When children are involved, there are few things more frightening than learning your ex-spouse is using drugs again, relapsing, or having a mental breakdown or psychotic break. This blog post will discuss some of the legal steps that that may be considered when approaching such situations.
The Impact of Drugs and Mental Health Issues on a Marriage
As a divorce lawyer practicing in Hunterdon County, Somerset County, and Central New Jersey, my clientele tend to reflect the demographics of the surrounding region, which is to say that many of my clients have good jobs and significant resources. Nevertheless, mental health issues and even drug and alcohol abuse issues tend to present across all demographics. Addiction and mental health issues for one or both parties to a divorce is a common issue and is often-times the (sometimes unspoken) impetus for the divorce itself.
Provided there are no children and absent domestic violence concerns, such issues may not make much of a difference in the treatment of the case or the entry of a Marital Settlement Agreement (a/k/a the “Divorce Agreement.”) When children are present, however, there may be significant negotiation regarding custody and parenting time issues, particularly with relevant New Jersey law suggesting that you may be found guilty of neglect and/or child endangerment for leaving children with an intoxicated spouse.
The Divorce Agreement in such circumstances will often require certain steps on the part of the spouse that uses drugs and/or has severe mental/emotional health issues, there may be requirements of supervised visitation as well as AA/therapy requirements, and perhaps requirements for drug testing.
What if Such Issues Occur After the Divorce is Finalized?
In many instances, however, issues will flare up after the divorce has already been finalized. For instance, you may drop off or pick up your children and when you see your spouse you may see the tell-tale signs that something is not right. It could be a full-borne psychiatric break, slurred speech or red eyes perhaps indicative of drug or alcohol abuse, or other signs that you as the expert on your former spouse may immediately recognize. In this instance, when the divorce is already finalized, what are the next steps?
- Document everything. Many situations involving drug and/or alcohol abuse (and even severe mental heath issues) may be momentary in nature. Your spouse that is clearly under the influence of drugs and alcohol (or not sufficiently well to care for your children) on the date in question may be the same person that comes to court looking sober and put-together. It’s important to consider recording/taping the behavior, making immediate notes, and/or contacting the police and/or DCPP as appropriate.
- Consider filing an Order to Show Cause. Motions generally take a month or longer to be heard. Conversely, Orders to Show Cause are reserved for when a matter is time-sensitive (such as impacting on immediate the safety and welfare of children) then courts allow for entry of an Order to Show Cause. Courts generally frown upon “self-help” actions such as withholding your children, so court intervention may be necessary to temporarily (at least at first) suspend parenting time or requiring supervised parenting time.
- Pursue Legal Actions While Evidence is at its Strongest. Much like the “Cycle of Violence,” many relapses from drugs or alcohol and/or psychiatric episodes are cyclical. By the time you determine it is best to pursue the case, your spouse may be on the straight and narrow again and you’ll be left wondering what to do when the next meltdown inevitably arises. Taking action when your spouse is committed, is in rehab, or is otherwise at their worst can help courts or agencies understand the severity of the situation and inure towards taking appropriate actions now so that the “next time” does not occur.
- Move swiftly to Protect the Children. Even if a court order requires parenting time, looking the other way may be seen by courts or agencies as inappropriate action on your part, if you leave your children in a situation where they are likely to be harmed. It is important to consider acting quickly if a situation warrants it.
- If a crime has been committed or is being committed, contact DCPP and/or the Police. Courts and lawyers will never be able to move as quickly as the police in mobilizing if there is a crime occurring or a risk to your safety or that of your children. Consider moving quickly to contact the police and/or appropriate agencies such as the DCPP (formerly known as “DYFS”) if you believe abuse, neglect, or the like are occurring by your former spouse/former partner.
Many of my clients have used phrases such as “between a rock and a hard place” to describe what it feels like to have an addict or someone with severe mental health issues* as a partner or ex-partner. Such issues are severely compounded when there are children from the relationship. If such issues impact on your divorce or your post-divorce and may cause harm to your children, it’s important to take the appropriate steps to protect your rights and that of your children.
If you’re considering a New Jersey divorce or Family Law action contact me to discuss your options. You can schedule an initial consultation by calling my office at 908-237-3096 or by scheduling your own divorce consultation online by clicking here.
*This blog post does not mean to combine or conflate these two separate issues (psychiatric or mental health issues versus drug and alcohol abuse), although statistics show co-morbidity, but rather utilizes same as a shorthand given the limited space to address these issues in this venue.