A month or two ago, I was contacted by some folks who are actually going through a common poly nightmare, at least for parents: A contentious custody battle in which one parent is accused of being a bad parent “because they are polyamorous.” It’s a nightmare in part because there have been some notorious cases in which a family has lost custody of their kids due at least in part to their being polyamorous. This sort of thing varies a LOT by location, and at least as much by the particular judge/s hearing the case. Even when polyamory is brought up as an issue, it does not always (or even often) lead to a loss of custody. But when it’s you and your family undergoing the scrutiny, the situation can be frankly terrifying.
I know this from personal experience, because about a decade ago my own daughter was taken by Child Protective Services (aka CPS) — for a situation that was ultimately unrelated to polyamory, but we didn’t know that at the time. She was eventually returned to us after a harrowing week, once they’d determined that their abuse fears were groundless. It was, however, an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and it has had lasting impacts on our daughter and our family. 🙁
Thus, I was very motivated to provide as much help as possible. I started by sending a couple of links, and then went on to write a detailed letter of some possible issues that might come up, and some possible responses to each one. I asked for and received permission to post the letter (devoid of identifying information of course.)
It is with great sincerity that I hope that no one reading these words ever has need of the advice and links I’ve included below. And it is for those few of you who might ever need these links that I share this information now. If you are going through something like this, please remember:
PS: Would you like to talk to me privately about issues around polyamory and/or child custody? I’m happy to schedule a time to talk to you. I do 30 minutes for free, or 60 minutes for 1/2 price. Contact me, and we’ll find a good time to chat by phone or Skype!
Letter to Polyamorous Parents Facing a Child Custody Battle
Dear [poly parents]:
Let me start by saying that I am so sorry that you all are facing this sort of prejudice. It’s terrible, and I know how very challenging it can be. (((hugs)))
As you know, I’ve been through the CPS wringer myself, though it should be noted that it turned out NOT to be about polyamory. Of course, as you also know, I have a lot of resources and experience in the realm of poly as well. So drawing on both of those, here are some suggestions.
Read up on parenting in polyamorous families
There are quite a few profiles of polyamorous families with kids in the media these days. This round-up in 2012 by Alan M of Poly In the News links to many video and written accounts of children in poly families. Real families describe their own parenting situations, and how, in many cases, the polyamory is great for the kids. Positive outcomes are becoming more and more well-known.
Download this pamphlet from NCSF
There is an excellent online pamphlet from NCSF (the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom) that you will want to download and give to the people involved in the evaluations (or any therapists or professionals, really):
It is not about poly parenting in particular, but instead about polyamory in general, written for therapists who might be seeing polyamorous clients, but are not polyamorous themselves.
The link is long, and it WILL NOT show up on a site search of the NCSF site, unfortunately (due to them changing some things around, and not fixing broken links.) It will take you to a download link, and that is correct. I made a bit.ly link of it as well, if that’s helpful:
One quote in there of use to you:
“[A] legal case was heard in which a young child was removed from a poly-
amorous household after her grandparents petitioned for custody, on the grounds
that the home environment was immoral according to the Bible. No evidence of
child abuse or neglect was found, and mental health professionals found that the child was well-adjusted.” (Cloud, 1999) (cf Emens, 2004)
— As quoted in What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory, by G. Weitzmann, J. Davidson, and R. A. Phillips; edited by J. Fleckenstein and C. Mariotti-Meeker.
Moving on to my own thoughts…
You’re All (Supposedly) on the Same Side
First, remember that everyone involved is (supposedly? hopefully?) committed to the same goal: The health and well-being of the children. To the degree possible, you want to make it very clear that you are all on the same side, in this regard. As a result, you’ll want to respond to challenges from this perspective, and reassure them that you have the best interests of the child(ren) in mind.
Specific Issues, and Some Ideas on How to Counter Them
Do you know what the specific issues are that the co-parent is bringing up? “Poly” is a broad brush. If you can find out the particular bugaboos they’re concerned about, it would be helpful in countering them. Some categories of concern might be, and a quick shot at how to counter them:
Instability in the home
Counter by pointing out the length of your relationship, and any others that are relevant. Also relevant is the fact that kids must deal with changes and loss in EVERY family, around moving, relations dying, friends changing. It’s not unique to poly. What matters is how you DEAL with it, and the sort of modeling that you give the kids in how to manage loss and change. It can be a very POSITIVE teachable moment!
Lack of healthy sexual boundaries; “exposing” the children to sex all the time
Counter with “polyamory is no more — or less — about sex than is monogamy.” And that polyamorous parents aren’t having sex in front of the children any more than would monogamous parents do so. It is not generally assumed that a married couple is having sex in front of their kids; why in the world do people assume that more-than-couples would do so??
“Confusion” in the minds of the kids as to who is the parent
Again, this is not unique to poly. Kids of divorced — or deceased — parents deal with this all the time and aren’t confused. If anything, poly parents tend to be very clear about parenting roles, and to specifically let the kids know who the boss is (if there is one) and how they should treat adults in general, as well as these adults in particular.
Kids being “left in the care of non-family members”
Counter with daycare, school, etc. Kids are left with “non-family members” all the time. If anything, it’s a POSITIVE that kids can be left in the care of extended poly family members (if that’s happening), since they know the kids better, and less disruption will occur for the kids.
Confusion about gender issues/roles
I’m just wondering if this is in the mix, and some of the “anti-poly” sentiment is really anti-LGBT sentiment? I’m sure you know how to deal with this, if so… 😉 [Here’s a relatively recent article discussing the generally positive outcomes for children raised in households headed by LGBTQ parents: Gay Parents Raising Kids: How Will They Fare?.]
Inadequate parenting skills
Many poly people I know are far MORE conscious parents than are some non-polys. Ditto LGBT parents, given the conscious thought that needs to be put into having families! If you — singular or plural — have taken any parenting classes, read books, or gotten any training, now’s the time to bring it up. If not, and if it’s a sticking point, you can always offer to take some.
Many poly families are better off, financially, due to multiple income streams not as readily available to couples (or non-poly single parents.) Poly families also mean multiple sets of grandparents and other family members as well, and this is sometimes a help, in terms of both money and time.
Morality isn’t associated any more or less with polyamory vs monogamy. There are just as many “immoral” monogamous people as polyamorous ones! If anything, I find polyamorous people to be, as a rule, more conscious of their moral choices. We do a lot of thinking about relationships, communication, honesty, and the like. And of course “honesty” is at the core of most poly relationships by definition. Also, morality isn’t the province of only one religious or spiritual mindset. I don’t know what your spiritual leanings are, but if there’s a regular religious practice, it might be the time to mention it. Also to discuss what sorts of discussions you might have with the kids around moral choices.
Not enough focus on the children/not enough time
Again, not the province of polyamorous people any more than monogamous ones. There are plenty of monogamous parents who work two jobs, are deeply engaged in a hobby, volunteer a lot of time at the church, etc. Being poly, in and of itself, does not mean less time for the kids. If anything, it can mean MORE, since there are multiple adults to take care of chores, and provide care when one partner is off elsewhere. Multiple adults also can provide multiple spheres of expertise when doing homework. 😉
Exposing the children to taunting/bullies
This one has a small amount of validity, in that it IS something to be aware of. That said, it’s certainly not worse than dealing with such things as a same-sex couple (or mixed race, or…). Not to mention that I think the really problem is not with the ones being bullied, but the bullies. *eyeroll* And again, not the province of polys alone. I was most certainly bullied as a child for being smart, wearing glasses, not being skinny… blah blah blah. A bully will find something to bully, no matter what. Again, the key point is to make sure that the kids are prepared to handle it if and when it happens, and to talk openly with them about the prejudices that others might feel (and that they have done nothing wrong if they find themselves bullied).
A few other things to think about
Prepare for a possible home study
You’ll probably want to go through the house and make sure that all “controversial” books, videos, etc., are behind closed doors, in your bedroom, and possibly in a locked cabinet. This is to make sure that they perceive you as taking proper care not to “overexpose” the children to sex or the like. It’s a balance, of course, between that and allowing them to think you are ashamed. However, my sense is that it’s better to err on the side of conservatism in the physical realm, and to simply speak without any hint that you are ashamed of who and what you are (because you certainly should not have to be!)
Answer truthfully, but only the questions that they ask
Try to answer only the questions that they ask. Don’t provide anything beyond that, until and unless they ask for it. If they don’t know to ask about something, they don’t need to know about it!
In this I’m reminded of the milk commercial a few years ago, wherein a fellow was answering his fiance. Rather than letting her tell him up front what her concern was, he launched into all sorts of apologies and justifications, up to and including confessing that the “diamond” engagement ring was really cubic zirconia, “but it looks just like a diamond!” Then, at the end, we find out that she was just mad that he drank all the milk. 🙂
Similarly, when we were dealing with the CPS issues ourselves, we were terrified that it might have been about poly. It wasn’t, but instead about a chance remark overheard on the playground. WE never mentioned polyamory, though, and let them bring up their areas of concern. Had we introduced that, it might have been even more difficult. As it was, we were able to deal with their areas of concern (nudity in the home, for instance) without muddying the waters with something that might have caused them to ask even more difficult questions. Again, don’t lie, and don’t withhold relevant information. Just don’t volunteer more than they are asking for, so as not to give them unnecessary ammunition.
Last but not least, if you’re looking for professional advice and support on the topic, you may wish to contact Elisabeth Sheff (firstname.lastname@example.org). She has researched several flavors of “alternative” relationship styles and identifications, wrote a book on the topic of polyamorous families (The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families), and does “expert witness” work. I recommend her highly.
You’ve done nothing wrong by being polyamorous!
And remember: You have done nothing wrong by simply being polyamorous. It’s a valid lifestyle choice, and no matter what many allege, it can be just as good as — and in some cases better than! — monogamy, in children’s lives. Speak with confidence, and let your own good intentions and thoughtful choices shine through, and you will have the best outcome possible. I have great confidence in you. :
©2014, Dawn M. Davidson