You have been awarded custody or visitation in a court order but the other parent is violating the terms of the court order. What can you do? And what should you avoid?

Please Note: The information contained in this article DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVISE but is based on informational blogs containing tips about family court orders, and also based on insight from my own personal experiences in family court. If you have a question or need help regarding a custody order or other family court issues, please seek help from a legal professional. Your local court may also offer limited legal help through a legal clinic or by offering a list of resources for legal help. Many battered women organizations also offer legal resources or help.

WHAT IS A VIOLATION OF A CUSTODY OR PARENTING TIME ORDER?
A custody or parenting time order is a legally enforceable document issued by the Court. The order requires a parent to follow certain custody and visitation arrangements, and can restrict them from certain behavior or actions. A violation is any action or behavior that defies the court order.

MINOR VIOLATIONS
As a rule, minor violations are considered unintentional, and are delays or inconveniences that can happen in the normal course of co-parenting or exchanging a child from one home to the other. Minor violations may include: being a few minutes late for an exchange, missing a visitation because a child is sick or a child forgets a weekly phone call because they are hanging out with friends and has to call you later, etc.

Sometimes, the minor violations begin to escalate to more serious violations. Or there may be a pattern of repeated minor violations that, over time, disrupt parenting time. These issues must be addressed, at some level, to avoid ongoing problems.

MAJOR VIOLATIONS
A major violation puts the child at risk of mental or physical harm. Major violations also may purposefully deprive the other parent of their visitation or having a relationship with the child. Major violations may include: physical or mental abuse, kidnapping, manipulating a child to violate the court order (refusing visits, disparaging the other parent, using a child to get revenge on the other parent, encouraging child to run away from other parent’s home, etc.)

A court will generally tolerate some minor violation—and will frown upon parents who file motions for frivolous reasons, or issues that could be resolved outside of court. The court will generally take it more serious if minor violations are ongoing, begin to escalate or show a clear pattern of obstruction. The court legally has to consider taking action against violations that cause imminent harm to a child. The court will also take action against repeated violations that cost a parent money or harm the other parent’s relationship with their child.

WHEN THERE IS A RISK OF HARM TO A CHILD
If a parent poses a risk of harm to a child, the parent can file an emergency “ex parte” motion in court, and ask the Judge to look at the circumstance that pose a risk to the child and take immediately action. If the Judge feels the situation is urgent, and meets the legal standards of an “ex parte” hearing, he can issue a temporary order to limit or deny contact between the child and the offending parent, or change the order as he sees fit. If the Judge does not feel the issue is urgent, he can schedule a hearing for a later date.

SOME EXAMPLES OF LEGAL REMEDIES FOR VIOLATIONS OF COURT ORDERS

Violating a court order could result in some serious consequences. The action a Judge can take against a parent who violates a court order varies, and depends on the Judge and how he applies the law.

If appearing in court or filing a motion, you want to be prepared with evidence, all of your allegations must be backed up with some type of proof (witness affidavits, medical reports, school reports, receipts showing expenses incurred, photographs, etc).

You may also consider other avenues for resolution other than going to court, though this is not advisable for families with a history of domestic abuse.

Actions the Judge May Take if the Court Order is Violated:
*Impose a civil penalty on the offending parent (a monetary fine)
*Order the offending parent to pay attorney’s fees or court costs to the other parent
*Restriction or loss of parenting time
*Order the offending parent into supervised visitation
*Order the offending parent into therapy, anger management, co-parenting classes or other therapeutic remedies
*Change the court order as the Judge sees fit
*Order the parties into supervised exchange, where a professional handles the transition from one home to the other
*Order make-up parenting time for the other parent
*Order the parents in alternate dispute resolution (mediation, parenting consultant, expeditor, etc)
*Criminal charges are also possible in the case the child is harmed, kidnapped or there is a more serious violation
*The offending parent may also face jail time for contempt of court or if criminal charges are filed.

(Suggestions below are based on legal articles, and my personal experiences, on possible options and what types of action or behavior to avoid. This is NOT legal advice, nor can PAK offer legal advise. This is general information only. Please consult a legal professional for specific questions or to get help for your situation.)

OPTIONS TO CONSIDER WHEN A COURT ORDER IS VIOLATED:
*Keep a copy of your court order with you. You may also want a safe person to have a copy of the court order—friend, family, domestic violence advocate, religious support/leader, therapist, etc
*Have your attorney write a strong letter to the other parent on your behalf. The letter can notify the other parent they must comply with the court order or face legal consequences. It may also request a meeting to discuss the issues.
*Call the police. Even if the police cannot enforce the family court order, you can file a report and use it as documentation in court.
*If it is a major violation or the children are in risk of imminent harm, consider seeking help from a legal professional or from a legal clinic. Or, you may contact police or child protection. Your child’s safety is a number one priority!
*As an alternative to court, you may consider mediation with a professional. Before you begin, make sure you understand and come to an agreement about payment arrangements, terms of the agreement and if the session can be used in court. It is becoming more common for Family Court to require an attempt at mediation before a hearing is set in court. So make sure you follow the Court’s requirements, and document your attempts.
*If your family is involved in therapy or counseling, the counselor may be able to assist with minor disputes. Talk with your therapist to see if this is a possibility, and what the session would involve.
*If possible try to resolve the issue with your ex. DO NOT attempt this if there has been a history of abuse or if you do not feel safe! Keep the discussion focused on your child. If you are not sure about something, do not accuse, blame or judge but instead trying asking questions. Be willing to discuss alternatives, and have a few yourself. Document the discussion, and take notes.
Avoid flirting or setting personal meetings outside the court order, as this will confuse your boundaries. Avoid yelling, shouting or provoking a fight. Do not get the children in the middle to serve as messengers or mediators.
Agree on a time to talk, focus on the issue and its resolution. Bring a witness or safe person if you need. If you cannot come to an agreement, you may consider getting some additional help or establishing a time to talk at a later date.
*Document all violations of the court order. Keep your documentation and evidence organized and easily accessible. Keeping track with dates, times and witnesses is very helpful.
*Be proactive in requesting documentation (medical reports, police reports, school reports, etc). It may take a little time to sign a release then get the reports back to you. So take needed steps to get the reports right away to avoid delay or going to court unprepared.
*If you need a witness or safe person to assist you, make sure that person is calm and able to clearly communicate what they have observed in a factual and neutral way. Avoid people your ex would have a conflict with, or people mentioned in the court proceedings who are viewed negatively (their testimony could be disputed in Court). Avoid people who have a hot temper, who are unpredictable or who would fight with your ex. Avoid people with any criminal background, or history of substance abuse. You want someone who will be reliable and credible in court—a friend, family member, religious leader, co-worker or supervised visitation facilitator (some will come to your location for a fee to conduct an exchange or supervise a visit) may be helpful. This person should also have reliable transportation.
*If you need to go to Court, be ready to show documentation and evidence of the violations, and how this violation has harmed or poses a risk of harm to the child. It does help to research, and be familiar with the legal statutes.
*Consider filing a motion in Court for contempt of court to seek legal remedy for the violation. Or consider an emergency ex parte hearing. Do not file a motion for trivial or superficial complaints, the Judge may find this to be “frivolous” and can not only rule against you but punish you as well. Seek legal advise for questions or concerns.

ACTIONS/BEHAVIOR TO AVOID WHEN A COURT ORDER IS VIOLATED:

These types of actions and behavior may result in criminal charges, a harassment or protective order filed against you, and loss of custody or visitation with your child.

*Do not take revenge against the ex or their personal property (house, car, favorite possessions, etc). You could be criminally charged if you threaten or cause actual damage.
* Similarly, do not damage things your ex gave the children (gifts, toys, family pictures etc). This is extremely frightening and will ultimately hurt your relationship with your children. The court may perceive this as parental alienation or child abuse.
*Do not post negative comments or pictures about the ex or family court judge and professionals on social media or anywhere else online. When you post online, assume the judge and court officers are reading your posts, and act accordingly.
*Do not stop paying child support, if ordered. Keep payments current.
*Do not withhold visitation, as outlined in the court order. If there is a change in visitation, make sure that it is a change both parties agree to, and get the agreement in writing or save text/e-mail messages about the agreement.
*Do not file false or frivolous complaints against the ex in court, in their job, police reports, child protection reports, with their landlord, in their community, etc
*Do not vent your anger or frustration on your ex. Anything you say can be used against you in court. It is better to stay calm and professional. Keep your personal feelings to yourself. Don’t reveal more than necessary. If it helps you, have a friend or family member be present when making a tough conversation.

If you are struggling with your family court situation and feel overwhelmed, stressed out or unable to cope, you may consider getting additional support. Some helpful places for support are: counseling, support group, domestic violence support/education group, self-help group (meditation, yoga, sand therapy, grief group etc), religious support.

My sincere support and prayers goes out to all those enduring family court litigation, and those trying to rebuild their lives after divorce or separation. Remember the safety, security and happiness of your children should be a Number #1 priority. No matter how hard the battle, the children are worth it! – EJ

FOR MORE INFO:
“How to Enforce Child Custody and Visitation” by Jellygator, Hubpages: http://hubpages.com/hub/My-Ex-Wont-Return-My-Kids-Child-Custody-Problems

“How to Enforce Your Child Custody Order” by Free Advice Staff: http://family-law.freeadvice.com/family-law/child_custody/enforce-child-custody-order.htm

“Violation of a Child Custody or Visitation Order” by Kourosh Akbari, LegalMatch Writer: http://www.legalmatch.com/law-library/article/violation-of-a-child-custody-or-visitation-order.html

“Violations of Parenting Time Provisions in an Existing Court Order” by Thompson, Hall, Santi, Cerny and Dooley Attorneys at Law: http://thompsonhall.com/violations-of-parenting-time-provisions-in-an-existing-court-order/

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