Mine, His, Ours: Is Parental Gatekeeping Child Abuse?

April 5, 2016  |  

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Shutterstock

Parental gatekeeping isn’t a term that you hear too often, but we see examples of it every day.

Let’s say a couple gets divorced. They have three children together. The mother has primary physical custody or placement, but the two have worked out a visitation schedule that gives the father ample time with the kids. Everything is going well for a while, but one day, the parents have a disagreement. To get back at her ex, the mother decides to keep him from seeing the kids; either by telling him flat out, issuing an ultimatum, or creating an excuse for her to have them for a longer period of time.

When they finally work things out, or when the mother decides to let go of the issue — whichever comes first — she finally lets the father see his kids. But weeks later, there’s another disagreement, and in retaliation, the mom takes even more time away from dad.

See where we’re going here? Sound familiar?

That, my friends, is parental gatekeeping.

Restrictive gatekeeping is supposed to be used for a child’s protection. For example, if dad is drinking heavily or there are concerns about some kind of neglect or abuse, mom (or whomever the custodial parent is) has the right to restrict contact and/or communication with the kids to keep them from harm. When there’s no suspected endangerment to the children, though, the power is being misused.

And according to some, this misuse of parental gatekeeping is considered child abuse. Why?

Consider this:

The first time the kids are kept away from their father, it’s not a huge deal. When they see each other again, they pick up right where they left off and all is right with the world again. But as the number of times they’re kept apart increases, the more the children get used to him not being around, and in some cases, think that it’s because he doesn’t want to see them. They’re hurt. Resentful. And sooner or later, the relationship between the father and the children becomes strained…possibly to a point where it’s irreparable.

It’s not physical abuse, but it’s definitely psychologically damaging; and in many states that’s equivalent to serious physical harm, and the parent could end up losing custody altogether.

In some states, like the state of California, that kind of unreasonable gatekeeping is punishable; especially if it includes a false accusation of substance abuse, neglect or abuse against the non-custodial parent, but it’s not looked at as a form of child abuse. It could, however, result in a change in the custody agreement. California Family Code 3028 allows for compensation when a parent has been “thwarted by the other parent when attempting to exercise custody or visitation rights contemplated by a custody or visitation order, including, but not limited to, an order for joint physical custody, or by a written or oral agreement between the parents.”

Meaning: The mother could end up having to pay the father a minimum of $100 plus his legal fees; share physical custody; or worse, custody could be awarded to the the father if the judge decides that he’s the parent who’s more likely to allow the child “frequent and continuing contact with the noncustodial parent.”

Is this the better option?

Where do you stand on the issue? Should unreasonable parental gatekeeping be considered a form of serious child abuse in every state? Tell us what you think!

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