Parental Hobbies and Custody

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How much do courts consider outside-the-norm parental behavior in custody situations? Probably more than you think.

Consider this recent story out of Utah. Rich Lee has an odd hobby – he is a biohacker. What is a biohacker? Good question, as many people probably do not know such a hobby exists. Biohacking starts from the premise that the human body can be improved through technology by hacking the human machine for improvement. Cosmetic surgery has been an accepted social form of biohacking for years – getting your nose fixed, changing bust size, liposuction for the love handles. But such modification takes place through trained medical professionals. In biohacking, the changes take place by the hobbyists themselves. So, Rich in his experiments has implanted permanent earbuds in his ears to listen to music without anyone knowing, played with eye drops that let him see in the dark, and put tubes of armor under the skin of his leg to serve as a shin guard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rich’s ex-wife is no fan of the biohacking. In fact, she claims it poses a threat to their children so much so that she has filed for sole custody. They currently alternate custody every week. His ex-wife alleges that the children should not be exposed to what she describes as graphic acts of self-destruction or self-mutilation.

Resolving this case triggers what lawyers call a parade of horribles. Where do we draw the line on acceptable hobbies? It does not seem a great leap from biohacking to the plastic surgery we noted above. Or what about excessive tattooing or piercing of the body? What about hunting or gun collecting? What about extreme sports? As you can see, it does not take much time to think up activities that could be classified as dangerous for children. But much of this depends on context. If a father encourages his 6-year-old to put metal into his shin, that could be considered a form of child abuse. So too if that father puts the 6-year-old on an ATV or gives him a rifle lesson. But if a 12-year-old wants to do an extreme sport like dad? That becomes a harder case. Also, self-mutilation in certain contexts is a psychiatric disorder – thousands of teens engage in “cutting” to cope with anxiety, to give just one example of the thin line.

In general, courts will listen to the evidence and examine the behaviors in context and decide if they create a threat of imminent harm or otherwise create an unhealthy environment. If a parent has weird hobbies but keeps them away from the children, the harm seems minimal. In Rich’s case, because he has permanent changes to his body the children may see, it becomes hard to say the biohacking remains secret and without influence on the children. Rich may otherwise be a great parent, but this behavior does raise safety concerns, and as far as his ex-wife is concerned, psychological concerns as to his fitness.

We have statutes regarding child neglect and abuse because we as a society want to make sure all parents limit their freedom to do as they choose so that their free choices do not hurt their children. In custody situations that does not mean all hobbies have to be as benign as stamp collecting, but it does mean that the other extreme could push the envelope too far.

If you have questions about parental hobbies and custody, contact us – we can help.

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