Why Minor Children Should Not Testify Against Their Parents – A personal Opinion
The opinion presented in this blog is representative of Family Law Attorney Grant Gisondo who practices in West Palm Beach, Florida. Questions were asked to Dr. Julia Meldau, Ed. D, majoring in Child and Youth Studies, who has worked professionally with young children for many years both as teacher and school administrator. There were numerous times when minor children in her professional care were a part of a court litigation such as a custody dispute, divorce contention, and/or a child abuse or criminal allegation against their parent(s). While it would seem the best way to obtain first hand information regarding a minor child’s welfare would be to ask a child directly, assuming the child was old enough to speak with some understanding, this is very rarely the case. Children can be easily persuaded to say what an adult “wants” them to say as children can be bribed or even threatened with unpleasant or hurtful consequences. Additionally, children are generally very protective of their parents, even those who have been abusive. Dr. Meldau believes strongly that there are other ways to learn what a child has seen, heard, or feels than having them testify in a courtroom, particularly when it involves their parent(s). The following questions and her answers give greater insight into the problems and solutions of minor children testifying against their parents.
At what age would a child be able to answer questions about their care and the adults who provide that care?
Obviously, a baby or toddler who is just learning to talk would not be able to verbally respond to questions. However, even infants and toddlers will show body language, such as flinching or crying when put in a situation with someone who has inflicted pain. Observing interactions with the very young is an important way to determine if their caregivers are nurturing or likely abusive. As a child ages, usually around three years, they will be able to verbalize their concerns and observations. In a healthy environment a child is free to express their concerns while in an abusive or extremely dysfunctional environment a child can be afraid or even be unaware that their situation is detrimental. If mistreatment is all they have known, a very young child has no comparison. In the case of abuse, it has been proven young children would rather have a hurtful touch than no touch at all. The touch of another human being is essential to life. In fact, children who don’t receive attention except when they are being “naughty” will act out to get attention, even if it is physical punishment. As children reach elementary school age through high school they would be able to testify against their parents but there would almost always be consequences.
What kind of consequences could come from testifying against a parent (s)?
Probably the most harmful consequence to minor children or even adult children is that by testifying against a parent they are “taking sides” and stand a good chance of losing the affection and positive attention of that parent. Unless a parent has been extremely abusive a child desires to be a part of each parent’s life in a loving and nurturing way. Additionally, children frequently feel they are part of the reason their parent’s are, for example, getting a divorce or treating them in a way the court deems unfit. Children blame themselves for “being too loud”, “taking up too much of their parent’s time”, “costing too much money to feed, clothe, etc”, not doing well in school, being the wrong sex or not even being wanted in the first place. By testifying against their parents a minor child can develop an even greater guilt complex than he/she has by now adding even more reason for their parent’s problems. Unfortunately, there is also the fact that parents will sometimes promise special favors or bribes or worse, severe punishment or horrible consequences, such as getting rid of the child’s pet, unless the child testifies in the manner the parent dictates.
If the minor child does not testify, how can the court determine what information he or she might know that could be helpful?
There are several ways minor children can be gently and lovingly worked with to gain important information. In Florida there is a system called Guardian Ad Litem where a specially trained person who works as a court advocate to speak in the best interest of the child can be assigned to work with a minor child. Minor children, caregivers, and persons directly involved with the children will be talked with. Great care is given to listening and observing the child. The Guardian Ad Litem will report to the judge who will then be able to have a much clearer understanding of what the child knows and/or needs. If there is time, another helpful way to work with a child is to have the judge order the family to receive counseling with a family therapist or psychologist. As an expert witness the counselor can then help the judge understand what has or is happening in such a way as not to damage the child-parent relationship. Too, counseling can help a child who is feeling guilty about being the cause for their family’s problems to realize he or she is not to blame. Sometimes family friends, teachers, or other relatives can testify to what a child has told them, but an experienced Family Law Attorney needs to help them do it in such a way as to keep the parent-child relationship as intact as possible and not betray the trust and confidentiality the child has developed with the adult testifying.
In conclusion, Dr. Meldau emphasized that, in her opinion, a minor child should not have to testify against their parent. The parent-child bond is too important and too strong to take any unnecessary chances it will be broken. Even children whose parent(s) are incarcerated still want them to be a part of their lives. And certainly, in most instances, after a divorce children want to be an equal part of both parent’s lives.