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As stated in another section of this site, the most important objective is to try and avoid child visitation and/or custody disputes. When parents fight over their children, the children feel they are the cause of the dispute. It is harmful and damaging to children to see people they love fighting or refusing to talk to each other.
Child visitation in California is somewhat like child custody. The overall concern is the child’s best interest. The policy of the State of California is that both parents should have frequent and continuing contact with their children, so long as this is in the best interest of the child. Conduct that causes a court to keep parents from visiting their children in unsupervised normal parent/child settings: proven allegations of abuse (sexual, verbal, emotional, physical), domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse or other behaviors that endanger the child. Other factors are failing to provide a safe environment or failing to follow through with regular visitation; and, more generally, where it is clear the parent is not fit or responsible to take care of a child.
When allegations of abuse, drugs or alcohol are made or where the visiting parent is not following through with regular court ordered visits, a court will likely rule on the side of caution and order some type of supervised visitation. Never turn down visits with your child. Participate in the supervised visitation setting, prove to the judge you are responsible, and sooner or later, so long as you are responsible, on time for your visits, and lead a relatively “clean” life, your visits most likely will be modified from supervised to unsupervised, to overnights, and then regular, normal, extended time with your child. Never, out of spite or anger turn down a judge’s order for supervised visits. Supervised visitation is just the start on your road to your normal parent child relationship. If you are responsible during the supervised visits you can, over time, get to a normal child/parent relationship. If you are a responsible parent and live in the same general vicinity of your children, there is no reason why you should not get a fairly equal visitation/timeshare schedule with the children.
If the other parent is interfering with your time with your child or children, then that parent will suffer the consequences. Family Law Courts do not like when a parent tries to keep a child away from the other parent. That attitude goes against the general policy that children should have frequent and continuing contact with both parents so long as it is in the child’s best interest. When both parents are fit, frequent and continuing contact is in fact in the child’s best interest.
If a parent has been out of his or her child’s life for an extended period and wishes to re-establish a relationship, the court will provide that opportunity so long as parent is fit. It may take some time to get to unsupervised visits, but when consistent and regular supervised visits occur for a significant period, personnel from the supervising entity observing these visits and report their observations to the court. If the interaction and relationship is positive, and the parent can show the court that (as examples) he or she has a safe place to live; is no longer using drugs or alcohol so that the child is not at risk; or generally, can keep the child safe, unsupervised visits will at some point be ordered. The parent needs to have patience.
Whenever there is a custody or visitation dispute and a looming court hearing to resolve the dispute, both parents are required to go to the Court’s Family Court Services Department, to meet with a family court services officer (a mental health professional who acts a mediator) to try to work out a visitation and custody agreement. If an agreement cannot be worked out through the Court’s Family Court Services Department and you are in a “recommending county” (i.e. San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa, Sonoma, and other counties), the family court services officer will make a recommendation to the court after interviewing the parents and sometimes the child, teachers, grandparents, etc. Most courts in recommending counties adopt the recommendations of the mediator, absent compelling circumstances not to do so. Attempting to overturn the mediator’s recommendation by having a hearing and bringing the mediator into court for cross-examination is expensive, creates conflict, and can backfire. Be certain that the mediator got things wrong and that you can prove your position, before bringing the mediator into court for cross-examination.
In counties that are not recommending counties—that is, the family court services officer does not make a custody or visitation recommendation to the court – it will be the parties who put the facts and circumstances of the case in front of the court which decides their child custody and visitation fate. Sometimes experts (psychologists and other mental health professionals) are used, especially in move-away situations, or when there are allegations of abuse.
No matter how you approach them, child custody and visitation disputes can be very contentious, extremely expensive, and negatively affect your children. I highly recommend against custody and visitation disputes. Instead, I suggest first attempting to mediate the dispute. I also suggest parents go to co-parent counseling for assistance and advice in co-parenting your children. In the long run, making use of these services to smooth the path to divorce is much better for you and your children than the take-no-prisoners approach.