Divorcing couples disputing over child custody and visitation issues may face a long and difficult path to resolution. California courts generally have a few systems and programs in place to help couples who cannot resolve their custody/visitation issues between themselves. The names of the programs and how they are conducted vary depending on the county the case is in, of course. In Los Angeles County, parents who have a custody dispute are required to attend a parenting education class called “Our Children First”. This program orients parents to the court system when children are involved. When parents need the court’s assistance to resolve a custody/visitation issue, the parties are required to attend a family court service mediation appointment. This mediation program is free to the parties. In the mediation program, the parents meet with a family court services mediator who is employed by the courts and is generally a very experienced and educated mental health professional who can help the parents design a child custody/visitation schedule. If an agreement is reached, the mediator drafts the agreement, the parties sign it and it is submitted to the bench officer who then signs the agreement and makes it an order of the court. The mediation program is mandatory for the parties to attend but is voluntary regarding whether or not an agreement is reached. The parties can reach a full agreement, partial agreement or no agreement. If the parties are not able to reach a full agreement, they then can have the court resolve the remaining issues.
Depending on how complex the child custody/visitation is will dictate how the court handles the matter. If the issues are not complex, say, for example, the parties disagree on an overnight, particular day, holiday plan or other basic disagreements, the court can certainly hear from the parties on what they suggest as to what schedule is in the best interest of the child(ren) and then make a ruling. If the issue is more complex, say, for example, there is a move away request or the parties are disputing over with whom the child(ren) will primarily live, the court has a few options. The court 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 matters who will interview the parents, children, significant others, and third parties. The evaluator will then report their findings to the court. The court will ultimately make a ruling based on all the evidence of the evaluation and any other witnesses as to what it finds to be a schedule that is in the best interest of the child(ren). The parties, should they agree, or otherwise obtain a court order for such, can hire a private counselor or evaluator to evaluate the parties and the child(ren). The private evaluation is generally more costly than the PPA but does involve a more detailed and time-involved evaluation that will usually be conducted over several months. But again, at the conclusion of the evaluation, a report will be generated as to 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).