My last post, "A Family Intervention?", centered on a request for advice from a man who is the father of several children and who is married to a hoarder. "Jim" wanted advice on how/whether to have an intervention to help the family, what might happen if it failed, and, in the last resort, how likely he would be to get custody of the kids in the event of a separation.
Before I posted his story on my blog, I outlined Jim's situation in general terms to the participants of the COH Chat held on Sunday, September 9, 2012. I've summarized the resulting comments from that chat session here:
- First, there was wide agreement that Jim should start documenting the family's living conditions and his attempts to address the situation immediately, if he hasn't already started to do so. He should be taking pictures of the home, and he should be keeping a diary of his efforts to maintain the home for the children. He should also document his attempts to work with his wife to provide a safe, healthy environment.
- There also was a consensus that if the basic physical necessities were not being delivered, then the children should be removed from the home immediately. For example, if the house is a fire trap, with exits blocked, etc., then the situation must be addressed without delay. Additionally, if the situation has deteriorated to the point where there are chronic problems with plumbing, heating, or electricity, then the children should be removed from the situation immediately. (Note: it was not clear from Jim's emails that physical conditions in the house had gotten quite as bad as that. My sense was that they hadn't reached that point yet, but that they were on their way.)
- Whether or not there is an intervention, and whether or not Jim leaves (with or without the kids), most people believed that getting counseling for the kids would be important.
- Several people recommended having a family discussion, or at least discussing their home lives with the kids. Chat participants mentioned their own confusion when they were children about living in a hoard house and how those feelings of confusion and isolation impacted their development. Of course, if Jim speaks with the kids, it is hard to imagine doing it without his wife being involved somehow, so it is probably best to do it as a group or with a trained counselor to guide things along. One idea was to have members of the family judge where rooms in the house might fit into the International OCD Foundation's Clutter Image Rating (PDF file).
- Regarding custody of the children in the event of a separation, the chat participants thought it would be very unlikely that the hoarding parent would get full custody, unless the non-hoarding parent had some serious personal issue that he didn't disclose. The consensus was that the non-hoarding parent would get at least shared custody, if not full custody. As one person put it, "Better that the kids live at least part time in a normal home [than in the current hoarding environment]." Another chimed in with, "I would think any sort of stability in dad's home would be better than living with hoarder mom 100% of the time."
- At the same time, courts do solicit the opinions of the children in custody cases, and it is hard to predict the results of that process. Thinking back to when I was a kid, I desperately wanted a different situation, but I wouldn't have wanted to "abandon" my mom (the hoarder). In retrospect, I know that it would have been far better for me to have been removed from the hoard house, but "younger me" would have wanted to stay to try to fix things, at least in part because mom was such a disaster, and dad seemed to be able to take care of himself. In other words, as a kid, I thought that the slim chance that I could help mom was greater than the damage she was inflicting on me. I was mistaken, but I'm not sure I could have been convinced otherwise when I was a kid. Who knows how that would have played out if I were questioned about it in court? Bottom line: without dad in the house to shield us, mom's problem would have been 100x worse, and I shudder to imagine being a teenager in my mom's hoard without dad in the picture.
- Another comment from a chat participant: "It is not just her living there, there are SEVERAL other people in the house. I think that is why they need to act. Even if makes no impact with her, it makes impact with them."
- Finally, although I said in my original post that a parent's first obligation is to his/her children (and I absolutely stand by that advice!), that doesn't mean that the father should ignore his own needs for a clean, safe, healthy environment. As one of the participants said, "It's not healthy for the dad to keep living with mom and sacrifice all his happiness, too!" Yes, very true. I have often wondered about the kind of life my dad might have led outside of the hoard. He was a terrific fellow, and he died too young to find out, in part, I think, because of the stress of living in the hoard and shielding his kids from the worst of my mom's psychological issues.