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Child Abuse and Divorce

When Mackenzie Phillips' disclosed her incestuous relationship with her father there were a torrent of articles about the topic of child sexual abuse. Sometimes it takes a public figure coming forward before the rest of us really start to pay attention. This is what happened when Rock Hudson came out of the closet and then later died of complications of HIV. Hopefully, some good will come out of this bombshell, other than to sell Ms. Phillips' book.

Unfortunately for far too many people engaged in divorce, false allegations of incest are made so that one side can get a leg up in a custody battle. Making one of the worst allegations any person could make against another and knowing it is false, shows just how insane our adversarial divorce process can be. Mackenzie was 19 at the time the sexual abuse started, but I have been involved in cases where the children were younger, much younger. You never want to dismiss these kinds of allegations before being absolutely certain that they are false, which can mean both interviews and medical exams of the children.

Since the subject of sexual abuse of children is in the news, it might be a good time to review some of the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse.

  • Changes in sleeping patterns, bed wetting, and children having nightmares or bad dreams on a regular basis can be tip-offs that something is going on.
  • If you have a child who has always had a sunny disposition and suddenly becomes depressed, irritable or angry, something could be wrong.
  • Low self esteem, guilt and shame coming from a child who never exhibited those traits before could also be a warning to you.
  • Avoidance of certain people or places is another red flag.
  • Sexual advances or instances of inappropriate touch can indicate a child has been exposed to sexual behavior.
  • A sudden drop in grades in school aged children is another possible sign of child abuse.

There can be logical explanations for many of these signals, but taken overall, the more of the above mentioned signs you see, the more likely the child is being abused.

If the statistics are correct, one in four girls and at least one in ten boys are sexually abused in some way by the time they are 18, and it is important to remember that these statistics reflect only reported abuse - what goes unreported is anyone's guess. The facts also indicate that the overwhelming majority of abusers are known to the victims, and in fact, it is estimated that only ten to 15% of abusers are strangers while half of all assaults take place in the child's home or the offender's home. It is no wonder that allegations of sexual abuse by a parent are taken seriously by the court.

It is in society's best interest that children are protected from abuse. But sexual abuse is not the only kind of abuse a child can experience. With half of all marriages ending in divorce, millions of children are caught in the middle when their parents battle over property, custody and support issues. Very few divorce lawyers charge flat fees for their services, so the more a couple fights, the more money they shell out to their lawyers. Making false allegations of sexual molestation ensures a divorce case will go on for a long time, depleting the couple of funds and goodwill towards each other.

Children who duck the verbal bullets flying over their heads as their parents engage in a war of words are victims of abuse themselves. To allow a lawyer to make wild, unfounded allegations against the other parent is inherently abusive to the children. Sometimes children are being abused and it is important to protect them appropriately from an abuser, but to escalate tensions by falsely accusing a parent of such an unspeakable act is monstrous in itself.

Mackenzie Phillips was a victim of her parents' divorce, drug use and sexual perversions. It has scarred her for life. The sins of her parents have been visited on the child, so she is sharing her story with the world. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is to think carefully about who you have children with before you bring another person into the world. But there is also the lesson of being able to recognize an abused child when you see one. Mackenzie Phillips must have manifested many of the above mentioned signs, and an alert and caring adult would have seen this girl was in trouble.

Sometimes parents are so focused on their own pain, they don't notice that children are suffering too, and with fewer coping mechanisms for that suffering than adults. Get involved if you suspect something is wrong. Encourage parents to divorce peacefully without fighting in court so children are not caught in the middle of the familial equivalent of WWIII.


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In a summary dissolution, a hearing with the judge is typically not needed. A marriage of five years or less may be ended by summary dissolution, which is a simplified procedure to terminate a marriage in the state of California. With a summary dissolution, a joint petition is filed when 1) either spouse meets the standard residency requirement, 2) the marriage is irretrievably broken down due to irreconcilable differences, 3) the marriage is childless, 4) the wife is not pregnant, 5) neither spouse owns real estate, 6) there are no unpaid debts greater than $4,000, 7) the total value of community property is less than $25,000, 8) neither spouse has separate property (excluding cars and loans) of greater than $25,000, 9) the spouses have reached an agreement regarding the division and distributions of assets and liabilities, 10) both waive their rights to maintenance and appeal; 11) both have read a brochure about summary dissolution and 12) both desire to end the marriage.
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