How to Prepare for a Child Custody Mediation
To relieve some of the effects of difficult child custody battles, more courts are encouraging parents to use programs called alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to deal with child custody disagreements. The main ADR program used in child custody cases is mediation. Because a judge is not present at mediation, many parents don't prepare for their mediation sessions but this is a mistake. The results of your mediation can influence or even determine the outcome of your child custody case, so you should always take enough time to prepare for the discussions that will take place there. Three important components of your preparation are gathering evidence and information, outlining your issues, and setting your objectives.
What Is Child Custody Mediation?
Understanding the mediation process in your jurisdiction is will help you prepare for the mediation. Mediation is essentially where both parents, accompanied by their attorneys, meet with a neutral third party to discuss issues related to child custody. Most states require that any discussions during this process remain confidential. However, any agreements or agreed statements that come out of these discussions are not. If you agree to let the other parent have custody and state as part of the agreement that you are doing so because s/he is a good parent, you will have an extremely difficult time seeking full custody later in your custody dispute. The courts may also give the mediator authority to report certain conduct, like lack of participation or physical threats of violence, back to the court. Do not assume that because the process is generally confidential that the judge hearing your case will not learn some of the details.
The Importance of Preparation for Your Child Custody Mediation
Because the agreements you reach in the mediation can influence your child custody dispute, do not enter the mediation blindly. Gather information before you attend. See the section on “[g]athering information in your child custody dispute,” for suggestions. If you don’t ask questions beforehand, you may end up agreeing to a set of facts that you wouldn't agree with had you known other negative factors. For example, if the other parent has had multiple referrals to a children’s protective agency, you do not want to agree they are a good parent. Do not assume that the agency that investigated the referral would have notified you. Many times they only contact the offending parent and the individual who reported the neglect or abuse. Know as much as you can before putting any agreements to writing in the mediation.
After you have gathered information, outline the issues that you want discussed in the mediation. No general form is required, but you should be able to arrive at the mediation with more than a blanket statement of “I want custody.” Be able to explain why you want it. Issues can include:
- The other parent is living with an abusive boyfriend/girlfriend.
- Your child has special needs that are not being met.
- The other parent has drug or alcohol issues.
- Your neighborhood has a significantly lower crime rate.
- The other parent has mental health issues.
This is by no means a complete list of all the potential issues that may be discussed at mediation. Mediation is supposed to be an organized discussion. Outlining your issues and bringing documentation of those concerns will help the mediator guide the discussion more effectively.
Mediation and Your Attorney
Probably the most important part of your preparation is knowing what you want and telling your attorney. The last thing you want is your attorney to walk in and tell the mediator you just want visitations, when in actuality, you want full custody. You and your attorney need to be on exactly the same page. Work out a backup plan with your attorney so that if your ideal scenario starts to seem impossible, you know what your next steps should be. Negotiate for more visitation than set out in your state’s family code. Have agreements that the other parent will notify you of any events your child has coming up at school. Set up times for phone visitations with your child on days that you don’t have actual visitation. Courts encourage parents to work together to allow a child to have as much meaningful access as possible to the non-custodial parent.
Mediators' Child Custody Recommendations to The Court
If you are unable to come to an agreement with your child's other parent regarding child custody arrangements, keep in mind that the mediator will often make a recommendation to the court regarding the outcome of the custody discussion. The mediator will provide reasons to the court for their conclusions and beliefs with examples, and may even provide a detailed recommendation that includes an outline of time shares, which parent should have the children on certain holidays, and other details. Very often or even usually, the court will accept the mediators' recommendations verbatim. In order to prevent this you may need to present additional information that wasn't available at the time of the mediation, but even in this case it is very common for the court to simply adopt the mediators' plan without changes.
For this reason, it is critical that you recognize the importance of the mediation, and come in with an organized plan for how you will present your case at the mediation. The fact that the mediator will have a huge influence on the outcome of your case is also an excellent reason to honestly attempt to come to some sort of compromise with your child's parent. Without a compromise, it is sometimes the case that neither parent is satisfied with the custody arrangment recommended by the mediator and adopted by the court.
Mediation is an effective tool for resolving child custody matters without causing more heartache for your child. However, mediation is only as effective as the effort put into the process. Poor planning can result in you being blind-sided on issues critical to your child custody case. Know what the issues are and how you are willing to resolve them before you attend mediation.