What I Learned About Child Custody On the Soccer Field

When my oldest son was 14, he was an avid soccer player.  One day he told me he wanted to try being a referee; not for the love of the game but for the income.  Seizing on the father/son opportunity I signed us up, bought the uniforms, took the classes, and earned the certification.  Little did I realize the legal lessons I would be part of while controlling the pitch with a whistle in my hand.

Our first game was in Swansboro behind an old grocery store and the players were U-8 (under 8 years old).  Not the most challenging level of play but in the 7 years I was a referee it was the most poignant game I officiated in relation to my career as a divorce attorney.  With my son and one of his friends on opposite sidelines with their flags at their sides and me in the middle of the field of play, I blew the whistle for the game to begin.

About two minutes later my attention was drawn from the field to the bleacher seats where there was commotion and yelling going on.   I saw a man and a woman scuffling and cussing at each other.  Other adults were moving towards the struggle to break it up.   I blew the whistle to stop the players and told them to stay on the field with me.  I then directed my son to go get the field representative to deal with the disruption.    Shortly after my son came back I heard the wail of a police siren in the distance.

It was then on the field I heard a young player crying.  I turned to him and asked if he was hurt (my fledgling training kicking in).  He sniffled that those were his parents.  In an instant my divorce attorney instinct clicked and I moved to go intercede which was contrary to my referee training.  Approaching the fracas where the two parents were now being restrained by other parents, I authoritatively asked what was going on.

The mother immediately started yelling that they were divorced, this was her weekend with the child, that man (Dad) had no right to be here; she could have him arrested and held in contempt of court; her attorney was going to hear about this blatant violation of her custody rights; etc.  Turning to Dad I again asked what was going on.

Dad said it is not his weekend but it is his son and he came to watch him play soccer.  He saw Mom there so went to the far end of the bleachers to keep his distance.  The next thing he knew Mom was in his face screaming and threatening him.  He admitted that after taking the verbal tongue lashing for a minute he finally told Mom where to stick it and she responded by sticking him and the fight was on.  It was at this point that the police arrived and put handcuffs on both and started their reports before escorting them away.  I was then able to restart the game and finish it without further incidents.

For the 16 years I have continued to practice law as a divorce attorney since that game I have seen that same lack of tolerance and understanding on what the Court really looks at in custody cases repeated over and over by countless parents.  The first question usually asked then is, who was wrong?

The answer is obvious to those that confront these raw emotions of divorce in Court and the answer is usually a shock to both parents when they are told that there was nothing right about the conduct of either.  Each can only see the issue from their own perspective but neither of them recognized the bigger issue as effected the child.

What does the Court see?  The obvious fact is that Mom was completely and utterly wrong to believe that a parent has no right to watch his child play in a public recreational soccer game.  He may not have the right to sit in her living room to watch TV with the child on her weekend but to be restricted from observation in a public forum, really?  Does she really think a Judge is going to punish a parent from making the effort to watch their child participate in an extracurricular activity during the off-week of visitation?   The sad answer is that a shockingly large number of parents do think that way.  Its “my time” so get lost.  So if that was the trigger then obviously her approaching Dad and the resulting altercation was completely out of line and grossly inappropriate.  That means Dad was right, correct?  Not by a long shot.

Dad was right to appear and watch.  Dad was right to sit at the other end of the bleachers to try to avoid a confrontation (although it is a sad commentary on the state of their relationship that it is even an issue).  He was right to bite his tongue initially.  But then. . .he lashed out and the fight was on.   In losing his temper his doing the right thing was completely overshadowed by the wrong and he ended up in the police car just like Mom.  Remember that guilty with an excuse is still guilty.  But that’s the facts of what happened, how is this about custody?  Precisely the point, what did the parents do that demonstrated that THEIR CHILD came first?

Let’s see;  they made a scene at a soccer game for 8 year olds sufficient to stop the game for ALL players;  they were fighting each other in public in front of their child; they forced the parents of their son’s teammates to stop watching their child to break up the adult fight; the son inevitably had to deal with the questions from the other kids about his parents immature behavior;  the son got to see the parents taken into custody by the police; the son was humiliated by BOTH his parents in a public forum; undoubtedly he was later subjected to rants by each of his parents about how bad the other parent was;  and finally, perhaps most importantly, neither parent heard their son cry because they were too preoccupied with their own beef with each other.  To them their adult dispute was more important than their son’s pain or play that day.  So what does the Court see?

That day the Court was me.  I was charged with protecting their child and all the children on the field from the warring parents.  I alone heard the child cry.  I had to initiate the action that protected the child and the parents from each other; but even despite that, some damage cannot be undone.  Parents, BE WARY!  The Court is not in the bleachers to referee the parents because of the divorce.  You alone own your poor choices and misconduct.   The Court ALWAYS stands with the child on the field and sees custody from the child’s perspective.  The legal buzz words for the Judge are to “act in the child’s best interest.” Bickering in the bleachers does not make you a good parent or advance the child’s game.

The core of the matter is the child has two parents.  He plays soccer for fun.  He wants to look to the stands to see BOTH parents cheering him on.  He would love to see his parents cheering together but even if their baggage keeps them at opposite ends, the knowledge that they BOTH care enough to be there is critical to him.   He wants an ice cream cone (and $5) from BOTH parents for scoring a goal.  To the child, Mom will always be the best Mom that he will ever have; and, Dad will always be the best Dad he will ever have.  Why is there a need to cheapen it?  Any parent that thinks pushing the other parent out of the bleachers to protect “my time” or to be replaced with a new significant other will not be viewed by the Court as acting in the child’s best interest and such behavior may have a high cost in the eyes of the Court.  Unchecked, that parent is on the path of losing whatever custody rights they have.

I thought that refereeing would be good father/son time for me but I ended up facing the darker side of my law practice that day and many other days since on the soccer field.  I can only hope that those parents learned their custody lesson before it was too late for the child.

Thomas McNamara

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