ON THE SIDE OF CHILDREN: when Guardianship turns into Violence against Children

While family ties come undone, separations occur, lawyers take action, conflicts escalate, and daily life turns into a tangle of meetings, discussions, decisions, hearings, files, arguments, faxes and emails exchanged between lawyers, former spouses, independent technical consultants, party-appointed technical consultants, certified emails with the court, appeals, and much much more, hardly anyone notices that in the midst of all the confusion and frenzy there are children – some very young, others already adolescents – who are struggling with their problems and insecurities. Many might counter that one goes through all that trouble precisely to protect these children, or should I say to safeguard them, to be more precise.

But what often happens – except in cases of actual psychological and physical violence – is that what was intended as protection sometimes turns into a real nightmare for all the children who, instead of living their childhood, find themselves unexpectedly thrown into a place similar to the inquisition, where anything they say can be used by those who want to wield more power. So they may find themselves pulled by both sides, not just by the two former spouses who have forgotten that they are not separating as parents but as a couple, but also by those who have stepped in to finalize the separation or divorce.

The nightmare may be triggered by a parent who has decided to protect a child from the other parent’s shortcomings or to use him/her as an instrument of revenge against the former spouse, or by the many professionals who, once the separation and/or divorce gets under way, start to come out of the woodwork, each saying that everything they do is for the children’s wellbeing.

So those children who had only known the magical world that usually serves as a backdrop to childhood, who relied on the unconditional love of Mommy and Daddy, on games and dreams, are dragged into a situation in which nothing is certain anymore, where Mommy and Daddy’s crying and screaming, and their absence – so caught up are they in their personal and legal battle – may replace the blitheness and their parents’ reassuring kisses.

Some children withdraw even more into their precious make-believe world, others turn to books or school, others still begin to experience fear – a fear that is different from that of monsters or of the dark that they knew before. This fear follows them wherever they go, never leaves them, makes them feel in danger; it persecutes them. And as the situation between the parents continues over time, the fear turns into distress and nothing seems to appease it.

The sight of Mommy and Daddy’s hard faces, the meetings with social workers, psychologists, sometimes even judges, become instances where confusion and anxiety grow exponentially.

They watch with eyes that see and wish for different things from us; the professionals who meet with them and make decisions for their own good should know this.

All they want is to have Mommy and Daddy back – with their strengths and weaknesses – and to return to their fantastic and reassuring world. All children who have suffered violence at the hands of a parent clearly recognize in themselves the fear of re-experiencing the abuse, and the distress it can cause.

Instead, all others – those who have been drawn into a conflict that concerns adults, not children – are forced to reckon with a very harsh, unknown situation, and have to bear the heaviest brunt for they have to endure the threats of the people who, in the name of their own good, want to take them away, where to, nobody knows.

Institutions proclaim, “Let us hear the voice of minors!” and at this point children feel their anxiety subside, they regain trust and dream that the nightmare will soon be over. The fact that they are being heard makes them believe again in adults, in the people who had disappointed them so far. When they appear before the judge children talk, vent, make questions, ask that they be believed. If their voice were to produce the effect they so hope for, the magic would break the bad spell that had coloured everything black up until that moment. But if that were not to happen … if instead their words were to turn into air, smoke, as if the magic had made them invisible, then those innocent ones would plunge back into despair. And the worse could even be yet to come for children who have been so courageous as to speak, perhaps even more maturely than did the adults, and are severely punished by being taken away, far from their home, room, parents, routine, school, friends, and memories. Everything could vanish and materialize again in an unknown place they are taken to, a sort of gilded cage where the only question they ask, over and over again, is “Why? What did we do wrong? Did we say something we shouldn’t have said? And when will we see Mommy and Daddy again?”

Often time goes by and children are left trapped inside the situation that should have saved them but has become an actual prison. Anxiety turns into anger, powerlessness into frustration. Those children begin to feel as if they experienced a loss, worse than an actual death … they have lost everything – Mommy, Daddy, their home, grandparents, friends. They have to rebuild themselves, but now, no longer serene and immersed in the magic of childhood, they have to start from an unfair and cruel adult world towards which all they feel is very strong anger.

That is how much extolled guardianship can turn into violence against children.

Dott.ssa Stefania Jade Trucchi