Supervised Parenting Time and Public Place Visits

by Annette Burns on September 19, 2019

Should a parent who by court order has only supervised visitation with a child be able to attend public and school events involving the child, such as sports events or school programs, without a supervisor?

Many (or most) court orders that set up supervised-only parenting time clearly state when, where, and under what circumstances the supervised PT will take place, but those orders tend to be silent about whether the supervised parent can attend public activities that involve the child. Some supervised parents think they have free reign to visit the child any time and anywhere other adults are around, including visiting during the school day, attending the child’s sports events, or watching a school program. After all, lots of people are around, so the parent is technically “supervised”, right?

But reasonable minds can differ as to whether attendance at a public event is truly supervised. For the protection of the child, supervised parenting time orders should explicitly address whether or not the supervised parent can attend any of these quasi-public events.

To determine whether a supervised parent should be able to attend public events involving the child, it’s helpful to examine a few situations why parenting time might be supervised. I can think of 5 categories of situations that might result in supervised parenting time:

  1. The parent has been physically abusive to child. This can range from inappropriate discipline to major abuse including sexual abuse.
  2. Fear of abduction. The court has found indications the parent might flee with the child if left unsupervised.
  3. Emotional abuse. The parent has said things or taken actions in front of the child which are considered abusive but which fall short of physical abuse. This category would include negative comments about the other parent or other family members, allowing a child inappropriate access to violence or adult situations. This category could include a parent’s mental illness which has resulted in inappropriate or scary discussions or actions by the parent.
  4. Substance abuse. The parent abuses alcohol or drugs to the extent s/he is not considered fit to parent the child, or the child could be endangered, without supervision.
  5. The child exhibits fear, panic, or refusal to see the parent which is not based on any of the above factors and which could be the result of alienating language and behaviors of the favored parent.

Of these factors, the first four are arguably the “fault” of the supervised parent (although mental illness isn’t fault-based). The fifth is not the fault of the supervised parent and may not be the fault of the favored parent.

A case can be made, in my opinion, that most of the reasons for supervised visits also mean the supervised parent should not attempt to see the child in a public setting like a school play, concert, or sporting event. In the case of physical or emotional abuse of the child, merely seeing the supervised parent could trigger immediate thoughts of the abusive behaviors. It’s arguable that the child suffers some injury, however minor, simply by being reminded of that parent and the behaviors while trying to engage in his activity. In the case of fear of abduction, the parent’s presence without a specific supervisor who is aware of the danger and skilled in preventing it could be interpreted as an immediate threat — children can be abducted from public places, including schools, no matter how many other adults are around.

Supervision for substance abuse is arguably a situation where a parent who can prove s/he is not currently using (provable with testing, SoberLink, and the like) could be permitted to see the child at a public event without direct, one-on-one supervision. Even in these cases, the parent should only observe the event and should not attempt to engage with the child personally. As stated above, the court order for supervision should be very specific in stating that the supervised parent may attend those public functions only if substance testing is current and 100% negative for any substances. (Specific language could include: “Father shall test with SoberLink within two (2) hours prior to and after the activity” or “Mother must appear at TASC for testing within four (4) hours prior to the activity and again the following day before 2pm.”) Without specific statements in a court order specifying the testing that the the supervised parent should do, that parent should not attend.

The last factor, the child’s estrangement from a parent which seems to be irrational and is not based on any of the other factors, is the most difficult to address. If supervision has been ordered based on the child’s reluctance or refusal, the court has determined that the child’s rejection of the parent is serious enough to warrant the inclusion of a third party to ease the child’s distress (or to attempt to overcome the effects of alienation). The child’s distress, whether caused by the favored parent or not, is real, so the supervised parent’s presence at a public event without the supervisor should not be permitted. If a parent supervised for this non-specific factor feels s/he should be permitted to attend public functions to see the child, that parent can try to make the case to the court why his or her appearance at a public event would not be distressing or harmful to the child even in the absence of direct supervision.

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