Jessica L. Berrien | Family LawJessica L. Berrien | Family Law
Jessica L. Berrien
is a Northampton, Massachusetts attorney who represents clients in civil litigation matters including family law, practicing primarily in the Western Massachusetts divisions of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.
Practice Areas
Child Custody
Child Support
Alimony / Spousal Support
Same-Sex Divorce
Separation Agreements
Property Division
Interstate Removal
Unmarried Partner Disputes
Paternity Actions
Post Divorce Actions
Contempt Actions
Domestic Violence
Restraining Orders
Grandparents Rights
International Kidnapping
Jessica Berrien | Family Law

Custody Battles Hurt Children, Experts Say

Daily Hampshire Gazette, by James Lowe
March 6, 2010

NORTHAMPTON - Caught up in their own conflict, separated parents don't always realize what toll the disagreement takes on their children, experts say.

The U.S. government takes the position that the toll can be even greater when a child is separated from one parent by national borders.

Only time will tell how 2½-year-old Kali Soleil Athukorala Zemialkowski will be affected by the custody battle raging for most of her life between her parents, and the two different counties they live in.

"One of the mistakes parents make is not being able to think about their kids separate from the challenging feelings they have about the other parent," said Elizabeth Brenner, a Boston-area therapist who works with children and families, speaking in general terms about custody disputes.
Sometimes one parent will try to keep his or her children away from the other parent thinking it's in the children's best interest, Brenner said. But unless the other parent is abusive, she believes it is not.

According to U.S. State Department report, children abducted by their parents "often experience a range of problems including anxiety, eating problems, nightmares, mood swings, sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, resentment, guilt and fearfulness." A child abducted by one parent at a very young age may not even remember the other parent, the report states.

Later in life, children may experience resentment toward the parent who kept them away from the other parent, Brenner said.

The parents left behind also suffer, according to the State Department report. They can experience depression and feelings of betrayal, financial strain from fighting to regain custody and difficulty re-establishing a connection with their children once they are returned.

In Kali's case, the girl has been living in the Dominican Republic with her mother, Sandra Zemialkowski, since late 2007. She hasn't had any contact with her father, Dhanika Athukorala of Belchertown, in almost a year.

Zemialkowski said in an interview she never tried to break off contact between Kali and her father. But Athukorala claims Zemialkowski has prevented him from seeing Kali in person or even via Web cam in over a year.

"I'm really hoping that this will not leave a scar in her person, and that she'll be able to recognize her father as her father," said Athukorala's mother, Kanthie Athukorala, in an interview.

Family courts in Massachusetts operate on the idea that it's to every child's benefit to have both parents involved in his or her upbringing, even if the parents don't live together.

The Hampshire Probate and Family Court in 2006 launched a program that encourages unmarried parents who have separated to work out their differences for the sake of their kids. For the Children is now a required course for unmarried individuals involved in custody proceedings around the state.

The program played a small part in Kali's case. Court records indicate Athukorala completed the three-hour course while Zemialkowski, who returned to the U.S. a number of times in 2007 and 2008 for custody hearings, did not.

James F. Lowe can be reached at