Child custody and visitation disputes can face a long and difficult path towards resolution. California courts generally have programs in place to assist parents who cannot resolve their custody/visitation issues themselves. The programs and vary depending on the county the case is in. In Los Angeles County, parents with a custody dispute are required to attend a parenting education class called “Our Children First”, which orients parents to the court system. The parties are also required to attend a free family court service mediation appointment. Through mediation, parents meet with a mediator who is a court employee and is generally a very experienced, educated mental health professional to help parents design a child custody/visitation schedule. If an agreement is reached, the mediator drafts the agreement, the parties sign and it is submitted to the bench officer whose signature makes the agreement a court order. With the mediator the parties can reach a full agreement, partial or no agreement. If the parties are not able to reach a full agreement, they can have the court resolve the remaining issues.
The complexity of the child custody/visitation issue dictates how the court proceeds. For simple issues the court can hear from the parties for their suggestions to what schedule is in the best interest of the child(ren) and make a ruling. The court has a few options for complex issues. It can make a temporary order and send the parties to a Parenting Plan Assessment or “PPA”. The PPA is an evaluation by a mental health professional trained in child development who will conduct interviews and report their findings to the court. The court will make a ruling based on all the evidence of the evaluation and any other witnesses to determine a schedule in the best interest of the child(ren). Alternately, parties can obtain a court order to hire a private evaluator. Private evaluation is generally more costly but involves a more detailed and time-involved evaluation typically conducted over several months. At the evaluation’s conclusion, a report will be generated with the evaluator’s findings and recommendations and be submitted to the court for consideration. Thus, child custody disputes can involve various methods to assist parties in resolving their dispute from the basic (free) to the advanced (costly).