The Internet: A Word To The Wise

Robert J. Loveland, Ph.D.

When I began conducting custody and parenting plan evaluations in 1978, a typical case file might end up being about an inch thick. Back then, almost all of the family data was gathered from the various interviews and the psychological testing, along with the gathering of school and therapy information as well as personal reference material. The cases were every bit as unique and complex as current cases, but the data gathering was more direct and specific as it might relate to the custody statute as it then existed.

Nowadays, an inch thick file is unheard of and many of my files end up comprising a foot or two of documents in both written and digital form. This exponential growth in the volume of the data that needs to be reviewed is directly correlated with the explosive growth of the internet and all the related communication technology and social networking sites. A current file still contains all of the usual procedural data, but now there are mountains of emails, CD’s and DVD’s of videos and recorded telephone calls, pages of text messages, and reams of printed out material that one divorcing spouse or the other has collected to incriminate the character and parenting skill of their soon to be ex-spouse. Much of this information proves to be irrelevant or only tangentially related to ORS 107.137, but I have to accept the material because I cannot know its relevance until it is reviewed. Custody and parenting plan evaluations have become increasingly time-consuming and complicated as a result.

My main reason in wanting to mention this phenomenon and to place this article on my website is to simply caution parents that they may end up dealing in Court with information that they never dreamt would become public knowledge. When I used to counsel teenagers, one frequently offered bit of advice was, “Don’t put anything in writing that you don’t want the whole world to see.” That was back in the days of mothers finding love notes in pant pockets while doing laundry or teachers catching students passing notes in class. Nowadays, people of all ages seem compelled to post their most secret thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a variety of sites for all the world to see. A divorce is a lawsuit, and adults seem to forget that during this type of litigation most anything is “discoverable.” Everything from the contents of your computer hard drive to long forgotten emails to the way you advertise yourself on a dating website can all become common knowledge during the divorce process. Again, much of this might prove irrelevant from a statutory point of view, but it can at least be embarrassing. Other times, it can prove very important.

For example, if your soon to be ex-husband tells me during the interviews that you are an angry and extremely vengeful human being who attacks and retaliates against anyone who offends your finely tuned sense of narcissism, I will listen kindly but with some skepticism that perhaps he is overly disparaging the seemingly nice person that I also had a chance to interview. But then he hands me a printout of ten of your postings on one of those review sites where people are free to “anonymously” critique anyone and anything for any reason. The printout shows that you have publicly blasted your husband for seeking a divorce and being somewhat less than desirable as a human being, your son’s pediatrician for not prescribing the medication you thought was necessary, your daughter’s gym teacher for mentioning her need for exercise, your other son’s soccer coach for not playing him enough, two of your neighbors who appear to be siding with your husband, the school principal for not firing the gym teacher, and all three of the attorneys that you have already fired. Now your husband’s allegation that you are an angry and vengeful person might gain some traction in my office.

Or as another example, if your soon to be ex-wife tells me during the interview process that you are a man of little character and that you have lied your way through 20 years of marriage over even trivial matters, I will listen politely but still wonder how much this report might be tinged by normal divorce grieving. But then she hands me a pile of printouts from Facebook or some other social network where you publicly admit to your friends a long list of behaviors that signal a mountain of character flaws, in addition to your fictional self-description on various dating sites that remove 20 years from your age and deny the existence of the very children for whom you want to assume sole custody. Now your wife’s allegation make take on some weight in my office.

These are just fictional examples, of course, but not unlike things that happen in my office every day. So, a few words to the wise regarding the internet and all its related technology and networking: Go ahead and use it. The internet can be wonderfully informing, helpful, and entertaining. But keep these three things in mind:

  1. Don’t write or post anything that you don’t want the whole world to see. Everything you write or post is available, and nothing is really “anonymous” on posting websites.
  2. Remember that angry messages, postings, or emails say a whole lot more about the messenger than they do the intended target or recipient. An angry, crazy message will likely be seen as being written by an angry, crazy person. That point will not be lost on the Court or to a custody evaluator.
  3. If you are going to “go public” on the internet, do so in a calm, thoughtful, kind, and honest fashion if that is how you want to be perceived when someone comes to take a closer look at what you’ve done or written.

It would be a whole lot easier for me to remain focused on children during one of these custody and parenting plan evaluations if everyone would follow this advice.

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