Often the most contentious of family law matters are child custody cases. When one parent wants to relocate with a child the other parent may fear they could lose their child forever, and will fight long and hard to prevent the move.
A relocation case is always difficult when one parent disagrees with the potential move. But perhaps the most difficult type of case is that where a parent wishes to relocate to a “dangerous” place. The definition of “dangerous” varies immensely by jurisdiction, state, and country. It could be a domestic city or a country far away.
Family law attorneys know well that the outcome a client receives often reflects the predispositions and prejudices of the judge who hears the case. Although state law governs the judge’s ruling, there is tremendous room for subjective determinations in all cases, especially difficult ones involving relocation. Cases such as these are supposed to be determined by what is in a child’s “best interest.” However, “best interest” is a term open to interpretation and the court has wide latitude to define its meaning. As a result, what is ultimately decided to be in a child’s best interest may be heavily influenced by the personal biases of the judge hearing the case.
Many years ago I represented a woman who, among other things, wanted to move with her children from a small town in Ohio to Cleveland. She was already divorced and was the sole legal custodian of these children. The father, although he loved his kids, was not overly involved with raising them. My client wanted to pursue better career opportunities and better opportunities for her children, in a bigger city. The facts were on our side. But the judge was not.
The judge in this case would not accept the possibility that Cleveland might be a better place to raise these children because he thought it was too “dangerous.” His prejudice towards the “big city” closed his mind to any outcome that would allow my client to move with her children to Cleveland. In this case we managed to craft a strategic settlement that was favorable for my client, but she could not relocate and she felt she lost. But the kids were the real losers.
Americans can exhibit profound paranoia and xenophobia for places and communities that differ from their own. Sometimes this behavior is simply irrational. A person living in Chicago or Los Angeles might not consider a trip abroad because the risk of terrorism is too high. Yet, that same person might go about their daily business completely oblivious to their exposure to violent crime. There is something off about this situation, especially in a place like the United States, which directly experienced a massive terror attack on September 11, 2001.
In early October 2010, the United States issued an unprecedented travel advisory conveying the threat of terrorism across all of Europe. The New York Times, on October 4, 2010, published an article entitled, “U.S. Travel Alert Aimed To Inform But Not Stir Panic.” In it, the paper quotes Jonathan Evans, the director-general of Britain’s MI5 internal security agency, as saying that the British have “…imported from American media the assumption that terrorism is 100 percent preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure.” In the article Evans went on to state that such an attitude was “nonsensical.” And he is right.
Today, no place is “safe” and every place is a “war zone.” It is unreasonable to believe that in the age of 21st century terror, any place is free from danger. Moreover, the thought that some places are “war zones” is comical and provincial considering the fact that some who hold this attitude are far more susceptible to being a victim of a violent crime in their own city than they are of being a victim of terrorism in the city to which the litigant is asking to relocate.
In spite of all of this, divorce litigants continue to make “war zone” arguments wherever they can if they think it advances their legal case. Opposing litigants, their lawyers and courts need to take a wider and more cosmopolitan view of the world and recognize that today any place and every place is a potential “dangerous place.” Instead of allowing personal bias and ignorance determine whether a move is in a child’s best interest, it is vital we set aside knee-jerk judgments regarding places and cultures simply because they are different from our own.