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We Shouldn't Be Shocked By Michigan Children Held in Contempt

You've probably seen the news or even discussed it on social media: an Oakland, Michigan judge held children in contempt and sent them to juvenile detention (< link), all for not "wanting to

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You've probably seen the news or even discussed it on social media: an Oakland, Michigan judge held children in contempt and sent them to juvenile detention (< link), all for not "wanting to have lunch with their father," or so news outlets such as the Washington Post and Buzzfeed reported. The internet rallied against the result, the judge, and everything about the situation. There's a petition with almost 10,000 signatures right now seeking to remove the judge from office. What gives?

Clearly the story is good for sensational print, but it has happened in Illinois too - and a long (relatively speaking) time ago, 1996. In a case out of Will County remarkably similar to this Michigan case, a judge held children in contempt for not obeying a visitation order. The children appeared before the judge, admitted disobeying, and again refused to go to visits with their father. If you want the whole case, we've made it available for you by clicking here. If you're keeping score in Peoria, by the way, this is the Appellate Court directly above our local courts that rendered the decision. Among other reasoning, the case says "Illinois courts have long held that an order may be binding not only upon the parties to the suit but also upon all persons who had actual notice of the order and its contents." So it's definitely possible.

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Admittedly, reading the 25-page transcript of the Michigan hearing shows a judge acting out of emotion and probably going overboard. Equally evident from the record in the Oakland courthouse is that the case in its lifespan has had 465 different pleadings or motions filed, and leading up to this hearing, a guardian ad litem (attorney for the children) had filed a 30-page report (read: very long and uncharacteristically detailed) about the problems with visits. The mother had recently been held in contempt multiple times for refusing to show up with the kids for visits. Also, the children were boldly, perhaps proudly, steadfast in the face of the judge as they utterly refused to sit and have a 5-minute conversation over lunch with their father - for young children, that's a polar black-and-white position to take, when children usually have far more ambivalence and susceptibility to authority. Take this with the fact the father has never once been found guilty of physical or verbal abuse, no police incidents or orders of protection, an upstanding reputation in the community; and, here's the kicker, when the judge sentenced the children to juvenile detention, she allowed everything except the mother and her family to visit. That tells us manipulation and parental alienation are at work here.

The record implies the child programming had been going on for a long time by the mother. And this isn't a conclusion reached only by the judge, without warning: there had been numerous hearings and contempt proceedings the past spring and winter, and psychiatric evaluators had weighed in with reports (that probably cost tens of thousands of dollars). For how long the case had been pending, and all the different professionals involved, the judge's anger had been a long time coming.

Yet the news can pick up a snippet and stir outrage among those getting news in 2-minute increments. It's a nice soundbite, but how often is a custody situation black-and-white and capable of summary in 60 seconds? Hmmmm. Let's all pause and consider that things aren't always what they seem.

The mother in the story sought the media attention, and said she felt the hearing was like watching her children get executed in front of her. Locally, contempt can be punished by jail because we're said "to have the keys to our own cell." In essence, you haven't done something, and doing it shall set you free. The same was true for her children, which they well knew, and the mother did too.

We'll say this, though: the judge probably had other alternatives to actual juvenile lockup. Back to that Illinois ruling above, it also requires that judges look into all of the "least restrictive alternatives" first. The Michigan judge clearly didn't. Putting these kids with some serious juvenile offenders could be further breaking the situation into more pieces, rather than mending their attitudes appropriately.

It appears this last aspect has also been fixed since we intended to write about this topic (it has been a busy week). The judge relaxed the sentence against the children and now has them going to a summer camp. Maybe the judge learned a thing or two in this whole process too. That article, by the way, nicely summarizes some of the background that we suspected to be going on: the GAL emphasized the brainwashing by the mother thusly: "The damage [upon the children] is so severe; it is very, very sad."

We'd close by noting that in only the most extreme cases does this type of behavior even get outed and proven. In countless more instances, we see suspicions of manipulation and brainwashing - or, on the continuum of severity, bribery and persuasion - toward children in custody battles, which goes undetected or unproven. The most nefarious conduct involves the children as willing, if somewhat unwitting, actors. It's tragic. And it's the reason we have, for example, requirements locally that custody decrees cannot be entered until the parents certify attendance at classes called "Children First." In cases where calculated manipulation of children agains the other parent truly is occurring, sometimes all you really want is a judge who will at least bring a level of emotion and intensity to rival the conduct. We bet the father in the Michigan case feels like the court system listened, even if the rest of the internet doesn't.

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