Q: I split up with my wife just over a year ago. Despite having lasted 10 years, it had been a very unhappy marriage. My wife constantly belittled me, and could be very aggressive and volatile towards me. Things went badly wrong after my daughter, who is now six, was born. My wife found parenting hard, and was depressed and unhappy. She took things out on me and insisted I leave the bedroom (I have learned subsequently that she was unfaithful to me on a number of occasions).
I finally left 18 months ago when I met someone through work who has shown me what a real, loving relationship is like. Although she had no interest in me, my wife did not take the break-up well, and became really aggressive. When I tried to talk to her, she hit me and destroyed some of my possessions. On one occasion in a rage she took a knife and threatened to kill me.
When I moved out, I continued to be involved as a father, and my daughter stayed over with me several nights a week. However, my wife has done everything she can to disrupt this. Last year she made an accusation to child protection services that I had harmed my daughter. This devastated me and it meant that I did not see my daughter for six weeks while this was being investigated. Of course there was no substance to the allegation and the social workers shared with me privately their worries about my wife’s mental health.
Since that time, contact with my daughter has been difficult and my wife can be volatile. I am increasingly worried about her mental health – she is drinking heavily – and her ability to care for my daughter, though she refuses any increased contact or involvement from me. I would be happy for my daughter to come and live with me full-time.
It seems very difficult to get legal support to change things and I know that if I take a court case, my wife will be livid. She could take it out on me and stop contact altogether.
A: Sadly, it is not uncommon for parents to make unfounded accusations of child abuse within the context of serious acrimony. Unfortunately, in my work as a social worker I receive very many of these referrals. Sometimes the parent making the accusation uses this deliberately as a means to attack the other parent or to stop them having contact with their child. More frequently, they are so upset, angry and mistrustful of the other parent that they strongly believe the child should live only with them, and actually believe the child is at risk of harm from the other parent. Whatever the reasons, such allegations represent deep acrimony, and result in a breakdown of communication between two parents.
Seek specialist support and advice
In the situation you are dealing with, it is important that you seek specialist support and advice. As a first port of call, you may wish to recontact the social workers who were involved in the investigation. Explain your concerns for your daughter, and ask for their assistance in moving forward. They could reassess the situation and refer you and your ex-wife to specialist therapeutic services.
For example, it may be helpful to seek the support of a skilled family therapist or mediator who could work with you and your wife to reach agreement focused on your daughter’s needs. They have also recourse to legal options as necessary to protect your daughter.
In addition, you should seek your own legal advice about your options. In your situation, it may be helpful to get a court order that formally recommends the best custody and access arrangements for your daughter. While there is a danger that starting court proceedings could antagonise your ex-wife, particularly in the short term, you might need to do this for the sake of your daughter in the long term.
A wise court judgment has the potential to support an arrangement that is in your daughter’s best interest (for example, shared custody with you as residential parent) and from this position you could more easily negotiate reasonably with your wife. The court also has recourse to recommending specialist family assessments, which may be beneficial in deciding what is best.
Seek specialist support as a non residential father
Seeking court judgments, of course, can be risky, and frequently the judgement leaves one parent (or even both) unhappy, or the court process is too crude an instrument to focus on the needs of an individual child. In addition, court judgments are frequently biased against fathers, especially nonresidential fathers.
Courts can be reluctant to countenance judgments against mothers or to conceive that mothers’ parenting or care could be substandard and that children may be better off living with their fathers. For these reasons, be cautious and realistic about what you hope for. Seek support from specialist groups for fathers in situations similar to your own.
Behave positively towards your wife
After all that has happened, it would be understandable if you were extremely angry with your ex-wife. Do not let this affect your judgment or willingness to collaborate with her.
Remember she is and always will be the mother of your daughter and it is in your daughter’s interest for you to work as coparents the best way you can. Even if your ex-wife has behaved irrationally, don’t be tempted to return this. It can be helpful to try to understand the upset that might underpin your wife’s actions.
As you said, she may be deeply unhappy and struggling with mental health and alcohol problems, and she may need some help and support to overcome these problems. Her long-term wellbeing is important to your daughter and thus important to you as her father. At all stages in the process, be open to negotiation and making agreements with your daughter’s mother where possible. Make the most of the contact you currently have with your daughter and try to build on this.
Focus on your daughter’s needs and what is best for her
Don’t lose sight of what is best for your daughter. Try to set goals based on her needs, and work towards these. Is it best for your daughter to live with you, with her mother maintaining contact? Or is the idea a shared custody and a shared parenting arrangement? How can you and her mother move to a point of you working together as coparents for the sake of your daughter?
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, August 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.