Beware of Teddy Bears

Omaha, NE–My first thought when I read this story was that a mutilated toy is a great metaphor for how strife between divorced parents hurts children. My second thought was that I hate that journalists pepper their stories with stupid jokes whenever they write about something slightly out of the ordinary. Communications programs need to nip this behavior in the bud. From “Custody case tip: Don’t bug kid’s teddy bear” (Omaha World Herald 1/7/09):

Turns out, Little Bear was nothing more than Big Brother. An Omaha man has sued his ex-wife after she or someone on her behalf inserted an audio recorder into their 4-year-old daughter’s teddy bear during the couple’s custody battle. According to the lawsuit, Dianna Divingnzzo or her father planted a listening device inside Little Bear in an effort to lay bare any secrets of Divingnzzo’s ex-husband, William “Duke” Lewton. The plan backfired, however, when the judge presiding over child custody proceedings refused to hear the recordings. Sarpy County District Judge David Arterburn noted that under Nebraska law, at least one person in a conversation must consent to a recording. No one – not even the bear – consented in this case.

Now Lewton, 36, and several people recorded by the bear want Divingnzzo, her dad and her former attorneys to pay for invading their privacy. “I just can’t imagine the thought of someone taking that little bear’s head off and implanting a device,” Lewton said Tuesday. “It’s . . . incomprehensible.” The device might appear to be ripped from the script of the 2000 movie comedy “Meet the Parents,” but attorneys say custody battles have always been personal and sometimes vicious. Feuding spouses have long hired private detectives to try to uncover behaviors that would cause a judge to declare an estranged partner an unfit parent. Lewton said his ex-wife did just that – had private detectives tail him for months, to the point of planting a GPS device on two of his vehicles. Then there was his daughter’s favorite bear – nothing more than a teddy bear’s head with a blanket attached.

Lewton said he gave “Little Bear” to his daughter long ago. Little did he know that the miniature bear, which the child carried with her everywhere, was doing more than just staring at him with its beady eyes.

Going to extreme measures to spy on an ex-spouse is probably a bad idea. In this case any evidence the tapes contained was ruled inadmissible; now she is being sued. Hiring a PI to investigate an ex is a cliché of the pettiness and sleaze that can happen post-divorce. At least, that is how it is portrayed. While some people who use private investigators on former loved ones are no doubt paranoid stalkers, it is likely that others have good reasons for doing so. Watching for the other person to slip up and do something in the normal range of behavior but that would look bad to a court is a petty reason, and obsessing over their new relationships is a creepy one. In this case it is likely that Divingnzzo was grasping at straws to find something that would look bad, hence the broad approach with the GPS and everything. When one parent has a well-founded fear that their former partner is abusing or neglecting their child, however, evidence for the courts can be hard to come by. The domestic sphere is largely opaque to the outside world. That is how it should be for the most part–invading the privacy of that sphere is usually unwarranted. But when something is going seriously wrong it is understandable to want to investigate. The question that remains is the academic one of how likely it is to be effective.

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