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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

March 13th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Speaking of abusers getting custody, that’s what a Dallas area jury will decide in the ongoing tabloid fodder otherwise known as the Deion Sanders divorce and custody case.

The former Dallas Cowboys star defensive back left his wife Pilar in December of 2011 and since then, the world has been waiting breathlessly to learn the lurid details.  Over the past 14 months, those details have seeped out and none of it looks good for Pilar.  Read about it here (NBC News, 3/6/13), here (NBC DFW, 1/16/13), and here (NBC DFW, 5/8/12).

Deion has a daughter by a previous marriage and he and Pilar have two sons.  From what I can gather from the news reports, Pilar is a physical and emotional abuser.  For example, tape recordings of altercations between the two reveal one of the little boys begging his mother to stop attacking Deion.

On the stand, the former NFL star recalled at least seven acts of verbal and physical fights between himself and his wife and his wife and their children.

Deion said the couple hasn’t slept in the same room since February 2011, and that he recently visited his son’s school and told administrators that he didn’t want his wife picking up their son because the child was “scared to death of her and doesn’t want to be alone with her.”

In an audio recording of the fight, Pilar can be heard telling her eldest son to go into Deion’s room and get the other child to come out and see her. Pilar can also be heard accusing Deion of kidnapping and adultery while calling him names and cursing. At least one child can be heard begging his mother to stop and to leave the room.

That was last April.  The judge obviously believed Deion’s side of the story because he issued a restraining order against Pilar requiring her to keep at least 500 yards away from the former football star’s house.  But, remarkably enough, he also gave the pair 50-50 parenting time, with each parent having the kids for a week at a time.  Despite the equal time, Deion was ordered to pay child support to Pilar in the amount of $10,000 per month.  That amount was later reduced to $5,500.

Then in January of this year, the same judge ordered that Deion should be the primary parent regarding all the significant decisions about the children’s daily lives.

“The judge has decided that Deion Sanders should have the exclusive right to establish his children’s primary residence,  the exclusive right to make educational decisions on their behalf and the exclusive right to make decisions on athletic programs they participate in,” said Rick Robertson, attorney for Deion. “This is a very, very significant victory in determining who the primary conservator of the children is.”

Pilar previously had control over educational decisions, but Wheless most recent decision reversed that. Instead of Deion having custody of the boys and Pilar their daughter, as it has been, both parents will now have joint custody and will have all of their children on alternating weeks for a week at a time.

“This decision is all about our children. I won’t get into any mudslinging or a response to my intelligence and fatherhood. I don’t do that. I just desire the best for all my kids and I’m pleased the judge has expanded my rights as a parent,” said Deion.

Both parents are now singing in harmony about their urgent desire that the children have time with the other parent.  As in so many states now, one parent’s promoting the parenting time of the other parent is one of the considerations in the decision about custody.  So both Deion and Pilar want the world to know that they want the kids to have all the time they want with the other parent.

Still, no matter how nasty the divorce has been between the  Sanders, both Deion and Pilar say they want what is best for  their kids.

“I have my boys on a daily basis. My daughter’s with me all the  time. They go back and forth whenever they want, that’s the way I  am. If you want to spend time with your mom, let’s do it,” said  Deion Sanders on Tuesday.

Outside of the courtroom, Pilar and Deion Sanders seemed willing  to work out a way to split time with their three kids.

“I’ve never denied them access to their father at all. I believe  a child needs both parents, and never withheld my children from  having time with their father, and I encourage a lot of time,”  said Pilar Sanders on Tuesday.

In his less charitable moments, Deion hits closer to the heart of the matter.  It’s all about money.  Pilar, according to him, wants primary custody for the additional child support it’ll bring her.

Deion Sanders argues the battle is all about money.

“She only gets a million dollars in the prenup. They’ve exhausted  her to the end. She’s not smart enough to see that. The fight for  the kids, it’s not about the kids. It’s about the money,” said  Deion Sanders on Tuesday.

In other words, the $1 million she gets from the couple’s prenuptial agreement, that’s been ruled valid by the judge, has already gone to line her lawyers’ pockets.  So Pilar’s got a big stake in being ruled the primary parent.

By now, the case is in the hands of the jury.  We’ll soon find out what their take on the matter is, but I can’t see them treating Pilar too roughly.  In any case, she’ll surely remain part of the children’s lives with significant parenting time.  And that’s despite the fact that she’s on tape abusing her husband and her kids.

Me?  I think that’s a good thing.  Of course I don’t know the intimate details of the Sanders’ dysfunctional relationship.  But I can safely say that, whatever her detriments as a mother, and they look like they’re many, this is not a case in which a mother, even a marginally abusive one, should be deprived of custody.  For years I’ve argued for sanity in custody rulings and more than any one thing, that means sanity when it comes to allegations of abuse.

Now of course, the allegations against Pilar Sanders are more than that.  She was caught on tape.  But the crowd that argues that no “abuser” should ever be allowed custody forgets to ask one simple question, “Is the abuse, if it exists, worse than the loss of the parent?”

They forget to ask that question because all too often, the answer would be ‘no.’  In Pilar Sanders’ case, she’s clearly often not a nice person.  She scares her children out of their wits at times.  But she is their mother and children need both parents unless one is clearly unfit.  And no one seriously contends that Pilar Sanders is unfit.

Every state in the nation requires its judges to consider the issue of domestic violence or child abuse in his/her rulings on custody.  If they are to do that in any sensible, child-friendly way, they have to be able to discriminate between abusive behavior that truly endangers children and that that doesn’t.  Admittedly that’s not always an easy task, but the “definition” of abuse is now so broad as to include behavior that essentially every adult has engaged in at one point in his/her life.  So if we’re not going to take all children from all parents, judges need to accept the fact that parents sometimes behave badly and decide whether exposure to that behavior would be worse than losing the parent.

After all, single parenthood is one of the worst family structures in which to raise children and foster care is worse still.

So let’s put aside the absurd notion that any time a mother spanks a child or a father raises his voice that that “abuse” should count heavily against them in court.  Let’s keep our eye on the one never-changing goal – that, if at all possible, children need both parents, even if one of them happens to be Pilar Sanders.

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