Child Custody, Access (Visitation) and Decision Making

Child custody cases can involve several steps. Your case may include some or all of the following events, depending on how much you and the other parent agree on custody matters:

  • Scheduling conference – Often the first occasion where the parties are scheduled to meet in the courthouse. A magistrate or judge will help you identify the contested (disputed) issues in the case. Referrals to appropriate resources such as mediation, pre-trial settlement conference, and a required co-parenting course are made and case deadlines are set.
  • Pre-trial settlement conference – This is a conference scheduled before trial where a  magistrate or judge may attempt to help you reach a settlement, often even if you attempted mediation and were unable to resolve all the disputes. If issues remain unresolved after mediation and pre-trial settlement the magistrate or judge will discuss with the parties how the trial will proceed.
  • Trial - Trial is the final hearing where the court will decide how physical custody or parenting time with the child will be divided , how major decisions (legal custody) regarding the child will be made and how financial support of the child will be occur. The court decides these matters based on the best interest of the child. Each case is unique and there are no standard arrangements the court is required to order, however, a parent with whom the child lives a majority of the time is commonly referred to as having primary physical custody while the other parent has access (or visitation) on a set or flexible schedule. Decision making (legal custody) may be shared or granted to one parent, depending on how well both parents can communicate and work together in the best interest of their child.

Family Services Programs
Six counties have a designated Family Division, and every county has a Family Services Program managed by a Family Services staff. Most family law cases involving children are referred for family support services, which can include the following:

  • Co-parenting course – Most courts require parents in contested family cases involving children to attend this course. A co-parenting course may discuss: how divorce impacts children and parents emotionally; changes in the parent-child relationship; transitions between households; communicating with children and with the other party; problem-solving, decision-making; and other topics.
  • Custody evaluation – This is an evaluation by a designated evaluator to help the  court understand what is in the best interest of the child . The custody evaluator meets with each parent and usually each child. They also interview  people who may know the history of the family and the ability of each parent to care for the child , and may contact references provided by the parents. Evaluators may review important records and other information, such as medical and school records. Finally, the evaluator may visit each parent's home to observe family life. The evaluator will usually prepare a written report, and may testify at trial. Custody evaluations are ordered in some cases depending on the issues in the case.
  • Parenting coordination – This is a process where parents work with a neutral professional to reduce the effects of conflict on the child . The parenting coordinator will use a variety of alternative dispute resolution techniques to help the family.
  • Mediation  – Most custody cases are referred to mediation, where a mediator  helps parents define issues,  improves communication about caring for and parenting your children, and facilitates the development of a parenting plan or agreement. Mediation may also  assist  in resolving disagreements about marital property and other family issues.
  • Mental health evaluation and treatment – The court may need to assess a parent’s ability to care for a child, or assess the child’s needs. When a court orders a mental health evaluation, a court psychologist or private clinician (who does not have a relationship with the person) will interview the parent or child and prepare a written report for the court, and perhaps testify. The court may also order or refer a parent or child to family or individual counseling.
  • Child Access/Visitation services
    • Monitored exchange - Provides a safe and secure location for physical exchanges of the child. This service can help decrease the chance of an angry exchange or inappropriate behavior in front of the child.
    • Supervised visitation – If the court decides a higher level of protection is necessary, parents may have visits at a center that provides appropriate supervision . The custodial parent brings the child to a center where trained staff are present to observe the visit, model positive behavior, and ensure the a positive interaction between the visiting parent and child.