If you’re in a child custody battle and haven’t already done so, please try to resolve your issues with the help of a private child custody mediator and child specialists like a therapist or LCSW.
If you’ve exhausted settlement options or none exist, here are some basic facts about child custody cases in California followed by a number of ways to prepare.
1. Initial (temporary) child custody hearings usually last 20 minutes or less. The courts allocate twenty minutes for initial child custody hearings. Each parent may be given a total of ten minutes to make a case before the judge makes a decision. Sometimes judges will extend the length of the initial hearing.
2. Longer hearings and trials ordinarily must be requested. If a case requires more than twenty minutes and a judge can’t or won’t be accommodating, parties may request long cause hearings and trial dates.
3. It’s rare for witnesses to testify at temporary/initial child custody hearings. Witnesses called to testify may include parents, family, teachers, doctors, evaluators, psychologists and anyone else with relevant knowledge.
4. Lawyers may be appointed/hired to represent the children. If appointed or hired the lawyers’ roles are to protect the best interests of, and advocate for the children. Parents should not be able to sway children’s attorneys.
5. Family court mediation can change your lives. If yours is a “referring county” and you don’t settle your issues outside of court, you must participate in child custody mediation. After mediation, your mediator will make child custody and visitation recommendations to your judge. Judges usually adopt mediators’ recommendations. If yours isn’t a referring county, the mediator’s primary role is to mediate your dispute and he/she will not make recommendations to your judge.
6. Agreements reached and signed by both parties in court mediation ordinarily become legally enforceable court orders. The agreements usually are written on a court form labeled Stipulation and Order. Unless both parties subsequently agree, getting out of these agreements can be difficult, if not impossible. Caution is advised when signing agreements. It is wise to speak with an attorney first.
7. Being a mother doesn’t mean it’ll be a slam dunk. In some counties including Marin, San Francisco, and Napa, joint legal and physical custody with 50-50 timeshare is common. Even if mom is, the primary caretaker and Dad works full time, when joint physical custody is requested it’s often granted.
8. Unusual lifestyles don’t carry the weight they used to. Spend a day observing family law court hearings, and you’ll almost certainly see a parent who watches pornography, experiments sexually, has an addiction or is in recovery.
9. Judges appear to be allowing teenagers, 14 years and older, to dictate child custody schedules. In a recent settlement conference and subsequent review hearing in Marin County, California, Superior Court Judge Beverly Wood allowed a fifteen year old girl to dictate the terms of her child custody arrangement. Mother had been the primary caregiver for fourteen years while Father worked full and over time. During the couple’s separation the daughter moved in with her Father and estranged herself from her Mother. When refusing to grant Mother any custody or visitation, Judge Wood gave a local therapist the power to determine reunification and said: “Daughter isn’t two years old. Mother can’t strap her in a car seat.”
A Father living in Long Beach, California recently had visitation with his fourteen year old son reduced by Judge Randall Pacheco because his son simply wanted to go home a day earlier.
The fact is, child custody battles are unpredictable and difficult. Here are a number of ways to prepare.
A. Hire a good local attorney who specializes in child custody disputes. They know the lay of the land and the players. They can guide you through a difficult situation, which can make the process easier. If you already have an attorney but he/she doesn’t specialize in taking contested child custody cases to your court, hiring a specialist as co-counsel is a good option.
B. Evaluate your parenting. Take a look at your parenting with the eye of your spouse/ex. Do you have bad parenting habits? Can you be a better parent? Is the criticism warranted? If it is, strive to make positive changes in your life. Also be sure to discuss any perceived weaknesses with your attorney, so he/she is prepared if/when they are raised in the dispute. You don’t want your attorney surprised in court when he/she learns you were arrested for two DUIs with kids in the car, or you’re living with someone dangerous, etc.
C. Gather relevant evidence to support your case. You might hire experts, subpoena records; get copies of police reports, school records, phone records, doctors’ records, child protective service records, bank records, and any others that are relevant. If the time you spend with your children is at issue, keep a log of your custody/visitation dates and times. Our Family Wizard is a program with phone apps that can make your parent time tracking and shared custody easier.
D. Put your children’s needs front and center. Don’t have child custody discussions with or within earshot of a child unless they’re neutral. Don’t make a child take an oath of loyalty. Don’t ask a child to choose between you and his/her mom or dad. No matter how mad or crazed you are, keep your kids out of the crossfire.
E. Stay calm, keep focused. Find healthy ways to stay calm or get grounded. Focus on and be detached from the facts. Show the judge you are calm and mature even in times of tremendous stress. Losing your cool could lead to losing your case.
Child custody battles are trying so, be your best and do your best. If you’d like my help understanding and/or preparing for a child custody battle, I’m happy to help.