Schools often have the difficult task of navigating the path of divorced parents while still nurturing the student. Developing strong working relationships with children and their families is not always easy, especially if parents are divorced and have a less than cordial relationship. Educators need to be aware of the legalities and the sensitive needs of their families and students. It is the school’s role to cultivate successful relationships and know good practice.
Parenting Plan and Custody Orders: Schools need to have a current copy of the parenting plan for the children on file. The key piece of information in this document outlines who is the custodial parent and who is the residential parent. The custodial parent is the parent to whom all correspondence and primary contact should be directed. If parents share 50/50 custody, then they are both entitled to equal information. The residential parent is the parent that will register the children for public school districts based on their home address.
Contact with Guardian ad Litem: A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is an attorney that is appointed to look after the best interest of the children during legal proceedings. The attorney does not advocate for one parent or the other, they are working for the child or children. Often times a GAL will want input from a child’s school, regarding the children. It is important that any school professional that is contacted speak first with the school’s attorney. In order to air on the side of caution, ask that the GAL send you a copy of the consent form, signed by both parents, before giving the GAL any information on a child, including if the child attends your school.
Calls from a Parent’s Attorney: If a school or teacher is contacted by a parent’s attorney, it is to be handled just as contacts with a GAL. It is essential to have a release of information, signed by both parents, to speak with anyone other than a parent, regarding a child. School personnel should not even confirm the enrollment of a student without this consent.
Receiving a Subpoena: A subpoena is a legal document or order requiring an individual to appear and usually testify in court on a specific date and/or produce documents. One of the simplest ways to handle a subpoena is to get a release of information signed by both parents of the child. If the parents refuse to sign a release, you must contact your school’s attorney to have him or her review the subpoena and give advice on how to proceed. Do not automatically send your records.
Encourage Parents to Focus on their Children’s Best Interests: In meetings with parents, or even in informal conversations, you can help children by discouraging their parents from criticizing, blaming, or denigrating the other parent in front of their children. Children understand that both parents are somehow a part of them, and when a parent is made to look bad, children often feel that they are somehow defective, too. Obviously, the school should never side with one parent against another. School professionals are always “on the child’s side.”
Review Records: Even at the start of a busy school year, it is extremely important to review all students’ files for new custody arrangements or court orders. Without looking through the documents, court orders or parenting plans may be overlooked. It is equally important for office staff, teachers and counselors to have a listing of which child’s parents or guardians or other significant family members may not have access to the child. Otherwise, in our desire to be customer-service oriented and parent friendly, we may inadvertently cross a court order or custody arrangement.
Sole Custody: Just because the courts say one parent has educational/medical rights over a child does not mean that the other parent is to be left uninformed by the school. Offering the other parent the opportunity to receive school mailings or grade reports or even invitations to parent/teacher conferences — with the knowledge of the other parent — helps both parents stay involved. The bottom line for parents is that they both have a child who is receiving an education at your school. One of them has the authority to made decisions for that child. The other one needs to defer to that parent but can still communicate via appropriate channels in acceptable ways with the child’s school.
As with all children: Children experiencing conflict and/or family transition thrive on routine and clear expectations for their behavior. With so many changes in their lives, they may look to their school as a place that provides stability and support. Listen to and accept their feelings, but set limits on behaviors that are unacceptable. Let them know that they are valued through your smiles and positive feedback for their efforts as well as their progress. Children who are in a divorce situation do want to hear about what they do well. Give them opportunities for leadership to build on their strengths.
Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, CDM
Received her Master of Social Work from Saint Louis University with a concentration in family systems and law. Jennifer provides private therapy dealing with adult issues, depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, as well as adolescent development/ behavioral issues.
Jennifer has extensive experience in family law and court room testifying. She assists couples in a peaceful resolution, where continued communication is imperative for raising healthy children. Along with private therapy services, Jennifer provides services to families who are in the midst of transition, as a Parent Coordinator, Co-Parent Counselor, Custody Evaluator and a Divorce Consultant.