All too often, tragedies occur in the context of divorce and custody disputes. In Arizona we no longer use the term “custody” and instead use the phrase “legal decision making,” but for the purpose of this article we will refer to it colloquially as custody. Unfortunately, many of those tragedies are perpetrated by the parties involved, but there may be ways to prevent the unspeakable from occurring.
On Christmas Day, a Casa Grande woman murdered her daughter, poisoned her family, and stabbed her ex-husband several times before attempting to kill herself. Recent questioning revealed that the woman, Connie Villa, feared losing custody of her children to her ex-husband. Few details are yet known about the couple’s 2012 divorce, made official a few months ago, and subsequent custody battle.
Homicide is not commonplace in a family law dispute, but the threat of domestic violence, kidnapping, and other potential hazards and wrongdoing is great enough that courts often order counseling. Furthermore, courts may order that the parties to a family law proceeding undergo a psychological evaluation, rehabilitation for substance abuse issues, and other forms of treatment to help create the safest environment possible.
Attorneys also have a pivotal role in resolving disputes in a way that promotes the long-term health of their clients and their families. Unfortunately, the professionals assigned to help guide a family through a case are limited by the good-faith participation of the parties. For example, a husband who struggles with moderate depression may lie about his symptoms, fail to disclose his diagnosis, or refuse recommended treatment because he fears potential consequences with the court, his employer, or the rest of his family. Conversely, the wife of a clinically depressed husband may exaggerate his behavior or fabricate an allegation of abuse in an attempt to compel a more favorable judicial result.
Meanwhile, the evaluators and caretakers are unable to make accurate recommendations to the court and cannot prescribe proper treatment of what ails the parties. Ultimately, the failure of the parties to participate openly and honestly in the process can result in tragedies that might have been preventable.
It cannot be known whether the Christmas Day killing of Aniarael Macias, an innocent 13-year-old girl, could have been prevented, or even whether Villa suffered from an undisclosed or insufficiently treated illness, but the case provides a sad reminder of the high stakes that a family legal dispute can raise.
If you are involved in a contested divorce, a custody dispute, a dependency hearing, or simply feel as though your family’s affairs are too strained to manage, the most important thing that you can do is to engage with the resources available to you. Family court cases are immensely stressful to the parties, and even one or two counseling sessions can tremendously improve your quality of life during a difficult time.
Moreover, good-faith participation in the process, including complying with recommended evaluations and treatment, is critical. Vexatious tactics and vengeance-oriented litigation might strain your family to the breaking point and trigger new disputes, violence, or worse.
The unseen forces that can damage a family – or an individual – beyond repair are particularly worrisome around the holidays, during school breaks and vacations, and just before or after moving to a new home or job. Your attorney should be aware of these concerns and remind you that being overzealous in trying to protect yourself or your children might have the opposite effect of what you intended.