When parents have separated, divorced, or are not living together because of their own conflicts, oftentimes the people who suffer the most are the children. Not only do they see their parents arguing, fighting, and causing pain and suffering to each other, but the children are very likely to be used as “pawns” in these arguments. Then, they are shuffled back and forth (sometimes against their own wishes) and have little sense of stability within those changes. Experienced Washington Child Custody attorneys work to make sure that situations like this can be settled amicably, or at least to the degree that everyone feels heard.
Choosing an experienced, professional attorney is important, too, because not only are the laws not always black and white, but situations can change over time and you always want to have someone on your side who can help you and your family get through a tough legal matter with the least amount of stress possible.
When parents separate and there are children involved, one of the first things that must happen is to decide on custody arrangements. When both parents want something different, they can submit individual parenting plans detailing what they think would be the best situation regarding who has physical custody and for how often, and who has legal custody and how much (legal custody refers to who gets to make medical, educational, and other decisions for the child in question).
These parenting plans should detail:
In Washington state, the courts will accept a temporary parenting plan while a permanent plan is determined, as the above details can take quite a while to iron out—especially if the parents are not seeing eye-to-eye. A temporary plan is only in effect for a short, set amount of time, after which the courts expect a permanent plan to be decided upon. If this isn’t done by the parents, the judge will take all factors into consideration and set one on their own.
Even if both parents can agree upon a shared parenting plan without the help of a mediator or going to trial, that parenting plan must still legally be submitted to a court and approved by a judge. Once that happens, it becomes legally binding and both parents are required to follow it unless there are legally approved changes (or until the child turns 18 or is legally emancipated).
If it is deemed in the best interest of the child to live primarily with one parent (physical custody), then Washington courts require that the other parent have visitation—that is, if that parent is physically, emotionally, and mentally capable and stable to provide care. If so, the other parent legally deserves one weeknight visit and visitation every other weekend.
Depending on the judge and the family situation, the noncustodial parent might receive more time than this, but they cannot legally receive less, barring an inability to provide safe visits. Even if a parent has been deemed abusive, there are options for supervised visitation. These supervised visitation sessions can last for as long as a judge deems necessary to be confident that no harm will take place without a supervisor present.
As time goes on, children grow and life situations change. Washington courts understand this and do not require parenting plans or custodial arrangements to be in effect the same way until the child turns 18. However, a parent cannot simply decide that something isn’t working anymore and change custodial agreements or visitation schedules on their own. These changes must take place through the appropriate legal proceedings—which is another reason why having your own personal family law attorney is a good idea, so that the attorney already knows your family and your situation.
Both parents—the custodial and the noncustodial—have the right to petition the court for changes to the plan, schedule, or custody arrangement. The parent who wishes to change the situation, though, has the responsibility to prove to the court that their circumstances have changed enough to warrant a new plan being put into place. Just because a child asks for something different, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen—especially if the child is under the age of 12.
As stated, many separations or divorces are not easy and the parents and children all suffer when the adults cannot agree or abide by court decisions. When one parent chooses to not allow the child to see the other, this is called withholding visitation. Unless the child is at risk for imminent danger or harm by the other parent (or while under the supervision of that parent), the other parent has no legal grounds to keep the child from seeing the other party.
Washington state believes that visitation is for the benefit of the child, not necessarily the parent. This means that if one parent decides to withhold visitation, the child is the one suffering the fallout. Parents sometimes violate court orders and refuse to allow their child to visit the noncustodial parent for a variety of reasons, though, including:
However, unless there is proof that the child is in imminent danger, none of these are a legal reason to withhold visitation—even non-payment of child support or un-honored previous time with the parent who is doing the withholding.
The only time a parent may withhold visitation is if the possibility of danger or harm is obvious. For example, if a parent comes to pick up the child and they are obviously intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, then the other parent is within their right to keep the child where they are.
If the parent putting the child in danger becomes violent or refuses to leave the situation, the holding parent is within their rights to call the police. If you do this, make sure to get a copy of the police report to add to your family’s case file so that it can be presented as evidence to the judge when custodial arrangements are being decided upon in the future.
Suspected danger, unfortunately, is not a reason to withhold visitation. This is particularly frightening in situations where abuse is suspected, because these incidents don’t usually take place in public or in front of other people who can act as witnesses. This is another extremely important reason to have a child custody attorney at the ready, so that they can help you quickly move forward with the appropriate legal proceedings to make sure your child is not in harm’s way a moment longer than absolutely necessary.
If you believe that your child is in danger, you should begin by documenting any evidence for your case. As soon as you have enough, you can petition the court to change the custody and/or visitation agreements to serve the safety of your child. Oftentimes, a temporary restraining order can be put into effect quickly so that the child is not in harm’s way while the details are being decided upon.
If your ex-partner is not honoring the legally binding custody agreement, then you have the right to have that time with your child made up. If this can be agreed upon and worked out between the parents themselves, they have the right to do so. However, if one or both parties refuse to cooperate with each other, the matter will need to be taken care of through legal proceedings. There is no time when it is appropriate for a parent to take the child without permission or to withhold child support as retaliation or “make up time” without the agreement of the other parent or the courts.
These types of situations can be solved either through mediation, where the parents discuss the matters with a court-appointed professional or through court intervention, which is usually what happens when parents cannot have civil discussions or when there are situations of abuse or bullying. During court intervention, the judge can decide to change the custodial or visitation agreements.
If you are being prevented from seeing your child, you probably feel a mixture of emotions, ranging from frustration or helplessness to anger or a desire for retaliation. The Washington Child Custody Attorneys at Aberdeen Law Firm are experienced in helping custodial and noncustodial parents see their situation as a whole and get the visitation or custodial rights that they deserve—in the legal, appropriate way. You don’t have to go to battle alone. Let us help you and your child come to a peaceful resolution.