Despite my reputation to the contrary, sometimes I am a softy – especially when it comes to children. Maybe it is due to my own experiences as a child of divorce. Whatever the reason, I read a case today that was heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
The case, R.R. v. L.A.C., an unreported (so far because it seems like it was submitted for publication) decision written by Judge D’Alessandro in Hudson County, starts as follows: “This case concerns the Court’s authority to fulfill a Child’s request to hug and see her Father.” When I read that, I have to admit that I did a double take because on its face, it seems like this was not a legal issue at all (and maybe it really isn’t).
The opinion goes on to address the marriage of people who for various reasons, never spent much time together during their marriage, both before or after the birth of their daughter, who is now in 8th grade. As a result, the daughter was primarily, if not exclusively raised by her mother or with family in Peru. During a DCPP evaluation in the past, the child “expressed a poignant wish: ‘to have a Dad.’ Her wish was not fulfilled.” Just as home life was troubled, so was other areas of her life, as the court noted:
While flailing helplessly in the maelstrom of marital discord at home, Gabriela found no comfort at school. She was taunted and bullied because of her cleft palate, hearing loss and impaired speech. In desperation, Mother sent her back to Peru to live with her maternal Grandmother to escape the bullies and for medical treatment that she could not afford in the United States. Within a few months, Gabriela left her home in Peru for the United States; had her hopes for a family dashed; was bullied at school; and boarded a plane back to Peru without her Mother. Four months later, she returned to the United States at age 14. She is in therapy to ease the pain of separation, bullying, her many challenges and adolescent angst. She had cleft palate surgery. Surgical repairs, speech rehabilitation and dental restoration beckon.
At the divorce hearing, the Father requested a divorce, with the possibility of future parenting time “when I am ready.” He did not know that his daughter was present in the courtroom. The Judge noticed her in the courtroom and ultimately, when addressing the court:
Gabriela explained that she came here “to ask [the Court] if it is possible for him [Father] to see me once a week.” Gabriela hesitated before her evocative second request: “and I would like to give him a hug.”
The words in the opinion that followed were poignant:
A hungry person does not want a dissertation on the socio-economic causes of poverty. There will be time enough for that after the hunger pangs subside. A hungry person wants something to eat. Gabriela came to a Court believing that a Judge could and would help her. She did not seek an explanation of why some parents do not see their children. Gabriela stood courageously before strangers risking rejection, disappointment and more heartbreak if her requests were denied. Gabriela’s heart hungered to know and hug her Father.
The father still proclaimed not to be ready to see her. What follows is what really started to tug at my heart strings.
Through colloquy with the Court, Father began to see things through his daughter’s eyes instead of his own. Father acknowledged that Gabriela was without him for most of her life wondering what she did wrong to explain his absence. He acknowledged that Gabriela might have been justifiably angry when she called him bad names in the past because she was unable to express her pain in a way that he approved of. Gabriela worried about her appearance, her prior surgeries and the surgeries to come. She suffered at school. She was depressed and attempted to harm herself. She was reminded why each time she spoke and whenever she saw her image in the reflection of her tears.
Before Gabriela returned to the courtroom, Mother said that she had a “gift” for Father. Her “gift” was to let him know that Gabriela is now considered a genius at school, and that she is a photographer and a poet whose poetry may soon be featured in the New York Times.
With that, the ice had melted. The following is where I nearly lost it:
The Court then asked Father if he was ready to share the “gift” that was discussed while Gabriela was in chambers. Father quickly walked toward Gabriela as she rushed toward him. They sobbed heartily and hugged for a long time.
The opinion concluded with even more poignant words – the likes of which we seldom see in the battleground that is the family court:
Courage takes many forms and comes in all sizes. Gabriela’s courageous words were riveting. The tears that she and her Father shared were inspirational. Mother cried afterwards “that seeing my daughter happy makes me happy.” The Court thanks this beautiful child for her gift of hope. Tear-moistened soil is often fertile soil.
What a reminder of the resiliency and indomitability of spirit some children have. What a reminder that it is never too late to re-establish a broken bond with your child. What a reminder that a court should do whatever it can to prevent, if not stop (and if necessary, sanction) a parent that is taking actions (or allowing others to do so), which injure a child’s relationship with the other parent. I have often said that childhood is fleeting. Judge D’Alessandro’s thoughtful opinion is an excellent reminder of the importance of the parent-relationship.
Now I’m going home to hug my child.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.