Many families have concerning relatives – those who are jerks, or have made bad decisions in the past, or who may pose a risk to your child's health and safety. When married, parents make (or try to make) decisions together about ensuring their children's safety when these relatives may visit. But what should be done when a divorce creates a situation where one of the parents has more significant concerns about a relative's contact with the children than the other parent? How should those concerns be addressed as co-parents?
Before raising this issue with your ex-spouse or the other parent, here are three questions to ask yourself.
First, is the person indeed a risk to your children?
Or, to be more blunt, is this person simply a jerk, or is there more going on? Many people have relatives that make them uncomfortable and who they wish would not be around their children. However, that does not necessarily make that person a risk to the children. There is a big difference between a relative who makes off-color jokes, for example, and a relative who is a risk of physically and emotionally harming your children. Families have layers of complexities, and you may not want your ex's brother, Uncle Bob, telling off-color jokes in front of the kids on Thanksgiving Day, but Uncle Bob will probably be there on Thanksgiving Day when the children are with your ex. You may not be able to prevent this contact and you may create conflict with your ex that could unnecessarily spill-out in front of the children. Generally, children are most impacted by divorce as a result of ongoing parental conflict.
You should also know that a court may not take action to prevent the off-color relative from spending time in the children's presence.
Second, if the relative is a risk to your children, should you place restrictions in the parenting plan on a relative's contact in that case?
Some relatives are simply not appropriate to be around your children because they may physically or emotionally harm your children. And, these relatives may not recognize the risk they pose. In that case, you should insist on protections in your parenting plan with regard to that relative. It is perfectly appropriate to insist that the parenting plan include contact limitations, such as, “the maternal grandmother shall not be alone with the children without one of the parents present.” Or, “Paternal Aunt may not provide care for the children for longer than 30 minutes and may only provide care if sober.”
The restriction should meet the safety needs of the children. Children need and appreciate contact with relatives, although the child's physical and emotional safety is paramount. Suppose a relative who created unsafe situations in the past around their drug and alcohol use or mental health issues has completed drug and alcohol treatment or is receiving treatment for their mental health issues. Is a blanket prohibition against that person's contact with the children appropriate? That is a decision for the parents to make together in mediation.
Third, should you trust your parental instincts?
Parental instinct is essential and should be relied on. Sometimes, you just have a feeling about your relatives or your spouse's relatives and just can't quite figure things out . . . it's ok to trust that feeling. And it's important to raise that issue as you discuss parenting time with your co-parent – perhaps in the safety of mediation or with your collaborative team. Both mediation sessions and joint collaborative sessions are meant to be safe containers to have these difficult conversations about how to work closely with your ex to raise emotionally and physically safe children. You may find that you both share the same concern.
It is difficult to raise safety concerns with your soon-to-be-ex, and you both likely want what is best for your children. This is especially true when you have not developed productive communication skills together. You can raise these issues though and should if the safety issues are significant enough to warrant protection in the written safety plan. Use your mediator and your collaborative team as a resource to help produce a productive conversation for the benefit of your children.