There is no doubt that Orange County divorces involving disputes over child custody can be emotionally difficult for both the parents and the children. In an effort to ensure that the voices of children are heard when their parents divorce, California Family Code Section 3042 states that children who are at least 14 years old have the right to address the family law court, and that the Orange County family law court may choose to hear from younger children as well.
While the right to be heard is clear, a pair of attorneys writing in the ABA Journal – both of whom testified as children in their parents’ divorces – have strong reservations about the impact of such testimony on kids. In their article, they examine the positives of teen testimony, the downsides of teen courthouse visits and how judges and lawyers can be helpful in these cases.
Orange County family law judges have significantly differing opinions of allowing children to testify. Some judges feel more skilled in taking children’s testimony than others.
A bitter divorce
Lisa Strohman is a clinical psychologist and attorney, but her start in life was “as a child involved in a bitter divorce that would last my entire childhood.”
She writes that one of her biggest concerns is that apart from their parents’ divorce, young teens are typically dealing with puberty, which she describes as “pure chaos emotionally and intellectually.”
She writes that when “a hormonal, emotional, frustrated kid” is included in legal proceedings determining both the dissolution and reformation of their family, the results “will be unpredictable at best.”
Awash in emotions
Family law attorney Jude Egan remembers going into a judge’s chambers during his parents’ divorce when he was a young teen, “awash in emotions” and trying to control his “nervous energy and worry.”
Today, he tells clients and courts that he generally opposes bringing children into the legal process of divorce, but acknowledges that “there are simply times when the facts, as seen by the parties, are so at odds that the only thing to do is bring the children in.”
On the other hand the reason that the legislation codified the law relative to 14-year-olds addressing the family law courts is because of the findings of the California Elkins Family Law Task Force. They found after public hearings that children of this age often have valuable input relative to custody issues and were often old enough and mature enough to provide valuable evidence to judges.
It should be clear that the judges do not have to rubber stamp the child’s preference. The child has a right to state a preference and the court has a duty to make orders that are in a child’s best interests.
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In an upcoming post, we’ll follow up with Strohman and Egan and have more about children testifying in their parents’ divorce.