By Roy Mastro and Stella Edwards
What is a “suitcase child?” He or she can be defined as a child that is a victim of their parent’s divorce/custody proceedings in our judicial system. Such children keep their suitcase packed because they are being ordered by the legal system to frequently travel from one parent’s home to the other parent’s home, sometimes forty to fifty miles away or even a greater distance. They give up time spent in childhood activities with their friends in the neighborhood or from their school. Eventually, they feel like outsiders among their friends. Many of these children are robbed of their childhood and feel less equitable to other children. They develop anti sociable personalities. Some of this is created by the court-appointed guardian ad litem for the child when he or she fails to fulfill assigned responsibilities as outlined in the Supreme Court of Virginia document “Advocacy in Motion.” The child’s parents complete multiple pages of information about every aspect of the child’s life: their homes, activities, schools, doctors, day care, therapist, and other important people in their life. If the child’s appointed guardian does not properly use the information and interview the child, the parents, and other important people and visit the homes, schools, day care centers before submitting a report to the judge, that report may exclude critical information that may be detrimental to child’s safety and welfare. The judge places a great deal of consideration on the guardian’s report for a ruling in a child custody case. This is even more important when a substitute judge is presiding over the case with very little knowledge of the facts because that judge had no prior involvement. Many times, this will result in children being placed in an unstable environment where they are harmed for life. Often, it will create anxiety for children and leads to long-term medication or therapy to cope with their situation. They will lose their self-esteem, self-confidence, and hope for a bright future. Many grow up to be bitter young adults because they feel as if their childhood was stolen from them.
Some will turn to crime or drugs and are capable of carrying out the unthinkable. Others will end up in correction facilities or take their own life. Many times the child’s young parents will spend thousands of dollars from the child’s college fund in legal fees going back to court to remove their child from an unstable environment. Also, some parents lose their jobs because they are away from their workplace so much meeting with attorneys and attending trials.
In many cases the attorneys work together to prolong the outcome of the case to drive up their fees. We can and must do better to save our children. Some of us have witnessed divorce/child custody cases exceeding $200,000. Also, we have learned from some of our legislators and other people across our commonwealth that they have witnessed the same thing. This is absurd. The attorneys are prolonging these cases to drive up their fees while the child’s college funds are being depleted and other needs neglected. In addition to this, many of us are shocked when we learn that some of the less competent guardians submit reports to judges that place children in unstable homes; while earning over $5,000 for each recommendation. As mentioned above, we can and must do better to save our children by supporting Virginia House Bill 1957 at the 2017 General Assembly.
The bill was HB – 1241 at the 2016 General Assembly, and by voice vote in both the “House Courts of Justice, Sub-Committee” and the full House of Delegates, the bill is to be continued at the 2017 General Assembly. If passed, a guardian ad litem, appointed by the court to represent children in a child custody case would be required to complete a Guardian ad Litem Certification Checklist and attach it to report that is submitted to the presiding judge. This document requires counter-signatures for accountability.
As volunteers for children in youth sports, youth activities, churches, and schools, we have witnessed and studied this problem for the past four to five years. We collected data and talked to many people across our commonwealth about this issue. The feedback that we received from the people pointed to two areas in our broken legal system for children of divorced or separated parents. They are negligent guardians appointed to protect children and substitute judges presiding over child custody cases with very little knowledge of facts because they had no prior involvement in the case. We have witnessed and received feedback about cases involving court-appointed guardians who were very negligent in representing children. Some guardians never left their offices to visit the homes where the child would be staying.
We know of a custody case where the child’s guardian came to court and stated to the judge that she could not give a report because the father was not cooperative. This was after she was appointed to the case many months in advance and had his attorney’s permission to interview the father. The mother and child were interviewed in her office, and the guardian had told the child that she was going to visit her school and home. The mother said that the guardian did not visit either of these locations, and the child said that the guardian lied to her and she is not trustworthy. Some guardians are exceptional in representing our children. Too many are negligent in fulfilling their responsibilities, and children are destroyed from the guardian’s inaction. Others may be more concerned about their compensation than the welfare of our children. The answer for them is: We, as responsible adults, should all give back to society a portion of our resources and time regardless of our profession, especially for our children.
We have received hundreds of support signatures from teachers, commonwealth attorneys, pastors, police officers, military leaders, business leaders, youth directors, foster care parents, personnel who work in our legal system, legal assistants to our legislators, and many other people across our commonwealth from the Williamsburg -Tidewater area, central Virginia, northern Virginia and all the way across our state to southwestern Virginia. The three comments that we most often hear are as follows:
“It is about time that someone addresses this issue, how can I help?”
“They don’t really care about the children as long as they are making money.”
“Do not give up on our children, they are depending on you.”
Note: One in three people from whom we received feedback has a relative, neighbor, or friend who has experienced the issues that we have addressed above. This is why we are motivated to drive this issue. Contact either of the phone numbers listed below if you would like to show your support by attending our presentation at the 2017 General Assembly in the House of Delegates, Courts of Justice, Sub-Committee. We will advise you of the date and time. Call Stella Edwards at (804) 691-2122 or Roy Mastro at (804) 530-2274.