Orientation to Family Court Mediation and Child Custody Recommending Counseling

We feel upset because we cry a lot. We feel sad and mad and angry. We were surprised and shocked when we heard the news. I used to feel sad, but now I feel mad and sad,
and sometimes a little crazy. Most of us feel some amount of confusion; confusion about
what is happening in our families and confusion about how we feel. As a six-year-old I was just confused, and I was wondering
how my life was going to change. And I didn’t have any siblings to go through it with
so I kind of had to do it on my own. I was confused a lot, but until I was maybe 12,
it was just “go with the flow.” The voices you just heard are a tiny
sample of the millions of children who have experienced changes in their family
that also involve the family court. Whether parents have been married and
are now separating or divorcing, or whether parents have never been married and need to make
custody arrangements regarding their children, the court system in California is designed to assist families
through this sometimes overwhelming experience. It was difficult watching my daughter go through various levels of grief. It took some years, it was frustrating at times, but I hung in there, as did her mother, and we kept everything about the best out come for our daughter. California law requires that parents attend mediation if they do not
agree about custody or parenting time with their children. This process is referred to as Child Custody – Recommending Counseling in some courts. Mediation and Child Custody Recommending
Counseling are similar in most ways. My name’s Dan. How are you? I’m going to be your mediator today. [Narrator] Mediation is a process in which parents spend time
with a neutral, specially trained professional [Narrator (cont’d)] who will listen to their concerns and help them
develop a parenting plan that meets the needs of their family. What bothered me the most was that I wouldn’t get to see
my daughter every day, and that kind of weighed on me. When parents first come to court it’s scary, and anxiety is heightened, and people are just not able to focus like they
normally would in every day circumstances. They have a fair amount of pessimism about what can possibly
be achieved in there, and when you think about it it makes sense, because people come to court precisely because they can’t talk, and
then the first thing they’re told to do is please go and try to talk. So as mediators we try to acknowledge those feelings
and recognizing, as well, that people do heal. We want to give them an opportunity to consider all kinds of
options and an opportunity to come up with their own plan that they can develop and custom-fit to the needs of their
children, focusing not on Mom’s rights or Dad’s, but, again, getting both parents to channel that energy into what’s best for the kids. Most courts in California have a Family Court Services program
or other mediation program to help parents mediate their parenting concerns. What I explain to parents is that there are three goals in mediation.
The first goal is to try to help them come up with a plan. The second goal is that that plan needs to be in the child’s best
interest, so it’s not necessarily what either parent may want, but it’s what’s going to be best for the child. The third goal is to help the parents reduce acrimony and bitterness
between them, so that the children won’t suffer as a result. Child custody mediation is conducted by
court mediators who are skilled professionals in the field of psychology, marriage and family
child counseling, or social work. By statutory requirements everyone is trained
in the area of domestic violence, the impact of domestic violence on children, also substance abuse,
family dynamics, issues of child abuse… A lot of us have experience in the field working
either as therapists with families, with kids… Because of our education and training, we’re able to navigate some
of those very difficult situations that parents and children face. This whole single parent custody,
it was all new and it didn’t really… I had not been here before, you know, I didn’t feel like it came with
an instruction packet, so I didn’t really know what to do. My job is to work with you and see if I can help you come… [Narrator] Mediation provides an opportunity for parents
to work out their custody and parenting arrangements. There’s three really important issues that
we need to cover in each session. One is the concept of legal custody,
the second is the concept of physical custody, and then the third, of course, is the custodial schedule. The court would like to have people write comprehensive schedules, schedules that are detailed, for how parents
are going to spend time with their children. It really depends. For younger kids it might be a schedule that
enables them to remain with the primary caregiver and spend time with the other parent,
maybe three or four days a week for a few hours at a time. As the children get older, or they’re already used to overnights,
everybody defines their weekend in a unique way. Some parents, a weekend is from after soccer
on Saturday until after dinner on Sunday. Another type of issue that we often see is move away requests,
where one parents is looking to move out of the area with the kids. As the parent, well, what is the judge grants
the mother to move away in New York? He was able to come up with his own
timeshare in that specific scenario. And vice versa, the moving parent, what if the
judge says that the child has to stay back here? What then? And they were able to come up with their own timeshares. We will address what if the child is sick and can’t
leave to meet another parent at an exchange? What do we under those circumstances?
We also address emergency situations. And how to address all of those different everyday parenting
issues when you’re living in two different homes. [Narrator] In California either parent can have custody of
the children, or the parents can share custody. Joint legal custody is for parents who want to share in
the health and education decisions for their children. Parents who have joint legal custody often select
schools, daycare providers, and counselors together. If one parent has sole legal custody then
that parent makes those decisions alone. When parents have joint physical custody children
live a great deal of time with each parent, not necessarily 50-50, although it can mean 50-50. Sole physical custody means that a child lives with one parent
and spends significantly less amount of time with the other parent. What we’re trying to accomplish is making sure that both
Mom and Dad have time in an appropriate way with their children. And every child and every family is unique. There’s not a presumption that the mother should have custody. There’s not a presumption that the father should have custody. There’s only a presumption that they should have
joint custody if the two of them agree about that. So for every family there needs to be a unique plan,
and sometimes that plan has to be precise for each child. My concern was that, as is sometimes the case, that I was not…
I was not going to have time with my daughter. Her concern, as is sometime the case, was that I would not want
to have time with my daughter, and she wanted to have a life. And we were able to mutually agree that we both really
had to stay away from anger, you know, and really behave like adults, which is challenging
at times, even when you are an adult. Okay, folks, I have a copy of your agreement, one for each of you… [Woman (off screen)] Every county is different. One thing that we like to do, is when parents reach
an agreement, is to write it all out for them, and when they leave the mediation office they have that agreement in hand. [Child] We feel tired and bored bringing our stuff back and forth. [Child] We need time for homework and activities. [Child] We need family time and one-on-one time. [Man] If you are unable to reach an agreement…
[Woman (off screen)] Usually the parents meet together for mediation. However, if there’s a history of violence,
or a restraining order has been issued, or if a parent does not feel safe meeting with the other parent the mediator will arrange for separate sessions at separate times. [Woman (off screen)] We take domestic violence
issues very, very seriously. One of the things we do is we make
sure that there’s an intake process, so we have an intake sheet with questions specifically designed to ask and solicit, if there is some issues of domestic violence
in the family, if there’s a restraining order in the family. This intake form is confidential; only the mediator sees it. Many times parents are hesitant to
bring up any past domestic violence because there are no police reports, there are no arrests, but it’s our job, if there has been a
history, to really find out what’s going on and make sure that they feel comfortable being
in the same room or being in a separate room. And then in our parenting plans we make sure
we talk about that and how safety is critical, and maybe neutral exchange locations so you
don’t have to be in the same space as parents, you can exchange your child maybe through a third party. We also want to make sure that if there’s any violence in the home, we want to talk about interventions and things
you can do as parents to support your children, because they experienced that violence. And the mediators are all trained and very well versed
at providing information to the parents about what they can do for themselves to feel
like there’s a way of moving forward from this. It is important that parents tell court personnel of their needs. A person who is protected by a restraining order or protective order has the right to have a support person present in mediation
at an orientation program and at the court hearing. The support person cannot participate in the mediation
and should be a neutral person who is not involved in the case. It’s also important to know that family courts
issue orders that address safety issues, such as restraining orders, orders for supervised visitation,
procedures for exchange of the children, or other orders regarding safety concerns for parents and/or children. Our first focus is on the best interest of the children,
but we have to temper that with safety concerns as well, so we’re trying to determine what’s best for children,
what safety concerns there might be with each parent, trying to meet the state’s goal of having children have
frequent and continuing contact with both parents. So we’re focusing on all of those things at the same time. If there’s a conflict between those policies,
then we have to focus on safety first. [Child] Kids need reassurance that it will be okay. [Child] We need you to stop fighting. [Woman] California has 58 diverse counties. All court-connected child custody mediators have to
follow certain laws and standards of practice, but there are some differences parents should be aware of. One of these is how cases are handled if parents
are not able to reach an agreement in mediation. So we worked really hard here today. I think that…
[Woman (off screen)] In those courts where mediators [cont’d] do not make recommendations when the parents cannot agree, [cont’d] the mediator may only report to the court that
the parents were unable to reach an agreement. Mediation is voluntary. It’s mandatory for you to appear in the mediation session
but it’s certainly voluntary to reach an agreement, so there is no pressure that will take place in the process. If I can sometimes get them to say,
“Hey, let’s make two different categories, the things you just can’t agree about and
the things that you can agree about,” sometimes I can have a partial agreement. While the mediator in these courts does not make
recommendations regarding custody or parenting time, sometimes, and in some courts, the mediator might make
the following recommendations if appropriate. If it is believed to be in the best interest of the child, the mediator in some courts might recommend a
restraining order to protect the child. A mediator might also recommend
an attorney be appointed for the child, and the mediator might recommend an evaluation, investigation,
or other services to assist the parents in resolving the matter. When parents don’t agree in the
mediation process, then as a mediator we will finish the mediation and we’ll declare an impasse. I should say, however, that mediators are very patient, so we will
try very hard before we actually come to that point. And I like to remind parents at the end that
even if they didn’t reach an agreement today, doesn’t mean that they can’t reach agreements in the future. So the judge hopes that you two can reach an agreement
regarding the custody visitation of your children. [Woman (off screen)] In many other courts there are mediators
who are called child custody recommending counselors, because they will make recommendations to the court
regarding custody and parenting time if the parents can’t agree. In those courts mediation is referred to as
Child Custody Recommending Counseling. When I feel that the parents aren’t going to agree, then it’s important for me to gather as much information
as possible regarding the issues that they present, whether it be legal custody or physical custody.
We want to get information so that we can make the best recommendations possible
for the parents’ consideration and for the court’s consideration. The goal is to help parents reach an agreement because they are the people with the most information
and the most investment, and the most emotion. At best a judge is a stranger. We can be an educated stranger,
we can listen as well as we can, but we are never going to be that child’s parent. So we are a second-best choice for
making a decision about children. [Woman (off screen)] In all courts parents will be notified
before the start of their mediation [cont’d] how the outcome of mediation will be handled,
and any limitations to confidentiality. We certainly want to do everything we can
to protect the confidentiality of families, and we’re very careful when they come in as to the information that they write on their intake forms or
even the reports that we might write. And so there are protocols in every
county as to how to handle that. The other side of confidentiality that I explain to them is that I will be writing a report that they are going to receive. Either it’s going to be a report
that’s based on their agreements, or my recommendations if they don’t reach
an agreement, or a combination thereof. And I explain to them that they get this report;
if they’re represented by attorneys, their attorneys will get the report, and
the court will get the report as well. Also, our reports will be in a
confidential section of the court files, so they don’t have to worry about strangers coming to the
Clerk’s Office and asking to see what happened in their mediation. If we learn during the course of a mediation session
that someone is being abused, particularly a child, then we may be obliged to contact authorities and let them know,
and in that case confidentiality would not apply. If recommendations regarding custody and visitation are made, the child custody recommending counselor is required
to give the parents and any attorneys a copy of the report with recommendations prior to the court hearing. [Judge] I have a copy of the child custody recommending counselor’s report. [Woman (off screen)] It is important that parents check with their local court, and talk with a mediator and child custody recommending counselor about what happens to the information that is shared during mediation. [Child] We need hugs and kisses. [Child] We need love. We always need
love from our parents. If the parents can’t agree, the judge
will make a final decision at a court hearing. Sometimes their areas of disagreement are very simple to resolve. Sometimes a short hearing is sufficient
to resolve the issues for the time being. Some parents only need a custody order that’s going to
last them a little bit of time until they can let things settle. Some parents are looking for something
that’s going to last a lot longer. So a case can be resolved anywhere
from a short discussion with a judge, which can help parents reach an agreement, to a judge hearing some testimony from each parent,
and then making a determination, and sometimes there are evaluations that might be ordered, or
there might be a longer sort of a hearing like a trial. [Child] We need you to listen to us and talk to us. [Child] When we are given a choice in
things the whole process is easier. [Child] We want a say in more things,
especially our living arrangements. So between the ages of 6 and 13, when they didn’t ask me
what I would prefer for a switching schedule, I was heavily into softball and dance in those ages, and I had a lot of things going on
during the week and on the weekends, and it was always a hassle for me to have to worry about who’s going to take me to dance practice or
who’s going to take me to my softball game. When I got smart enough into my teenage years
and realized that I had a say and had a voice, I started asking more about how the court process worked, and they explained the switching schedules and the parenting plans. And I said, “Well, can I put my input in, because I’d like to
do cheerleading and it’s, you know, six days a week sometimes?” And that’s when my parents started getting more flexible. [Child] I feel okay but sometimes I feel a little sad. It is normal for parents and children to
go through an adjustment period when there are changes in the time they spend together. They may find it is a difficult and painful time, and parents and children may
have a hard time communicating. Research has shown that ongoing conflict
between the parents can be harmful to children. There are things parents can do to minimize
the conflict and help their children adjust. The one thing that affects the children the
most is the conflict that parents have. The ongoing conflict affects them in schooling,
their emotions, their future relationships. And so the first thing that you can do to help
your child is find ways to reduce conflict. That is the central thing you can do. One of them that we encourage is that parents
do not make any disparaging remarks in the presence of the children regarding the other
parent, or allowing third parties to do so. So if there is maybe a friend or a family
member that’s taking sides, and is speaking negatively about a
parent in front of the child, we ask parents to take control of that and to tell everyone, “We will not discuss the other parent in front
of the children, in any kind of negative way.” There are a lot of ways that parents
can help minimize the conflict. One is just to take a step back and realize that
it’s… parenting is a really difficult job. There are going to be challenges, and even if they lived in the same household
they’re not always going to agree. One of the ways I help parents
to reduce the conflict they have is to focus on their communication,
because what ends up happening, they come into my office and they’re arguing
about this, that, and the other thing, and they have all these different arguments,
whether it’s the homework or whether how the kid gets to school on time, but the problem isn’t
about each one of these individual problems. It’s about the communication. And if they can figure out how to
solve one of these problems, we can import their solution-making
for this problem to all the other ones, if they have basic communication skills. Another thing that parents can do to try
to help keep their kids out of the conflict is just not put the kids in the middle. So when I hear parents tell me that
the other parent is having the child call and ask if they can stay a
little bit longer, for example, I tell the parents, “You know, you need
to be doing that with one another.” And so we encourage parents to communicate directly in matters concerning the children,
and not to use the child as a liaison. It’s too much pressure and it causes
too much anxiety on the kids, and half the time, as is normal, children don’t
always get their stories straight. So I encourage parents to think in terms of, You will hear information from your child. Before you jump to conclusions, and you
call to accuse the other parent about what you just heard, that you will
call to clarify what you just heard. If I could get parents to do nothing else, it would be to avoid doing any sort
of business at an exchange. I call an exchange a magic moment for their children. Their children are going to see the two people
they love the most in the world come together in one visual, and it’s really important
that that be 100% positive for those children, because they’re going to do thousands of exchanges. A helpful tip for parents is to recognize ways that the
child’s put in the middle that were unintentional ways. For example, if a parent was attending an extracurricular
function and the other parent was also there, before or after who does that child talk to? Are they free to go back and forth between the
parents without one of the parents getting upset, that why did you go talk to him first or her first, and immediately afterwards you should
have come to one side or the other. And just be cautious about that. It’s okay for the child
to be free to go back and forth at will, as they would anyone else,
and get to go see friends and to chitchat after an event
that they’re excited about. It’s about them and not about Mom and Dad. Make sure they know it’s okay with you
to love the other parent, as well as you loving them, because they forget that
and they sometimes think it’s their fault. We’ve seen children come to us who are 15 years,
16 years old, and having missed that piece, having missed that opportunity to have a
significant relationship with the other parent, and how it affects them down the road. So I think parents really need to think about how can I
ensure that my child has a relationship with both of us, because developmentally that’s what they need. A lot of it is just keeping that anger out of it, keeping the anger out of it one day at a time, and if you can somehow manage to pause
when you’re feeling that, and not react, and wait until that passes, and then do
what you have to do, it goes a long way towards healing and making the process
better for you and better for the kids. The kids don’t deserve to be
under the thumb of that anger, they just don’t deserve it, and it’s only hurtful.
So you owe them that. In front of the children it’s really,
really important to be civil. And you don’t want to go to your kids’ extracurriculars
and sit on opposite sides of the field or opposite sides of the stadium watching
them perform or do what they do best. It just makes them feel like they have to
choose afterwards who to go see and say, “Hi and thank you for coming.” And it’s just really stressful when they
can’t even be in the same vicinity. Change is a natural part of life. It is important for parents to be aware that a plan they
decide on now may need to be changed in the future. Another important thing to consider is that the plan may
be different for each child, depending upon their needs. I think it helps parents to recognize that the
parenting plan is evolving as the child gets older, and needs to be adjusted and perhaps modified,
and they need to expect to be flexible. They need to expect to make changes, that a parenting plan that might fit the needs of
a younger child 5 years old, just starting kindergarten, is going to be significantly different
than the sophomore in high school. Younger children need a lot of security. They have a hard time with a lot of transitions. So what can you do to minimize those for them? As they get older, they’re all about their
friends, you know, school, extracurricular activities. I think you should consider the specifics
that have to do with the burdens that are being put on children through parenting plans. For instance, how much travel time is the child going
to be required to do throughout the day or the week? How does your plan affect their schoolwork? Are they able to be successful in their
school with the plan that you have? How does this plan affect their friendships? How do they keep connected to the people
that really mean a lot to them? How does this plan affect their activities, the things
that they enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis? If you can imagine yourself in their shoes,
and think to yourself, “Gee, would I want this kind of plan,
or would I have wanted this kind of plan,” then I think you’re on the way to
making a good plan for your children. Having my parents be flexible with my schedule,
I was so grateful for it because I didn’t feel pressured to spending more time with
one parent, and I got to just do what I wanted to do and have something about the divorce be about me,
and that was kind of heartwarming. [Child] We need parents to try to understand
and respect what it’s really like for us. [Child] Some of us are even happier. [Child] It can be a relief when parents finally make the decision to
divorce or to separate after they had been fighting for so long. For more information about the court process, parents may seek assistance through their local court. In addition to the family court services departments,
courts have self-help centers or family law facilitators who may help parents with the paperwork required and
answer questions about child support and other issues. While they are not allowed to provide legal advice, they are able to assist parents with information
about the family law legal process. Also, if you need assistance in getting a child support order,
changing the amount, or help collecting child support, services are available through the
local child support agency. These agencies are located in each county
to provide services to parents. They are not a part of the court, but a governmental
agency that provides services to either parent. You can get more information on
these services and how to apply at the California Department of Child Support Services website. I would highly recommend
that if you hit a rough spot, that you go back through mediation,
try to work it out. If that doesn’t work, come back to court. A bench officer is here to help you work out your
problems in the best interest of your children. Our daughter has grown up.
She’s graduated from college. We both went down and attended her
graduation and sat by each other, and we were both mutually excited and proud,
and… you know, and good friends. And I think at the end, you know, we kind of did
a fist bump and said, “Good job. Good job.” I wouldn’t be able to keep doing it if everything always ended the way
parents see it on the way in. I keep holding on to the way the
parents see it on the way out. They’ll let me know, “Wow, what a
difference this made having you here.” And letting them know that, “Hey, you guys can
have this type of communication outside.” They get really excited about their children, they get focused on their children,
and it’s not about the fighting anymore. It’s about we need to help our children. I realized that after my graduation ceremony I had to say hi and take pictures
with both of my families, so I asked both families to come
to the same spot on the field. So after we threw up our caps we walked over to where I was meeting my family,
and both of them were there. Before you know it, after we took some
pictures, my parents were mingling, my mom and my dad’s family were mingling,
and vice versa, and it was just… it was a relief to me to actually see them together. One big thing that I really wanted out of this was
a picture with just my mom and my dad, because the last time I can remember
taking a picture with both of them was maybe when I was 3 or 4 years old, and I’ve cherished
that picture and I really would like a few more to have. So that day she asked my dad to go
step in the picture with my mom, and he came up to me with a
smile on his face and said, “Hey, would you like a picture with all three of us?”
And I almost cried right there.

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