Best Interests of the Child – The Emotional Needs and Developmental Level of the Child

In this series, we’re reviewing Washington cases which help us to understand what exactly the “best interests of the child” standard means, and how it works when applied to a specific family.  Last week we discussed the third factor, the “past and future performance of parenting functions“, which relates to each parent’s ability to take care of a child’s day-to-day needs, as well his or her ability to tend to the child’s overall well-being and development.  Today, we’ll discuss RCW 26.09.187(3)‘s fourth factor – “the emotional needs and developmental level of the child.”

At this point in our series, you may have noticed that many of RCW 26.09.187(3)‘s factors revolve around a few central priorities – priorities like stability, parental involvement in the day-to-day and long term needs of a child, and the general quality of the relationship between a child and his or her parent(s).  Indeed, many of the cases we have discussed this far, while factually different, have revolved around these core priorities. You may have also noticed that many of the factors we’ve discussed so far tend to overlap from case to case.

Indeed, the court’s approach to the factor we’re discussing today – “the emotional needs and developmental level of the child” (we’ll call it “the emotional/developmental factor” for short) – is no different. And, several of the cases we’ve already discussed have also touched on this fourth factor in way or another.  So in this article we’ll be revisiting four cases from previous articles, for two reasons (1) these cases also involve the “emotional/developmental” factor; and (2) there just aren’t a whole lot of cases exploring these factors (mostly because trial courts are given a lot of discretion to make decisions about parenting, so the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court don’t often disturb their decisions).

Let’s start with the Jacobsens, whose case was described in our first article.  The Jacobsen parents were both nuclear engineers who had spent roughly equal amounts of time with their two children prior to their separation.  When they divorced, the court formulated a parenting plan where each the children spent nearly equal time with each of their parents.   In doing so, the court cited the fact that “[b]oth parents have also shared in the athletic, emotional, intellectual, and creative lives of the children.”

The court then structured a parenting plan that it believed would “preserve for these children a quality of life that most children don’t enjoy, and it’s a quality of life that they’ve had because of the participation of both parents.”  In other words, the court observed that the children were accustomed to the involvement of both of their parents, and thus needed a parenting plan that continued to foster their equally strong relationships with both their mother and their father.

Conversely, the sad tale of Doug, Tracy, and Ashley (here making their third appearance on Decoupling) shows a court choosing one parent over another in an attempt to ensure the emotional well being of a child.  Ashley clearly had problems – she was defiant and manipulative, particularly towards her parents.  In addition, Tracy was strongly opposed to Doug’s relationship with Ashley, and refused to let Doug see her, even though Doug was legally entitled to visitation with their daughter. Doug believed that the only way for he and Ashley to develop a positive father-daughter relationship was for the court to grant him primary custody of Ashley.

In that case we saw the court balancing two competing priorities: the court’s desire to promote a child’s relationship with both of her parents, and the court’s desire to promote the overall emotional and intellectual well-being of a child.  We can probably all agree that a child, in most cases, needs to have the opportunity to know and bond with both of her parents.  We can also probably agree that a child should live in an environment that is most likely to help that child grow up to be a healthy, happy and well-adjusted adult.

So, the court had a very difficult decision to make.  Hand Ashley over to Doug in the hopes of promoting a father/daughter relationship.  Or, preserve Ashley’s status quo (living primarily with her mother), in the hopes that Ashley’s emotional problems won’t get worse.

Ultimately, the court determined that forcing Ashley to live with her father would be detrimental to her emotional well-being, and that Ashley was better off continuing to live with her mother – even though that living arrangement made it less likely that Ashley and Doug would develop a strong parent-child relationship.

We also saw the court’s analysis of children’s emotional needs in the Magnuson case.  Recall that the Magnuson case involved a father who was transitioning from male to female.  He had also quit his job as a lawyer and moved out of the family home, while the children’s mother continued to be employed and resided in the home in which the children had grown up. The court noted that there was “evidence of the children’s … uncomfortable and nervous behavior” as a result of their parents’ separation.

The court believed that the children’s emotional needs were best served by residing primarily with their mother, noting that her home “provide[d] an oasis of stability in all of this ongoing change.”  The Magnuson court was primarily concerned with the emotional impact of the divorce (and their father’s transformation from male-to-female) on the children, and tried to formulate a plan that would prevent further emotional turmoil.

Finally, the Allen case provides a unique example of how important a child’s emotional and developmental needs are to a court when making custody decisions.  Joshua Allen was born deaf and, as a result, fell behind in his intellectual development – until Joshua’s step-mother took on the task of learning sign language, and teaching it to Joshua and his step-siblings.  She also petitioned Joshua’s school to hire a special tutor for him.

As a result of her “extraordinary” efforts, Joshua caught up with his peers, and enjoyed an improved quality of life as he was able to communicate with his family.  Joshua’s father, on the other hand, had only minimal sign language skills and was not as involved in Joshua’s education as the step-mother.

When Joshua’s father and step-mother divorced, the court lauded the step-mother’s efforts towards Joshua and ultimately determined that Joshua should live primarily with her.  The court was particularly concerned with Joshua’s special needs, and his step-mother’s intense dedication to serving them.  The court found that it was very likely that Joshua’s developmental improvement and overall well-being would deteriorate if he were to live with his father.

The court ultimately recognized that Joshua’s future intellectual development was best served by continuing to live primarily with his step-mother and step-siblings.  Surely, the court also recognized that Joshua’s emotional need for companionship and communication with others was best served by residing with people who also knew sign language.

* * *

These cases, viewed in the context of the “emotional/developmental factor” in RCW 26.09.187(3), again illustrate how important it is for parents to be involved in their children’s lives in a meaningful way.  All of these cases demonstrate how important it is to the court that a child reside with the parent who is most in tune and devoted to both his overall emotional and mental well-being, as well as his day-to-day needs.  First, we see the court identifying a child’s particular emotional or developmental need – such as the Magnuson children’s need for stability and calm, or Joshua Allen’s deafness.  Then the court attempts to fashion a parenting plan that it believe is more likely to serve those needs.

When both parents are meaningfully involved, like the Jacobsen parents were, the court is more likely to formulate a plan where the children spend nearly equal amounts of time with their parents.  And, where one parent is much more attentive to and concerned with a child’s emotional and developmental needs, the court is more likely to order that the child spend more time with the more-involved parent – especially when a child has special needs (like Joshua Allen).

And, yet again, we see the court’s emphasis on stability, particularly in the upheaval of parental separation and/or conflict.  The court recognizes that all children need stability, and will strive to promote stability when making decisions about parenting.  When one parent’s home appears to provide more stability for a child, the court is much more likely to place the children primarily in that home – even when that parent’s home is far from perfect (like Tracy’s home).

Next week, we’ll take a look at the fifth factor under RCW 26.09.187:  “the child’s relationship with siblings and with other significant adults, as well as the child’s involvement with his or her physical surroundings, school, or other significant activities.”

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