Judge’s Apology to Children Lays Out Logic of Family Court

by W.F. Price on June 13, 2012

An Australian judge, Tom Altobelli, took the unusual step of writing to two children who were taken from their father to apologize for giving their mother sole custody, and stripping their father of any visitation rights.

The mother had claimed sexual abuse after her own mother consulted a psychic, who said the daughter was being molested.

Judge Altobelli found that the allegations were false, but declared that he thought that the mother truly believed them. This is possible. Self-delusion to attain some goal is maddeningly common in divorce.

Because he thought she truly believed the father was a molester, Altobelli decided it would be cruel to her to force her to give the father visitation rights, and since she was the “better parent” (code for mother), she was granted custody.

One of the insane things I encountered during divorce was the idea that joint custody is often held to be feasible only when there is cooperation on the part of the parents. Fortunately, this idea is not enshrined in law in Washington state – although it is unofficial policy for social workers – but apparently it is where Altobelli’s court has jurisdiction (Australia). The problem with this view is that it gives the custodial parent (typically the mother) an incentive to create conflict if they don’t want to share the children’s visitation. Fathers simply cannot win if the mother puts her foot down.

I have compared family law judges to butchers before, and not to cast aspersions on them, but rather to describe their job. Their job involves cutting up a family into so many pieces. They are not paid to preserve families, but rather to dismember them. I invite any people who doubt this to spend a few afternoons in family court and see for themselves.

The real problem in Western family law is that when you go in for a hearing, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how the job will be done. Will so-and-so get the ribs and brisket? Who gets the hamhocks? The sirloin? And so on and so forth.

Altobelli decided he might as well simply cut off the head and leave the rest intact. It may have been out of laziness, frustration, or simply the knowledge that the mother would continue to pester the court and ruin the ex-husband’s life through constant accusations and litigation. Perhaps he felt he was doing everyone a favor. From one perspective, this may actually have been the case. As the law stands today, an ex wife does have that power.

However, there was something about the sorry case that bothered Altobelli’s conscience enough to motivate him to make an apology to two fatherless children. Perhaps he really did feel some guilt about it.

Even if he did, what bothers me most about his letter is his own evasion of responsibility. He says that the mother is a good parent, writing:

I knew your mum would look after you really well. I decided not to make your mum let you see your dad, even though your dad wanted this very much. I thought it would make things harder for you if I had done this.

Essentially, he’s blaming the mother, and saying that although he didn’t think there was anything terrible about their father, he wouldn’t “make” her do anything she didn’t want to do.

For all the anger at wives and how awful they can be in divorce cases, the fact is that wives aren’t “making” men leave their families. Judges are. Policemen are. Social workers are. And this judge just admitted that men who haven’t done anything wrong can also be made to get out of their children’s lives.

But perhaps the title of the letter speaks for itself.

“Sorry I Took Daddy”

Yes, Mr. Altobelli, you should be.

One small step.

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