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Resistance, Reunification, and Relocation: Unique Perspectives on Familial Conflict

By: Iman Zekri, Law Clerk

Shattered relationships, deep emotional scars, anger, vengeance, and confusion are the first things that come to mind when people think of divorce. Words like healing, recovery, and collaboration are rarely, if ever, associated with divorce. However, that was the hopeful message the Association of Family Law Professionals got across during its annual family law seminar. The virtual conference, even on its new Zoom platform managed to exceed expectations as being both informative and inspirational. Presenters at the seminar included Dr. Benjamin Garber, Dr. Jan Faust, Christy O’Brien, Ryan O’Halloran, and Gus Simmons.

Child Resistance

Dr. Benjamin Garber, a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, began his presentation on caregiver-child dynamics by explaining the distinction between diagnoses and dynamics. Whereas diagnoses exist at the individual level, dynamics are patterns of behavior between people, which are not identifiable or treatable at the individual level. Courts and professionals frequently order individual assessments and interventions; however, it is dynamics (not diagnoses) that more fittingly enable a court to facilitate the best interests of the child in making custody determinations. “We can only understand and hope to meet the needs of children polarized amidst their parents’ conflict by taking a comprehensive, systemic view of the child’s experience and the parents’ respective capacities,” says Dr. Garber.

One dynamic useful in understanding child resistance that Dr. Garber suggests is “triangulation,” which occurs when the child becomes emotionally entangled in the adults’ conflict and becomes the rope in a highly emotional tug-of-war contest. The child may cope with being triangulated by becoming chameleon-like or enmeshed. A “chameleon-like” child will adjust to the experience by switching his or her color in each environment in which he or she lives (i.e., having one identity at the mother’s home and another identity at the father’s home). A child becomes “enmeshed” when otherwise appropriate boundaries between parent and child are distorted. Examples of enmeshment include the child serving as the parent’s caregiver, the child serving as the parent’s friend, or the child being prevented from growing up in order to fulfill the parent’s need to feel needed.

Before one can put these dynamics to good use, it is critical that family law professionals recognize and prevent confirmation bias from prematurely validating their perception of causes of conflict within a family. Remaining open-minded and minimizing confirmation bias requires one to stay watchful for any contradictory information that may upset one’s existing hypothesis about what a child or family is going through. Because family law is about dynamics, understanding what the child is experiencing within the family unit is necessary to make child custody determinations that truly meet the best interests of the child.

Needs for Reunification

Dr. Jan Faust, a Florida licensed psychologist and professor at Nova Southeastern University, presented on the dynamics and requirements of reunification therapy, which assists in mending and rebuilding family relationships in cases where the child never had a relationship with a parent or where there was a breach in the parent-child relationship. According to Dr. Faust, reunification therapy is an important service because “research demonstrates that sons and daughters of all ages benefit from relationships with both parents.” Further, Florida Statutes Section 61.13(2)(c) provides that it is the public policy of the state that each minor has “frequent and continuing contact” with both parents after separation or divorce.

Reunification therapy is a pathway for both parents to have a relationship with their child, particularly in families where there is a gatekeeping parent who attempts to dictate the other parent’s access to the child. “Reunification Family Therapy is an attempt to assist not only the children but both parents which may provide everyone with some emotional relief,” says Dr. Faust.

Moreover, a trained and neutral professional assists the family and ensures the child’s safety through every step of the process. Dr. Faust suggests that “attorneys should assist their clients with understanding the benefits of Reunification Family Therapy for their children, including building healthier relationships between parents and children, avoiding litigation, and avoiding sanctions from the court for failure to effectuate a relationship between the non-time-sharing parent and child.”

Requests for Relocation

Attorneys Christy O’Brien, Ryan O’Halloran, and Gus Simmons held a panel discussing child relocation law in Florida. Absent an agreement between both parents to relocate the child, a parent seeking relocation over 50 miles away from that parent’s current residence must file a petition to relocate in accordance with Florida Statutes Section 61.13001. The petition must include, among other things, a detailed statement of the reasons for the proposed relocation and a proposed revised timesharing schedule. The objecting parent must provide specific reasons for objecting to the relocation as well as a statement of the objecting parent’s current involvement in the child’s life.

Christy O’Brien, a family law partner at Henderson Franklin in Fort Myers, emphasized that the relocating parent must have a concrete plan to present to the court because a potential career opportunity without an actual job offer and plan for managing the relocation is unlikely to be successful. As with any decision affecting a minor child, the court looks to the best interests of the child and considers a variety of factors outlined in Section 61.13001, including the child’s relationship with the relocating parent and the non-relocating parent, the age and development of the child, the reasons for the relocation, the child’s preference in light of the child’s age and maturity, and whether the relocation will enhance the quality of life of the parent and the child. If the court denies the request to relocate, the parent could still make a personal decision to unilaterally relocate; however, the parent should first obtain advice from their attorney and consider the possibility of such a decision placing him or her in an unfavorable position in any future litigation.

For more information on the Association of Family Law Professionals, please visit https://aflpnetwork.com/.

About the Author

Iman Zekri is a Southwest Florida native and grew up in Lehigh Acres. She graduated from Riverdale High School, attended Florida SouthWestern State College and Florida Gulf Coast University for her undergraduate degrees, and received her J.D. from University of Florida Levin College of Law. She is currently serving as a law clerk. Iman is fluent in Arabic (Tunisian dialect). Iman may be reached at iman.zekri@henlaw.com or by phone at 239-344-1119.