The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has release a great packet of information collecting useful advice on ways to ensure safe visitation for family's involved in case of domestic abuse. Below are 10 important considerations when navigating your family through this crisis;
1) Parenting plans are also sometimes called custody agreements, parenting schedules, custody and visitation agreements, or parenting plan forms. They describe how parents will take care of their children, when each parent will spend time with them, and how the costs of raising them will be shared.
Not all parenting plans are the same. Each parenting plan should make sense given the parents’ schedules, the children’s needs, and the family’s situation. What works well for one family may not work for yours. Look closely at your own family’s needs when creating your parenting plan or asking the court to do so.
2) For a domestic violence survivor, discussing custody with the other parent can be difficult and may not be safe. Reaching a safe agreement with the other parent may not be possible, especially without help. Many courts have programs to help parents reach an agreement. Some are mandatory, meaning you have to participate.
3) Domestic violence may, and often does, continue after separation. A parenting plan cannot guarantee that the abuse will stop. But some things can help increase safety for you and your children. Usually, a very specific and detailed parenting plan is best. Batterers can take advantage of vague terms in a parenting plan to harass you. When parenting plans are not specific about what is allowed, they can be dangerous.
So parenting plans should clearly state the places, dates, and times that the children will be exchanged. Sometimes, parents exchange the children in a public place with video cameras and/or security guards. Some examples are a superstore or fast food restaurant.
4) Two types of custody are usually discussed in parenting plans; sometimes they’re referred to as types of parenting. In some places, they’re called legal and physical custody. In others, they might be called decision-making and parenting time. Ask at your self-help center or clerk's office for the words used where you live.
5) Joint physical custody is when the parents each spend about half the time with the children. Most states don’t require it to be exactly half due to many families’ work and school schedules. Instead, most states treat anything between 40-60% of the time spent with each parent as joint. Although not common, some states may give one parent sole physical custody. This means that the other parent does not have any parenting time with the children. Courts only order this in extreme situations. Examples include serious safety issues or one parent is unable to be present.
6) When creating a parenting plan, it is hard for parents not to focus on how the custody arrangement will impact child support. Often, parents need child support to pay their children’s expenses. But child support should not be the only thing driving what a parenting plan looks like. It is also important to think about which parent is able to meet the children’s emotional and physical needs.
Child support may or may not be included in the parenting plan. This depends on the state and how they handle parenting plans. It may also depend on whether the parenting plan is created privately, through the court, or through court-ordered
7) Every parenting plan should address the needs of the individual family. Because every family is different, not all parenting plans are the same. And not all parenting plans need to be as specific as others. When parents are getting along well, they sometimes want a plan that gives them some flexibility to figure things out as they go. In those cases, parents may create a plan that is not very specific. With domestic violence, though, parenting plans should be as specific as possible.
State what time the children will be exchanged, where, and who’s allowed to be there. Clearly describe how communication will happen between the parents and with the children. The more specific the parenting plan, the less room there is for an abusive parent to continue harassment or abuse.
8) When preparing to create a parenting plan, you have a lot to think about. This includes:
The children’s needs (social, emotional, and physical)
The children’s age and developmental stage
The children’s school environment, including extra-curricular activities
The children’s ability to adjust to change and/or need for stability
The parents’ work schedules, travel, or other obligations
Whether any non-parental assistance is available (for example, grandparents or friends)
The parents’ history of and ability to work with each other
The parents’ history of handling conflict and resolving disagreements
Safety concerns (including a history of stalking, harassment, or violence)
Any history of substance use or abuse that impacts safe parenting
Mental health concerns that impact safe parenting
9) When parents do not agree about whether to change the parenting plan, they can go to court. To do this, one parent can file a motion to modify the custody order. The case may be set for court-ordered mediation or another kind of alternate dispute resolution. If not, or if the parents cannot reach an agreement, the judge will decide.
State laws usually require parents to show that there has been a significant change in circumstances before a judge can agree to change the parenting plan. Changes could include safety issues, a parents’ decision to move out of state, new work schedules, changes due to the children’s age, or other things. Judges will look at the information with the best interests of the children in mind. What is in a child’s best interest is decided by state law. The judge will approve the new parenting plan if (1) the judge agrees that changed circumstances require a new plan, and (2) the change is the children’s best interest.
10) No one from the court is checking to see if parents are following their parenting plans. If things are going well and parents are getting along, they are usually free to do what works for them and their children. If not, though, parenting plans set the rules if the plan has been filed with the court and approved by the judge. (If the plan has not been filed with the court, it cannot be enforced in court against the other parent.) A parent can turn to the court for help enforcing the plan.
The first step is usually to file a motion with the court. Check with your local self-help center or see if you can have a free consultation with a lawyer to talk about the process where you live.