Custody Cases, Child Beauty Pageants, and Reality TV: New Slate Double X piece on Toddlers & Tiaras Justice with update from 11-12

Last Friday a feature story I wrote about the Maddy Verst custody trial appeared on Slate's Double X. You may recall that I also wrote about the now six-year-old Maddy last fall after she appeared on the cover ofPeople.  

Like many others, including hundreds of pageant moms, I think the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras is pretty harmful to the child beauty pageant community and to many of the kids.  I've written about kids and reality TV before as well (like here and here), so know just being on camera in front of a national audience can be problematic for some children-- let alone shown in a prostitute outfit, in a costume with "enhancements," or smoking a cigarette.

Now there's legal evidence that the show is being used in family court, as my Slate piece details. Here's a short excerpt, but click HERE to read more:

Even if the Verst case shouldn’t be a referendum on whether or not child beauty pageants are a form of abuse for all children, family lawyer Mark Momjian acknowledges that most people will “impute” to all child-beauty-pageant families. In other words most people will assume this means that child beauty pageants are now legally recognized as a form of abuse and can be the basis for altered custody arrangements and other legal action.

What sets the Verst case apart, according to Momjian, is not just that Maddy participates in child beauty pageants, but that she has done so on a television show with her story broadcast to the world. Momjian knows a thing or two about children on reality TV, having represented Kate Gosselin, former star of another controversial TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, in her divorce and custody case. He believes that regardless of the outcome, the fact that child beauty pageants have become such a public issue in this case does not bode well for future participants on this show, or others featuring girls in competitive activities like dance (see: Dance Moms) and cheerleading (see: Cheer Perfection).

Jackson has asserted that, within the context of pageants, costumes like Maddy’s police-officer getup and the dance moves that accompany them are not considered sexual. Having studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, I agree with her. Within that world, they are just seen as “cute,” not sexual, and are what you must do in order to win the biggest crown. They are just moves. But that shared understanding in the pageant ballroom isn't present in the wider world, and once these routines are broadcast to a wider audience, they are rightly seen as having sexual elements in them—batting eyelashes, blowing kisses, and thrusting hips. Which is why allowing young children to be on these television shows is problematic.

In my opinion the Verst case should worry many moms, not just pageant moms.  Especially divorced moms like Melissa Ziegler whose two daughters, Maddie and Mackenzie, star on Lifetime’s Dance Moms.  In Season 1 her ex-husband appears saying that he will no longer allow his daughters to compete with their dance studio—though nothing has yet come of that threat in Season 2.  It's the combination of being involved with a controversial activity (especially those that can sexualize young girls like pageants, dance, and cheerleading) and being on television that is the real issue.  Either on their own can cause problems though—just ask Amber Portwood of MTV’s Teen Mom who lost custody of her daughter and is now in jail after footage of her hitting her child’s father in front of her daughter aired.

According to a source close to Lindsay Jackson who was present at the Campbell County Courthouse this past Friday, the judge closed the court proceedings to outsiders (including media).  Given his previous gag order and the increasingly high profile nature of the case, this wasn't surprising.  Maddy and her parents are still awaiting a decision from the judge though, and it is unclear when that decision will now be announced.

I personally am not surprised that more time is being given to make a decision.  When I spoke with Mark Momijan for the piece he told me that in 25 years of practicing family law he had never heard of a parent releasing a custodial evaluation, especially one that was less complimentary than it could be toward the mom.  He thought that would worry the judge.  Seems Judge Woeste has a lot to process, and his decision will impact not only Maddy but lots of little girls like her, so it's good that he is taking time to consider all aspects of the custody case.

UPDATE: It was reported on November 30, 2012 that Jackson and Verst will share custody, with Jackson as the primary custodian.  Maddy will be allowed to compete in pageants, so long as both parents agree in writing-- but this is expected to continue to cause legal issues.