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Real-Talk About Custody Cases From a Judge

This is real-talk from a Judge who sat almost 10 years on a family law assignment. Co-parenting issues vs. legal issues, what’s the difference?
(6 min 14 sec read)

Hon. Sherrill Ellsworth (RET)
Judge Ellsworth was one of the court's most respected and admired bench officers. She retired from the bench to focus on having a greater impact on today’s families by making our courts more accessible, effective, and efficient.

Let’s play that game two truths and a lie!

  • I drive a minivan.
  • I LOVED  being a family law judge.
  • I HATED being a family law judge !!!!

Yeah, I don’t drive a minivan.

This is REAL-TALK from a Judge who sat almost 10 years on a family law assignment. This is what a sitting judge can’t say with bluntness but, is desperately trying to communicate with you. I LOVED being a family law judge and I HATED being a family law judge. And I do not use the “H” word lightly.

So let’s cut to the chase, YOU are both the reason I loved and I hated being a family law judge. Because I was dedicated to helping families and children, in particular, it was an honor to serve you, to help you, guide you through probably the most difficult days of your life. Thank you for trusting me, including me and for allowing me to be a part of your family. Thank you for hanging in there when it got tough. I loved that together we worked through the complication and the heartache as your family transformed and we figured it out legally, emotionally, financially, and though you didn’t agree with everything that occurred you had access to justice; your “day in court”.

Conversely, you made me hate the very thing I loved …  being a judge. I am retired I can be boldly honest with you. You would irritate me, get under my skin, frustrate me and at times genuinely disappoint and discourage me. You would keep me up at night and cause me to get up in the morning and shake my fist at the sky.

It wasn’t your attorney, so don’t try to blame them. It wasn’t the fact you didn’t have an attorney, sure that would have made things a lot easier at times but, we got through that piece. It wasn’t the continuances to get your financials together and it was not because you wanted to keep the house and your ex wanted to sell. It didn’t ruffle my feathers when you lost your temper and I had to take a break for you to pull it together; this divorce stuff is hard, I get that. And you would think that I would hate it when you didn’t follow my orders and I had to sternly revisit those orders; it happens you are going through a rough time and typically I understand you are doing the best you can.

I hated being a family law judge when you asked me to be the ‘super parent’. Yes, you did that! You would bring me armloads of parental decisions that frankly, did NOT belong in court. For some reason, you decided that it was okay to divest yourself of all decision making when it comes to your child(ren) because you are in the middle of a divorce? Why in the world would you ask a stranger in a black robe to make intrusive parental decisions about your kids? Decisions that, once made, are generational and permanent. You asked me to decide whether your child went to private or public school, asked me to decide whether or not your son would take dance lessons, whether your daughter would get a math tutor, what sports the kids played, what food they would eat, and whether or not your child should go to therapy. I am not your child’s parent, I am your family law judge.

I hated it when I would look you straight in the eye and implore you to be the parents, to get it together for the kids, begging you please to co-parent and put the kids in the center and not in the middle of your madness. I asked you to love your children more than you hated one another and then I would launch into a meaningful speech about the importance of being the parents and not asking me to be the ‘super parent’. I told you that continuing to fight would tear your kids apart. In a moment of rare judicial vulnerability, I would ask you straight up to not ask me to make parental decisions for you or your children. The courtroom quiets as we pause to let all that sink in. Then you would look at me disregarding every bit of Judicial intervention and guidance and ask me to decide things about your child even though I had never met your kid, and even though I had no idea whether your child liked ice cream let alone strawberry or chocolate.

Parental decision making does not belong in my court or any court it belongs in the intimacy of your family, even if that family is in transformation. Your inability to work together to decide what is best for your children clogged up my court and took valuable time away from legal issues that truly needed legal intervention and judicial determinations. Parents can decide together whether or not their children will be allowed to date at age 16, what movies are appropriate for a 13-year-old and which musical instrument your kid will play. You do not need me for that, you should not dump that on my plate. There are families including yours that have need of Judges to figure out resource allocation, child support, whether the family residence can be salvaged or sold. Judges need to focus on Domestic Violence or challenging issues of alcohol and other drugs. My resource as a family law judge should not be stretching and managing my time evenly between whether or not a child is being abused and whether or not a child can try out for the talent show during your weekend. And that is exactly what happens when you keep running back to court to have me decide your nonlegal issues.

True confession, I never really hated being a family law judge. What I did hate was how many times I tried to help you, empower you or educate you on the importance of self-determination when it comes to parental decision making and you just wouldn’t take the bait. It is a fact that children do better when parents get along. The sooner you believe that and decide to do whatever it takes to stay out of court, when it comes to child-centric decisions, the better your kids will do. Family law judges want to help you through this incredibly difficult and stressful time, we do, but we do not want to be the ‘super parent’. We do not want to decide whether or not your kid will eat organic food or play tee-ball. Those are parental decisions, not judicial determinations. At the end of the day, if you do your job, I can do my job. I want to be the best family law judge I can be and render objective judgments, make meaningful orders, be the trier of facts and the law, apply the knowledge and expertise I have to give you the access to justice your family deserves. All of that can happen if you be the parent and I be the judge. Because the truth is I love being a family law judge.

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