The pop star, the film director and the young man in the middle

LGFL Ltd Partner Rita Gupta is a keen follower of celebrity family issues, as it brings public attention to many of the issues she deals with in her role as the firm’s child law specialist. Here’s her take on the year’s biggest child custody scuffle between a single mother and her remarried ex-husband over their teenage son.

As almost every divorced parent will tell you, shared child care is neither ideal nor easy. Amid all the arrangements and estrangements, the wishes of the children can never get overlooked. This was highlighted recently by the custody issues between mother of four Madonna and ex-husband Guy Ritchie, over their son, 15 year old Rocco.
According to newspaper reports, Rocco left his mother’s world tour to stay with his father, and did not return from the UK after Christmas 2015. As a result, Rocco missed the start of term at his school in New York, and infuriated his mother, who is reported to be very concerned over his education. 

Despite a court order issued in New York for Rocco to return, he had stayed in the UK with his father and his stepmother Jacqui Ainsley, and is attending a new school in London.


Education and media attention

If sources are to be believed, Madonna is a fairly strict parent with Rocco, in contrast to his father’s allegedly more relaxed style. Perhaps more significant is the difference in lifestyle for Rocco between the intense celebrity life in New York, and the more low key lifestyle in London, where he is largely free from press and media attention.

While Madonna and Ritchie have been briefing legal teams for a variety of hearings, Rocco appears to be stuck in the middle. Luckily, the young man seems to have found an ally in the New York judge for the custody hearing, who according to The Telegraph

“Scolded Madonna and Mr Ritchie for seeking to resolve the matter through the courts, noting that Rocco had stated he wanted to come to an arrangement “in the most private way possible.”


Judge Deborah Kaplan seems remarkably aware of the effect his parents’ celebrity status has had on Rocco:

“Frankly, both parties here have chosen to live their lives in a very public way, and may welcome the exposure, but the child has not. I urge them to consider what is the best interests of their son – which may be to remove him from the spotlight.”


Social media exposure

Rocco is reportedly unhappy about the numerous images of him his mother posts online, and closed down his own Instagram account. Perhaps the relative anonymity of life in London is more suited to him, but it needs to be his choice. As Ritchie’s lawyer stated: 

“Rocco is of an age where he cannot be physically forced to board a plane to come back. To make such an order is not the way a child should be forced to live.” 

Needless to say, it’s not just Rocco who has been embroiled in the custody tug of war in the courts. His sister Lourdes, a student at the University of Michigan, is acting as mediator between mother and son. So two of the couple’s children are now in the midst of some fairly acrimonious court hearings.


Hague Convention and the abduction of children

Madonna made an application under the Hague Convention for the return of Rocco, who under the terms of the Convention and in line with its intended purpose of preventing child abduction, had has been illegally retained in the UK. Rocco had previously lived with his mother in New York since his parents divorce in 2008. It seems rather a heavy-handed legal sledgehammer for a case that actually revolves around Rocco’s choice of where he wants to live, not an abduction or being retained against his will. 


Child arrangements and the wishes of the child

It is a sad story but one that highlights the need for child care arrangements to recognise the changing needs of the child themselves. What was right for a young boy back in 2008 may not be right for him now. Rocco may need more time with his father, less exposure to the media spotlight, even time to get to know his half siblings. What is reassuring in this very public of courtroom tussles is that the judges and lawyers do genuinely seem to have sympathy for the young man and his wishes.


The latest round of their custody dispute took place in the UK High Court, where Judge Alistair MacDonald warned the sparring parents over the long-term affect their legal battle could have on Rocco:

“As I observed during the course of the hearing, summer does not last forever. The boy very quickly becomes the man. It would be a very great tragedy for Rocco if any more of the precious and fast receding days of his childhood were to be taken up by this dispute. Far better for each of his parents to spend that time enjoying, in turn, the company of the mature, articulate and reflective young man who is their son and who is a very great credit to them both.”


Sharing, not choosing

The judge’s remarks highlight the heart of the issue – and the common misconceptions over separated parents and child living arrangements. Wherever Rocco chooses to live, with his parents or elsewhere, Madonna will always be his mother. Richie will always be his father. One parent is no less of a parent just because the child lives elsewhere. Rocco has made a decision for himself on which parent he wants to live with – at the present time. That decision doesn’t make Madonna any less of a mother, or Ritchie any more of a father. It’s just what seems right to him, for now. High Court Judge MacDonald also returned Rocco’s passport so he can visit his mother for Easter – if he wants to. 


Help with child living and access arrangements

If you are struggling with balancing child care with your ex-partner, call me. As a mother myself, I understand the very real challenges of parenting and juggling the needs of family. At LGFL, we can help with mediation to reassess the requirements under a child care order, or help resolve child access disputes without the need for costly court orders or legal proceedings. Rest assured, like every parent, I put the needs of the children first, and work with you to create a solution that works for everyone – mother, father, new partners and all children.