Does a Child Have a Right to McDonalds in a Custody Case?

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Divorce, Child Custody, and Custody Evaluation on Tuesday November 12, 2013

The news has been heavily reporting on a divorce case in New York involving the headline grabber that a court-appointed psychiatrist deemed the father, David Schorr, an “unfit parent” because he refused to take his four-year-old son to McDonalds on his Tuesday evening visitation. Could a parent concerned about the amount of junk food his son eats be deemed unfit?

In what is already a two-and-a-half year divorce battle (why is that not the real headline?), it seems unlikely that the sole reason that the court-appointed psychiatrist rendered her opinion of relative fitness turned on McDonalds. We only know about these details because Mr. Schorr filed a defamation suit against the psychiatrist.

From what we can gather from the single incident, Mr. Schorr and his son were going to eat at their regular café, but the son threw a tantrum and wanted to go to McDonalds. Mr. Schorr gave the child an ultimatum – choose any other restaurant or no food at all. The child chose no food, and of course told all this to Mrs. Schorr as soon as he returned to her later that evening, at which point Mrs. Schorr promptly took the child to McDonalds – and called the psychiatrist.

From a parenting perspective, Mr. Schorr had the right idea but the wrong implementation. As a parenting strategy, sending a child to bed hungry to teach a lesson may have been acceptable forty years ago, but much less so today – particularly if you are in a protracted custody battle. That Mr. Schorr would make such a stand within that environment says a great deal about the difficulty of parenting during a high-conflict divorce. He would have better served letting the child choose between two other restaurants, or simply sitting at their regular café until the boy calmed down and chose to eat. He should not have thrown his own tantrum as a punishment.

Now let’s look at the psychiatrist’s judgment. Can one instance of trying to manage the diet of a four-year-old lead to the allegation of unfitness? Under most circumstances, absolutely not. To single out this one instance as an example of poor parenting also seems overly harsh. Acceding to the wishes of a child for junk food hardly seems like the mark of great parenting, nor does giving into a tantrum.

Does a child have a right to McDonalds in a custody case? Of course not. And it seems unlikely that custody will turn on this one incident, or even whether one parent provides more junk food than the other. Other facts not publicly known will determine custody.

This case highlights some of the difficulties in a high-stakes custody battle. The parties have litigated far too long; the stress involved, the gamesmanship and the manipulation help no one, least of all the child. That the case would become a public spectacle over the denial of a Happy Meal at McDonalds only indicates how far the case has strayed from reality.

Can what a parent feeds a child become an issue in a custody case? Yes, but only as part of a long pattern of conduct. If a parent feeds a child only junk food to the point that it threatens the child’s health, that would raise serious red flags for a court. And if a parent routinely sent a child to bed without food if the child refused to eat what the parent offered (even if healthy), that could become an issue as well.

It seems that both parties can benefit from taking a step back and looking at the process from the perspective of the child. Most four-year-olds do not get to choose where they will eat for dinner and what will be served, and no court will award custody to the parent who best accommodates those choices. Mrs. Schorr scored no real points by taking the child to McDonalds immediately upon his return from Mr. Schorr. And Mr. Schorr could have diffused the tantrum by not raising the stakes to fast food versus fasting. But clearly the parties have not fought for thirty months and counting because of food choices. Generally, if your custody case has come down to an evening at McDonalds, your case has lost perspective.

Ultimately, this case highlights what many people find so distasteful about divorce and custody proceedings – amped up litigation, parents and experts looking equally foolish, and a four-year-old stuck in the middle. It probably makes quite a few people think about drive-thru divorce.

If you have questions about custody, contact our St. Louis family law attorneys – we can help.