Author: Solangel Maldonado


Forgiving the Ex, Part II

In a post last week, I discussed the negative effects of persistent anger against a former spouse, including the harm to their children. I suggested that maybe lawmakers need to encourage divorced parents to forgive each other. As I write this sentence, I realize how naïve and simplistic that sounds. How are lawmakers supposed to help people forgive a former spouse who abused, betrayed, or neglected them? Doesn’t encouraging people to forgive suggest that their anger is unwarranted? Doesn’t it suggest that the injurer’s actions were justified or that one is condoning or excusing her wrongful and unjust behavior? Well, no. Forgiveness does not mean that the forgiver does not have a right to be angry. To the contrary, the person who forgives chooses to “abandon [her] right to resentment . . . toward one who unjustly injured [her] while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward [the injurer].” Enright et al. (1999).

When asked if they have considered forgiving someone who has hurt them deeply, people often reply that the other person “doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” That may be so, but one does not forgive for the injurer’s benefit, but for one’s own benefit and possibly, for the benefits to one’s children. As I discussed in my earlier post, forgiveness may reduce anger and its negative effects on one’s physical and psychological health and parenting abilities. It might also reduce some of the destructive behaviors some parents engage in after divorce such as interfering with the other parent’s access to the children or disparaging him or her in front of the children. It might also enable some former spouses to cooperate as co-parents in their children’s upbringing. The question is not why divorced parents should forgive, but rather how can they be encouraged to do so?

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Forgiving the Ex

It seems that Americans are giving a lot of thought to forgiveness these days. We are asking ourselves whether we should forgive Eliot Spitzer, bailed-out bankers, and the Bush administration’s practice of torture. Oprah and the Mayo Clinic have sections on forgiveness and, a few weeks ago, Case Western Reserve Law School held a symposium on “Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and the Law” where the keynote speaker, Jens Meierhenrich, analyzed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. I want to focus on an area where I think forgiveness matters most—at home.

It is no surprise that some (possibly many) divorcing spouses feel angry and vengeful during and after the divorce. This anger may be healthy at first. It might motivate a battered spouse to leave her abusive partner or push a husband to leave an unfaithful wife who is unlikely to change her behavior. Anger is a sign of self-respect and belief in one’s self-worth. However, anger that endures for months, years, even decades, is not healthy. Studies have found a correlation between long-term anger and high blood pressure, poor cardiovascular health, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

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Violence Against Women and Forgiveness

“In the U.S., a woman is beaten by her partner every 9 seconds.” This was the subject line of an email announcing tonight’s Take Back the Night rally at Seton Hall Law School to raise awareness and protest violence against women. Although I have seen the statistic many times and I cover domestic violence in my Family Law course, I am still shocked by the prevalence of domestic abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one-third of all female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner and the proportion of female murder victims killed by an intimate partner has been increasing in recent years.

As shocking and disturbing as these statistics are, I am actually more surprised by number of teenage girls who do not see domestic abuse for what it is—a crime. I am referring to (you guessed it) R & B singer Chris Brown’s attack on his girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. According to court documents, Brown shoved Rihanna’s head against a car window, then punched, bit, and choked her nearly to the point of unconsciousness. He also threatened to kill her. Although Brown has been charged with two felonies—assault and criminal threats—46% of teenagers in a recent survey said that Rihanna was responsible for the attack and 52% said that they were both responsible. Why do so many teens blame the victim?

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International Child Abductions and Children’s Best Interests

Some of my family law students have been following the international custody case involving Brazil and the United States. According to David Goldman, a New Jersey resident, in June 2004, his wife took their four year-old son, Sean, to Brazil on vacation where he was supposed to join them a week later. However, a few days after arriving in Brazil, his wife informed him she was divorcing him and would remain in Brazil with their son. This case is not unique. Thousands of parents each year remove children from their country of residence and retain them in another country without the other parent’s consent, in breach of the other parent’s custodial rights. Lawmakers around the world have long known that international child abduction by a parent is a serious problem and have attempted to create a mechanism to ensure that children are returned to their country of residence. Under the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, ratified by 68 nations, the signatory countries agree to promptly return a child who has been wrongfully removed to or retained in another signatory country.

Unfortunately, the Hague’s procedural mechanisms do not always work for two reasons. First, courts do not always comply with the Hague and second, even when they do, abducting parents sometimes go into hiding with the child and cannot be found. The retaining country and its law enforcement officials often make little effort to find the child.

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The Beginning of the End of Palimony

Most unmarried couples probably give little thought to their legal rights should the relationship end (either by breakup or death of one of the parties). They might be surprised to learn that a state that was once quite receptive to palimony claims can decide to effectively bar such claims. Couples in New Jersey are about to learn this lesson. The state legislature is considering a bipartisan bill which would require palimony agreements to be in writing and be signed by the party against whom the claim is brought.

The bill, which is expected to pass unopposed, reflects a drastic shift in the state’s approach to palimony agreements. New Jersey courts currently enforce express (oral or written) or implied promises of financial support so long as there is some form of consideration sufficient to form a contract. The New Jersey Supreme Court is also the only state supreme court to hold that “cohabitation is not an essential requirement for a cause of action for palimony,” a requirement in all other states. By requiring palimony agreements to be in writing, the state most favorable to palimony claimants may become one of the most hostile to such claimants.

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Stealing Love

Love is a wonderful thing, but sometimes love (or infatuation) leads individuals to engage in behavior that can hurt not only them, but also their families. I am talking about extramarital affairs. Although over 85% of Americans believe that adultery is morally wrong, countless spouses are unfaithful. Last week the NY Times discussed the benefits of an anti-love vaccine which would prevent humans from falling in love with the wrong person (i.e., someone who is committed to another person). While such a drug would do wonders for those who wish to fight the occasional urge to stray, it does little to deter individuals who have no qualms about pursuing someone else’s spouse. The law, however, might already provide a deterrent, albeit a quite controversial one.

A minority of states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah, still recognize a cause of action for alienation of affections against any person who wrongfully interferes with a person’s marriage, thereby causing that person to lose his or her spouse’s affection. Lest you think these causes of action are a thing of the past, this past August, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a $1.5 million verdict against an attorney who had an affair with his client’s wife. The plaintiff, who had hired the attorney in connection with a medical malpractice case, prevailed on his claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and alienation of affections. Further, even after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, some states, including California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, and Virginia, have allowed claims arising from an extramarital affair to be brought against certain professionals, including attorneys, psychiatrists/psychologists, and clergymen providing marital counseling services, on a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress, professional malpractice, negligent counseling, and breach of fiduciary duty. For example, eight years after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a priest who had an affair with the plaintiff’s wife to whom the priest was supposedly providing marriage counseling.

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Should Parents Lose Custody of Obese Kids?

As I was preparing my new syllabus, I came across a case that forced me to think about the extent to which parents should bear responsibility for their children’s obesity. It is well-known that obesity places children at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, and possibly cancer later in life. Sixteen percent of American children and adolescents are obese; another sixteen percent are overweight. The medical profession has warned that, as a result of the rise in childhood obesity, the current generation of American children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

I believe that parents should make efforts to provide their children with healthy foods and regular exercise. However, I question whether parents who do not control their children’s weight problem should lose custody of their children to the state? Are we willing to hold that a parent who does little to address his child’s obesity has neglected his child in the same way as if he had failed to provide him with adequate nourishment or supervision? Courts and child welfare agencies are grappling wth this issue. In a recent case, In re Brittany T., a New York Family Court ordered the removal of a morbidly obese child from her parents’ home based on the parents’ consistent failure to comply with the court’s order that they take her to the gym 2-3 times a week and attend a nutrition and education program, among other things. Although the case was reversed on appeal, the New York Appellate Division did not hold that child obesity can never be grounds for neglect, but rather that, in this particular case, the Department of Social Services had not shown that the parents had willfully violated the terms of the court’s order. In fact, although Brittany had gained 25 pounds in five months, the evidence showed that her parents had taken her to the gym at least once a week, had met with a nutritionist, and had kept a food log for her. Yes, the food log reflected that Brittany ate “lots of chicken nuggets, lots of pop tarts, hot dogs, and pizza,” but the parents had maintained the log, as ordered.

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Polygamists Indicted in British Columbia

The day after I posted What Exactly is Wrong with Polygamy, the Canadian press reported that two alleged leaders of the polygamous community of Bountiful in British Columbia had been charged with practicing polygamy in violation of the Criminal Code. The Code makes it a crime for any person to enter into “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time.” One of the charged men is alleged to have 20 wives; the other man is alleged to have two wives. There is no allegation that the defendants’ wives are underage. Although no charges have been brought against any of the wives, as Angela Campbell has pointed out, “[e]nforcing the criminal law against polygamy risks imprisoning not only the women’s husbands, but also them.”

The criminal indictment has placed the issue of polygamy at the forefront of Canadian constitutional law. The British Columbia authorities have been aware of the practice of polygamy in Bountiful for decades, but had chosen not to prosecute, in part, because some legal experts believe that the prohibition on polygamy will not survive a constitutional challenge. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “freedom of conscience and religion.” In fact, the British Columbia Attorney General sought legal advice from three independent sources before deciding to approve the indictment and two recommended against charging the men with polygamy. The opinion of the third source has not been released.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which has rejected claims of religious freedom to practice polygamy, the Supreme Court of Canada has never addressed whether laws prohibiting polygamy violate the guarantee of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights. The accused men, who are alleging religious persecution, are likely to claim religious freedom as a defense to the charges. It will be interesting to see how this case develops.


What Exactly is Wrong With Polygamy?

Thanks to Concurring Opinions for inviting me back to blog this month. I look forward to your comments.

I have been thinking a lot about polygamy lately. As I prepare to teach Family Law once again, I am confronted with polygamy everywhere I turn. First, the third season of Big Love, the HBO series about a Utah entrepreneur struggling to support and “satisfy” his three wives and eight children, begins next week. Second, last April, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services removed 468 children from their homes in a polygamous ranch. Although the Texas Supreme Court ordered the children’s return to their parents after finding no immediate danger warranting emergency removal, child protective services has continued its investigation in a handful of cases. Third, I have been following Professor Angela Campbell’s research on the polygamous community of Bountiful in British Columbia, which has challenged some of my assumptions about polygamous wives. Finally, I recently learned that polygamy is practiced in the U.S., not only by members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Utah, Arizona, and Texas, but also by Black Muslims and African immigrants in New York and Philadelphia. This brings me to the question I would like to raise: What exactly is wrong with polygamy? I will discuss some frequently made arguments and look forward to reading yours.

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. Yet, it is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 men, women, and children live in polygamous households in the U.S. Most polygamists do not enter into plural marriages for purely personal reasons, but rather are guided by religious beliefs. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which broke with the Mormon church in 1890 when the latter disavowed polygamy) believe that only men who have at least three wives will enter the highest level of heaven and that women can only get to heaven if their husbands take them there. The United States Supreme Court, in Reynolds v. United States , rejected claims of religious freedom under the First Amendment to practice polygamy.

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Facilitating Paternal Involvement

In a post last week, I discussed some of the reasons why so many noncustodial fathers disengage from their children. I received many thoughtful comments, some of which discussed the law’s unstated preference for maternal custody and mothers’ interference with visitation. Admittedly, some mothers do interfere with visitation and courts should do more to enforce fathers’ rights. However, we cannot ignore the opposite problem—fathers who do not see their children even when there is no one preventing them from doing so. There are many fathers who see their children less often than the custodial mother would like and less often than they are entitled to under the custody and visitation order. However, while residential parents may not legally interfere with the other parent’s access to the child, there are no legal or social sanctions imposed on fathers who fail to pick up their children for the evening or weekend as scheduled. Some mothers have actually gone to court asking the judge to force their child’s father to exercise his visitation rights only to be informed that there is nothing the law can do.

I disagree. The law can do something. The social and legal forces I discussed last week may have pushed some fathers away from their children. Thus, the law has a responsibility to facilitate paternal involvement. Unacceptably high rates of paternal absence call for drastic measures. That is why I propose that the law attempt to bring fathers back into their children’s lives by adopting a presumption of joint legal custody and requiring that they participate in their children’s upbringing.

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