Addiction is a disease. Our society is coming to grips with this truth more and more each day. However, emerging cultural developments often take time to work their way into our judicial system; courts are, by design, built to resist rapid change — including family courts, where custody decisions involving the children of addicts are routine.
Add to this the fact that understanding of addiction is still imperfect; while no one blames cancer patients or paraplegics for their condition, many people still blame addicts for their addiction. A significant portion of our society seems unable to grasp (or accept) that addiction is fundamentally a brain disease.
This flawed understanding of addiction often leads to family court decisions that are fundamentally discriminatory, failing to view addiction as the disease that it is. All too often, this affects parents in recovery, who often encounter judges and attorneys who assume that their addictive behaviors were intentional, rational choices, rather than the symptoms of a brain coping with an all-too-common disease.
This discriminatory prejudice affects both parents and their children when a family law case involves one or more parents in long-term recovery. What can a parent in recovery do when their past addictions seem likely to unfairly skew the court’s objectivity toward them?
First, it’s important to discuss the science of addiction. We know now that addiction has both genetic and environmental components, and the search for the “addiction gene” continues to narrow its focus day by day. These developments have led to new treatment pathways for addictions and relapse prevention programs for those in recovery.
Second, you may want to use some expert publications (such as the US Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health) to combat prevalent misperceptions about addiction and recovery.
Third, it may be easier to make your case with the assistance of a licensed physician. The American Board of Addiction Medicine can provide a list of doctors who focus primarily on addiction and recovery; these doctors can speak credibly to the existence of long-term recovery, and the likelihood of its continuation.
If you’re in recovery, it’s crucial that you seek out a family law mediator with experience in cases involving parents in recovery. A mediator can help all parties agree to parenting plans that account for the nuances of cases involving recovering addicts; they can also assist in successfully negotiating for modifications to custody orders currently in place, as circumstances change.
Family law mediators are also qualified to negotiate legal separation agreements for couples wishing to separate, or post-nuptial agreements when couples want to stay together but one party has concerns regarding the other’s addiction and/or recovery. Since experienced family law mediators have seen hundreds of cases involving addiction and recovery, they’re also qualified to help struggling parents work toward non-binding reconciliation.
Experts recommend that parents in recovery take steps to document their progress for the court. Your documentation might include some or all of the following:
Family law is never simple, and elements of addiction and recovery can complicate an already-tense situation. The key is knowledge: rather than dealing emotionally with the situation, try to stay in the world the court is most comfortable with: facts, checklists, and documentation.