North Carolina court dockets are full with child custody cases. This should come as no surprise, since marriage usually results in children and nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Divorces involving children can be highly contentious and extremely challenging for all involved, including the parties, the lawyers, the judges, and most unfortunately, the children.
Among all the different types of cases that trial judges encounter, child custody cases are probably their least favorite and most difficult. Why? Three words: emotion, emotion, and emotion! It is hard to convey to the lay person just how much spite and hostility exists between parties – and often their lawyers – in child custody disputes.
Compounding the problem, North Carolina gives trial judges very little guidance in resolving these highly emotional disputes, leaving them to singlehandedly determine what is “the best interest of the child.” And while trial judges are often very good at ruling on evidentiary disputes and running a courtroom, they noticeably struggle with matters outside their legal training, such as trying to determine which parent is best fit to have primary custody.
This difficulty is aptly described in the following quote by former NC Supreme Court Justice, Robert H. Parker:
One of the gravest responsibilities that can be placed upon a court – and one of the most heart searching – is to determine the proper custodian of a child. Courts should ever bear in mind that children are not chattels, but intelligent and moral beings, and their happiness and welfare is a matter of prime consideration. — Wall v. Hardee, 240 N.C. 465, 467, 82 S.E.2d 370, 372 (1954).