It has been an overwhelming pleasure and honor that our firm has not taken lightly that we are able to serve so many LGBTQ+ families in the Kansas City area, including throughout areas of Missouri and Kansas. As many families look for affirming family law attorneys, sometimes the opportunity to serve families even takes us to more rural areas of Kansas and Missouri. In honor of pride month, several of our blog posts focus on serving the LGBTQ+ families in their difficult family law matters and needs.
Today, I am focusing on how to be kind, sensitive and affirming to children who are LGBTQ+ in litigating family law cases and matters. Here are some things our firm has learned in having the privilege of serving the community in this manner:
1.Use Consideration and Discretion in Court Documents: Both Missouri and Kansas are notice pleading states. This means that there is not a requirement that pleadings, motions for temporary custody and other similar documents have extensive or over-the-top detail about what is being claimed, what the concerns are and what the issues in the family are.
Documents that an attorney helps a client file are not the place or time to “out” a child (this may include revealing or stating a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity without that child’s consent). Specifically, in both, Kansas and Missouri, divorce case files are public records and open and accessible to the general public. Thus, court documents are not the place to identify or detail a child’s gender transition or gender identity issues. Certainly, in some family situations, addressing these issues is necessary to custody claims and the best interests of the child or children involved, but this can be talked about in court without it being placed in a public record. Once items are placed in court documents, there is not an ability to remove them and it is generally difficult, if not impossible to remove them or protect them from public access. There are ways to meet the requirements of notice pleading without “outing” a child and their individual needs. Even if a child is already “out” and is not ashamed or protective of this information being shared, try to determine the potential pros and cons of providing information such as this in a publicly available court document.
2. Take great care to use Appropriate Names/Pronouns. If the child has expressed a preference for their gender or a name, use the identifiers when speaking to your client about their child. You can still use the child’s selected gender and/or name identifiers, even if they are separate than what the child’s birth certificate lists. If you slip up and incorrectly identify a child or their requested gender pronoun, acknowledge the oversight, apologize and move forward. If an attorney notes that their client is struggling to use the child’s preferred name and pronouns, assist the family by recommending some professional guidance and support for the client so that he or she can be the best possible parent for their child.
3. Assist your Client in Safeguarding their Child/ren. As lawyers, we are advocates for children, however, at the essence of every custody matter is the effort in seeking the best interests of the children. When a parent is affirming of an LGBTQIA+ child, he or she is frequently accused of “encouraging”, “supporting” or even “pushing” a child to identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Research shows that a parent cannot make or force a child to be gay, or to identify as a different gender orientation. However, when children are rejected or do not feel fundamentally supported, they have a greatly increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, drug use/abuse, among other negative concerns. On top of that, if a child is in the midst of, or feeling like a pawn in a custody battle, that can make a difficult situation for a child feel unbearable and unlivable. When a parent is struggling to support his or her child with any needs, it is important to encourage the parent to get support through counseling, education, support networks and other safe spaces for learning, growing and improving. A parent can and should be a safe space for his or her child to share who they are without judgment or criticism.
4. Seek out Professionals and Care, When Needed. It is a parent’s obligation to make sure his or her child has the supports that they need to help their child with needs, whether they are physical, health, mental health or other needs. Once a parent has obtained the support and education that they need to support their child, the parent next needs to make sure the child has the support and education that they need. Acknowledging a child’s need for additional supports and implementing those supports can feel life changing to a struggling child- or in some situations, life-giving, if a child is struggling with suicidal ideation or planning. In order for therapists and other providers to be effective in providing an LGBTQIA+ child the help and support they need, it is imperative that the provider is an ally and ready and capable of being fully supportive. Finding specialists and professionals who can help with sexual identity or gender identity needs of a child will be empowering to the needs of the child.
Many transgender children have significant medical needs. Thus, it is important to make sure the best professionals are located to aid the children. Thankfully, in the Kansas City area, Children’s Mercy Hospital has a specialized clinic with a team of specialists to aid children in gender transition medical needs. Overwhelmingly and almost without fail, when parents cannot agree on medical care and treatment for a child, a judge will defer to the recommendations of the treating providers and medical/psychological experts involved in a child’s care. Again, having knowledgeable, skilled and allied/aware health and psychological providers, may make the difference between a child feeling validated, understood and secure and a child feeling dismissed. In some situations, having the expert guidance of knowledgeable medical and mental health care providers can assist parents in avoiding a child custody battle or other court litigation from ever beginning.
5. Don’t be a part of the problem: be a part of the solution. As attorneys, we have a substantial position in this process in being able to assist parents in making important decisions about the course of action that they choose to take. As advocates, we can encourage or discourage pursuing certain actions, including even the decision to move forward with litigation. Your attorney should be affirming of LGBTQIA+ children. Do not work with an attorney who allows you, as a parent, to reject the very essence of why your child is. Making your child grow up in a family situation and environment where they feel rejected is something you may not ever be able to repair and correct. It will potentially permanently damage your relationship and your child’s childhood. Clients pay their attorneys to provide experienced, well-reasoned guidance and this is certainly an area you should trust your lawyer on, if you are uncertain how a parent should support their child in such a situation. Don’t victimize an already-struggling child by allowing a court battle to make the child feel disrespected.
If our office can help your family with a unique sexual identity or gender identity issue concerning the best interests of the child or children involved, please call our office today at (816) 208-8130 to schedule your consultation.