Vulnerable son needs father to give him stability in his life

My fiance has been divorced for more than four years now. In the beginning, they shared joint custody of their two children. That lasted about a year and then she took him to court requesting primary custody. He fought for but lost joint custody. He had them every other weekend, but eventually that stopped as his ex would tell him that the kids did not want to see or talk to him.

When I met him, he hadn’t had visitation with his kids for some time. In February of this year, out of the blue, his ex contacted him asking him to take custody of their son, who was 12 at the time. She said she was moving to California with her husband and their son didn’t want to move with them. She was also having issues with his behavior at home and school and felt it would be best if he lived with us. Initially, my fiance was against the idea and said no. I talked to him and told him that I felt it was the perfect opportunity for him to rebuild his relationship with his son. The custody change was done and set through the court.

I have kids of my own, and it has been difficult trying to blend our families together. We have been going to counseling actively since before he moved in with us and even more aggressively since. In June, his mother’s husband passed away unexpectedly. She started putting a lot of pressure on the son and would beg him to come live with her. He confided in us and told us that her pressuring was very stressful for him but he didn’t want to hurt his mother. We sent him out for the funeral, and we were cut off from contacting him. She got an attorney and requested primary custody, no visitation at all and child support. Thankfully, the judge ruled in our favor. The 16-year-old daughter is allowed “teenage discretion,” and he rarely sees or talks to her. She calls him by his first name and claims her deceased stepfather is her only father.

When the boy comes back from visitation, it is a constant battle. He has been diagnosed with conduct disorder. The judge noted he needs to have more routine and structure in his life after hearing that he has started multiple fires at school and has inappropriately touched a girl in class. We believe that we are better suited to provide (what he needs).

Our dilemma is, how much more can we take? At what point do we give up and let him go back to his mother? — M&S, Las Vegas

So, if I’m doing the math right, the boy is now 13 years old. And he was 9 years old when his mother won primary custody, which eventually became a de facto sole custody as a consequence, you believe, of parental alienation.

I would love to know on what grounds the father originally lost his fight to retain joint custody. Also, apart from the physical custody, what is the legal custody agreement? Does this remain joint? Or do either parties have primary or sole legal custody? Legal custody, among other things, means the right to authorize medical treatment. I ask in the event that seeking more intense therapeutic intervention is an option for the boy. I want to know whether the father could authorize this, or would he require the mother’s consent?

Nonetheless …

If this boy was 16, perhaps even 15, I could make a pretty strong argument for returning him to the primary custody of the mother. But the boy is 13. Ever more vulnerable, and in many ways, innocent. He needs his father. He has lived in craziness since the divorce. No, if it is humanly possible, the last thing I’d do right now is give up.

I’m so stuck here, because I don’t know what your current therapist is doing/trying. I know that I might invite the father, mother and the boy into a session. Even if Mom declines, it says something important to the boy. If she does decline, I encourage you to consider a court-appointed parent coordinator (at least I think that’s the name). This person plays the role of holding parents accountable to the best interest of the child and to the “parenting plan.” It will make it harder for Mom to alienate.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or

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