge will be able to understand it all, and get it right in your case.