Madonna: Icon (and Single Working Mother with Custody Issues)

This article was written by my colleague, Patra A. Sinner, Board Certified Family Law Specialist and attorney, Sodoma Law (www.sodomalaw.com)

There is one playing field that pretty much levels us all. Whether you are a celebrity or the average family next door, parenthood is the great equalizer. Madonna could be considered one of the most successful women of all time. She has sold in excess of 300 million albums worldwide. Her last two tours grossed in the neighborhood of $300 million each. Her iconic popularity with her fan base does not seem to be waning even after all of these years. Yet, by all accounts, her relationship with her teenage son has fallen apart. At the height of her custody battle over Rocco, she took to social media to proclaim that she can be both a hard-working entertainer and a great single mother. Like many single working parents, she probably felt the pressure to justify her strong work ethic and defend her parenting skills.

What went wrong? The quick backstory gathered from various sources is that during a leg of her Rebel Heart Tour, Madonna’s 15-year old son, Rocco Ritchie, fled his mom’s care to go to his father Guy Richie’s home in the U.K., and has since refused to return to Madonna. The meltdown allegedly occurred over cell phone use. Prior to the tour, Rocco had resided in New York with Madonna, and attended school there. One could speculate that Madonna had primary physical custody under such an arrangement. Some outlets report that Rocco was upset with Madonna’s controlling nature and sought freedom from his mother’s oversight at his father’s home. It may be that the issues between Madonna and Rocco go much deeper than a fray over a cell phone.

What are the complicating factors? The fact that Rocco’s father resides in the U.K. certainly poses some additional concerns as far as jurisdiction over the custodial matters, with both the U.S. and U.K. courts having weighed in on the dispute. Madonna obtained an Order from a New York court in December 2015 requiring Rocco to return to her for the holidays. Rocco refused. The procedure for return of a child under a custody order being enforced internationally is certainly not as simple as a same State, or even an interstate, custodial proceeding. Generally, the custody order must be registered with the Court where you are seeking to enforce the Order. This becomes more complex on an international level. However, as Madonna quickly learned, Rocco’s wishes were more of an obstacle for her than the international enforcement of a custody order. It is difficult, if not impossible, to force a 15-year old to visit and have a relationship with a parent.

How are the child’s wishes relevant? Both the U.S. and U.K. courts have variations of legal authority which allow the Court to take the child’s wishes into account in making custodial decisions. While Madonna had a custody order on her side, it was not enough to bring Rocco home to her in December. Custody orders are always modifiable to meet the best interests of the child. Custodial situations remain fluid as relationship dynamics change. In similar custodial situations where I practice in North Carolina, when a child refuses to be with one parent, Judges have said that forcing such a situation imposes a danger to both the child and the parent. They favor taking steps to rehabilitate the relationship, such as through therapeutic intervention. Whether the child’s wishes are based upon real problems, or simply a manipulation on the child’s part, the Court has to consider the result of forcing the contact. They look for feasible avenues to repair the problem so that the child will actually participate in the relationship.

What are some other factors that may be considered? It appears that Rocco has not attended school at his father’s residence in the U.K. In fact, some outlets reported Rocco may have been told by his dad that he does not have to continue his education. There is further speculation that Rocco engaged in drug use while under his father’s care. Madonna may be the most fit parent when it comes to education, discipline, and other developmental matters that would serve Rocco’s best interests. However, her strong advocacy in these areas could be one of the very things that drove a wedge between her and her son. Parenting should not be a popularity contest, but it can become one. All parties are under scrutiny when it comes to the Court making a custody decision. When children reach an age where they are able to independently articulate their wishes, the parent who exercises more control can find themselves being shut out by the child as Rocco has done with Madonna.

What can Madonna do to get her son back? She has to repair the relationship. Child therapists recommend when the parent/child relationship is strained, and there is minimal contact, that the parent try to focus on small gestures that can lead to more communication. For example, texting or e-mailing an article or link they might find interesting is a way to keep an open dialogue going at a very basic level. It lets the child know the parent is still there and thinking about them. Discussions of the custodial situation and the other parent should be avoided. Also, posting to social media in a public forum as Madonna has done is likely not going to be well-received by the child. When children know that the parents do not communicate well or cannot co-parent, that also gives them an opportunity to choose sides. For all of the wealth and opportunity Madonna is able to offer Rocco, she may have to change her approach to parenting to reach him. She may not be able to do this on her own. She may need help, just like other non-celebrity parents need help, from therapists who specialize in restoring parent/child relationships. Rocco is of the age where his inclination to have this relationship, or not, actually matters. And Madonna has to recognize that.

What next? In between the Asian and Australian legs of her Rebel Heart tour, the parties participated in a custody hearing before a New York court by phone. The Judge told the parties to reach their own custody agreement. This was the Judge’s way of punting this back to the parties. It made clear to Madonna that the Judge was not just going to arbitrarily order Rocco to come back, particularly when everyone understands the problem with imposing such an Order against the will of a 15-year old. Since that happened, Madonna conceded that Rocco was not coming home to her. Madonna must also consider that once Rocco has spent a significant amount of time in the U.K. that it may no longer be appropriate for a U.S. court to have jurisdiction over his custodial decisions as the information most relevant to his care will accumulate elsewhere. This could set the stage for Guy to request a change in jurisdiction to the U.K. eventually. Although, given Rocco’s age, further hearings may be pointless.

Bowing in and out of a world tour while trying to reason with your 15-year old cannot be easy. But dealing with everyday life, while negotiating with a child, is something we can all relate to and understand. The lesson here is that no matter who you are, as a parent the pendulum starts to swing towards your child’s independence as they get older, and it is a fine line as far as balancing parental guidance in a way that is effective with the child without alienating them.

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