Children of far-flung divorced parents have always had a special set of problems and challenges. The 9-11 attacks just made them even more difficult and complicated.
My ten-year-old son's father lives across the country, more than 3000 miles away. Visitation, pre 9-11, usually meant calling a travel agent and buying an unaccompanied minor ticket for our boy. He's a veteran traveler and we've gone all over the world together.
"I like it best when you can fly with me," our son has told me. Sometimes we could arrange for my husband and me to fly with him. But if it meant the difference between flying as an "unaccompanied minor" or missing the time with his dad, we chose flying him by himself.
Letting go of him and watching him chatting with the flight attendant as they descended the walkway to the plane always left me just a tiny bit queasy. I knew I was doing the best thing for our son, however.
9-11 changed all that. The images of the World Trade Center collapsing and the Pentagon burning are now a part of America's collective memory. A few days after the attack, once the initial horror and disbelief had worn off, I began to wonder how I'd handle the idea of once again sending our little boy off with a nice flight attendant.
How would he handle it? Would he be scared, having nightmares and dreaming of plane crashes? Would I? What if travelling by air proves to be somehow emotionally damaging? How will our son visit with his dad, then? The "what-ifs" swirling around in my mind make our court-stamped settlement agreement seem a lot less compelling now, post 9-11.
I know I am not the only parent, custodial or not, unsettled by these questions.
Family law judges and attorneys are likewise bracing for an onslaught of visitation problems brought on by the 9-11 attacks. Bob Nachshin , a high-end Southern California family law lawyer with a client list that's included Brent Saberhagen, Lesley Ann Down, Alana Stewart, and most famously, Barry Bonds , says he expects to see many high-conflict visitation disputes spurred by the September terrorist attacks. More than 25% of Nachshin's clients send their children far from their custodial home for visitations, he estimates.
To further complicate matters, virtually all major airlines have issued new restrictions on unaccompanied minor travel. Prior to 9-11, most airlines permitted children older than 5 to fly alone and make plane changes under the supervision of a flight or gate attendant. Now, airlines are requiring that children be allowed to fly unaccompanied on non-stop direct flights with no changes, if at all.
"Right now both parents and children are afraid to fly. Parents need to be sensitive to their children's feelings," Nachshin said, "I think judges are unsure whether it's safe to fly now, too."
Sacramento family law attorney Cheri Simmons said, "If I had (to send my children for) visitation, there's no way I'd put my child on a plane now. Heck, I'm not getting on a plane now!"
Simmons estimates fewer than 10% of children fly as unaccompanied minors to visit with their noncustodial parent. "It's a small but significant number of children affected by this," she said. "That's a lot of kids; it's tragic."
Sorting out fears and worries
How can a parent tell if it's okay for a child to fly alone again, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks? Psychologists recommend deciding on a child-by-child basis.
What's the child's existing emotional state? Parents need to observe their child and get to know him or her better than ever now. It's far easier said than done, but putting the children's needs first now is critical. If he or she shows many signs of stress or anxiety, flying alone now may be traumatic to him or her.
The dilemma is that children of divorce are often already stressed and anxious. "Unfortunately, many [signs of stress in children] are also signs of anxiety or trauma that may have roots in reasons other than the events of [9-11]," psychologist Fred Medway said.
Medway, chairman of University of South Carolina's psychology department, said kids in high-conflict divorced families often attempt to assert control over their out-of-control lives by exaggerating their fears and worries. They thus "call the shots", controlling whether or when they'll visit their non-custodial parent.
If this hasn't been an issue, and the child has happily traveled to see his or her parent in the past, watch for new fears and worries. "Any child who comes out and says they are afraid to fly or has nightmares about it should most likely be kept off [a plane]," Medway recommended.
Other children may hide their anxiety in order to keep the peace. "Children are already ambivalent about hurting the feelings of one or both parents aside from the added and external troubles around them," Michigan psychotherapist Rochelle Gold said.
A child's age makes a big difference in deciding whether he or she can handle flying now. "Age is important so the child can abstractly recognize they will be safe to the greatest degree possible even though an unsafe event has occurred in this country," Gold said.
Is your child old enough to understand intellectually that the airlines and the U.S. government have made changes to enhance flight safety? If so, he may be able to "handle" flying, even after the attacks.
Fred Medway believes younger children aren't well-suited to fly alone even in the best of times.
"Below age 12 or thirteen, I wouldn't recommend it," he said. "It depends on the child's age and maturity. To be on the safe side, it's probably best to restrict this to kids in high school and older."
Medway cautioned that even children who seem relatively unaffected by the terrorist attacks and comfortable with the idea of flying alone now may find themselves unexpectedly anxious or traumatized once in the air.
"The act of travel by air can now trigger all kinds of fears, especially if there is a less-than-normal flying situation, such as turbulence or someone a child thinks may resemble a terrorist," he said. Parents can't fully prepare a child beforehand for any "unusual" possibility that may arise.
Gold recommended that flight attendants be given even greater in-flight responsibility for the care of children flying as unaccompanied minors. "Airline staff need training to manage unaccompanied minors emotionally and physically. They need to be assigned to a child and make contact with them during the flight," she said.
Legal issues and new fights
If visitation has been problematic for families in the past, air travel may now become a seeming barrier to visits. Parents who've been prevented from visiting with their children need to address this now, before the holiday visitation season begins.
"I expect that [exaggerated claims of fear] will be used by children as well as the adults. My advice would be to bring it up now before it becomes an issue. The parents need to do what is in the best interest of the children," Medway said.
"If the visit doesn't go well, there may be real problems on the return trip. This is going to be a problem for both biological parents and the child," he said.
"It's mainly a problem when one parent says 'no, I'm not putting the child on a plane' and the other parent says, 'it's no big deal; flying is even safer now than it used to be.' In that case, Mom can drive the kids out for the visit," Cheri Simmons said.
Bob Nachshin argues his first hearing dealing with this issue soon. He represents a Southern California father in a high-profile, high-conflict custody case. The mother lives in Arizona with the couple's four-year-old.
Though the court ordered visitation for the father every other weekend, the child's mother doesn't want to fly the child, Nachshin said. Instead, she wants the child's father to fly out and stay in a hotel in Arizona instead. A custody evaluator finished a report on this case the week after the terrorist attacks. The mother was unreasonable in requiring the father to fly to Arizona and visit with his child in a hotel and it would be better for the child to stay with the father in California during weekend visits, the evaluator wrote.
"I'm gonna advocate (in this hearing) that air travel is safe. Terrorists will have moved on to other things: cropdusters, trains, trucks, subways," Nachshin said.
Nachshin said he doesn't yet know what to expect from judges hearing cases about visitation conflicts exacerbated by real or exaggerated 9-11 fears, but anticipates judges will rule conservatively on these issues. "Judges don't want to be accused of taking this lightly. It's the judge's job to be an advocate for safety," he said.
"If I were the judge I wouldn't ask a child to fly now," Simmons said. "I would modify arrangements and limit visitation until the political situation improves." she said.
When a high-conflict divorced couple battles about whether or not the child should fly, Simmons advises the non-custodial parent to attempt to enforce the existing court order. "Either honor the court order or get a new one," she said.
Nachshin said he's recommending his clients be flexible about arrangements, if they or their children are afraid of flying now.
"What I'm recommending when there's conflict about visitation is that the parent send an escort, charter a plane, travel by train, or stay in a hotel in the child's city," he said "Staying in a hotel is not hearly as good as the child staying in the parent's home, though."
If the children are fearful, Nachshin tells his clients try "to calm the child; tell the child flying is safer than it ever has been and that the government has taken steps to make planes safer. Remind the child it's the parents' job to make sure kids are safe."
And again, now what?
At my house in Northern California, we are saving our pennies. Thanksgiving is Dad's holiday this year, and we'd like to fly with my son to make sure he feels secure and comfortable. We're also thinking about moving closer to the east coast, so this flying business doesn't remain such a big issue.
Families like ours all over the country are facing tough choices about long-distance visitation. Whatever their circumstances, the decisions families need to make will likely be both difficult and costly. Mary Kuris is the co-owner of Second Wives Club.Net and shares custody with her ten-year-old son's father, who lives 3000 miles away. She and her husband live in Sacramento, California, with her son.