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Noncustodial father concerned about daughter's failing grades, self-mutilation, and her described difficulties with mother

Your Question:
My 11 year old and 10 year old daughters have asked to live with me and my wife (her stepmom). This evening, my 11 year old stated that she can't handle the stress anymore of living with their mom and doesn't know what she's going to do. This past year, she has started picking her ears and nose until they bleed. And then she picks them more. My wife was brushing her hair and has noticed knots on her head. She's failing school. She is painfully shy and has few friends. My 10 year old is not having such a difficult time that I am aware of with friends and school. My wife and I make a point of not speaking ill of their mother around them. This has allowed them the ability to speak freely of their life with their mother. The girls have recently told us that their nicknames at their mom's are "dishes" and "vaccuum". This is because that is one of the many chores they do. My 11 year old's day starts at 6 am. This is when she gets up, cooks breakfast, feeds her new baby brother(not mine), takes out the dogs (many), wakes up her sister (10 yr old), does dishes, gets ready for school then finally goes to school. When she comes home, she is to make the beds, clean up the kitchen, start dinner and do homework if she has the time. In the meantime, my other daughter is doing laundry, bathing the new baby, feeding him and then homework. Per my daughters, my ex's day consists of sleeping, watching TV, Ebay and computer games. This is how she behaved while we were married, so I have no reason to believe it's not true. There is a list of things that she has done from sleeping with my child's counselor while we were married to using the children for more money to unneccessary physical discplining the girls. I want to reverse the custody to her having every other weekend/4 weeks in summer and I be the primary parent. I'm worried about the outcome on my daughter's. If I do not get primary custody, their lives are going to be worse off than they are now with the treatment from their mother. How much input can an 11 year old have in regards to their own custody? What is the first step? Any and all information will be greatly appreciated!

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My Answer:

Thanks for writing.

I asked a few other questions, and you further answered:

  • You have joint custody, and you have around 25% - 30% custodial timeshare with the kids.

  • Your court orders specify that the mother is responsible for the kids' healthcare, though you and your wife have them covered by insurance.

  • You have nothing in your past that indicates you're a bad parent.

  • You live near the mother.

In order to prevail in court, you're going to have to effectively demonstrate via credible evidence and testimony that the children are suffering due to the current custodial arrangement, and that your solution will alleviate the suffering.

That sounds pretty basic, but putting together that case is tough.

Your word isn't good enough, and your description and/or documentation symptoms isn't good enough. What if they've figured out that ragging on their mom gets them extra care and sympathy from you? What if she's picking her nose/ears because of stress with you? Or stress over school? Or due to a weird psychosomatic illness that has nothing to do with her home environment?

For you to have a good chance at changing custody, you need to convince a judge that the ONLY reason the children are suffering is because of the mother; and that there is no other reasonable explanation for what's going on.

Also, you cannot speculate about future events or outcomes. You say, "Their lives are going to be worse off than they are now with the treatment from their mother."

Such speculation makes you sound like a ninny, if that's the crux of your argument. Sure, they MAY have poor lives due to their mother. But what about the many people in the world who are massively successful despite a tough upbringing? Or what about the ones who have an ideal upbringing and end up on the streets as drug addicts? Who's to say how these kids will turn out? You can't argue it.

So, what you need to do is build your case for the here-and-now.

It's evident to me (and you, per your subsequent emails not posted) that the older one really needs to see a child psychologist to help identify what's going on, and to see if there is anything that can be done to help the girl. Further, this psychologist can help you understand if you do anything to contribute to what's going on (so you can address it), or if it's entirely the mother. Or perhaps it's primarily school, but the mother is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Who knows? No one, right now. But you NEED to know with certainty, and your concern for her is just and valid.

The tricky thing is that you have joint custody and there are court orders saying that the mother is responsible for the child's healthcare. Psychological health probably is included in that.

What I would suggest is that you talk (alone) with the school's counselor, and first make sure that your conversation with him/her is confidential. Then lay out your concerns about your child. Go in with notes, so you can cover everything. Focus on CONCERN FOR THE CHILD, not intent to convict the mother. You can say that the child seems wary of expressing herself to the mother and may not speak openly if the mother is present. Then, ask what the counselor recommends in terms of moving forward.

This person may become a potential ally for you. If this person meets with daughter a few times (I really don't know if it'd be once or regular), she/he may recommend private treatment with a child psychologist. She/he may recommend such a person.

At that point, you can communicate with mother to say that daughter has been referred to Dr. XYZ for counseling.

If mother refuses to agree, you can either do it anyway (and I can't imagine that a judge would find you in the wrong, after a school counselor recommended it), or you seek your orders at that time.

Also, if the child tells the school counselor some of what you're claiming she says, it's possible that the school counselor may find enough indications of abuse or neglect. This person is a mandatory reporter and may have to report it to child protective services.

At that point, you'd want an excellent attorney by your side, so you can pounce on the opportunity to get temporary orders; and perhaps eventually change them into permanent orders if the kids are happier and less stressed.

I think it would be best for you to consult with an attorney and learn about how to effectively build a case for what you want to do. Get some books from the library, or look at my Recommended Books page.

You should be interviewing attorneys right now. One who has 10 years of family law experience in your county would have the best sense of what'll it will take to change custody. If you interview 3 of them, and they all say the same thing to you (i.e., as far as what you should do to prepare your case), you can be assured that their recommendation is correct.

The one very strong, clearcut evidence you have right now is the failing grades; particularly if the mother is doing nothing to help the child (e.g., tutor). A big part of your case is complete, if you have a plan to help the child do better in school. But if the mother immediately starts to get the child help after you file your papers, some of your case is neutralized. So if you also build evidence on the emotional stress going on, then file a massive bomb all at once, you should have a slamdunk to change custody. You could potentially be ready to file within a month. But, I'm some layperson who doesn't know your local biases or trends. That's why an attorney in your area is critical to consult.

The personal and emotional challenge you face is that it FEELS like an urgent situation (rightly so). You're a dad, and you want to save your kids. But the court won't agree with your feelings until you have compelling evidence or testimony that PROVES it's an urgent situation.

Good luck, and please keep me posted.


This website gives common sense advice that is not intended to act as legal guidance nor psychological guidance. The author is neither an attorney nor licensed psychologist. For specific legal guidance or specific psychological guidance, consult with a licensed professional.

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