Raising concerns about dad’s parenting in VA custody cases

Posted on Oct 13, 2021 by Katie Carter

We talked Monday about the difficulty of navigating coparenting relationships when your child is refusing to go to parenting time with her dad. Today, I wanted to continue that conversation a little bit – because I think it’s a super important conversation to have – to discuss, less specifically, the concerns that moms have when dads exercise parenting time.

Specifically, at what point does a mom’s concern rise to the level that the court would make changes to the current parenting plan?

These two articles are coming up for me right now because of conversations I had last week with three different women, all of whom were concerned for their children and whether they should petition the court to make changes to their existing parenting plan structure.

One was telling me that her child was point-blank refusing to go, which is where Monday’s article came from. But the two others were just raising concerns with me, and trying to gauge whether I felt it would be appropriate to petition the court about the issues or not.

It’s a fine line. You don’t want to seem like an overbearing mother who won’t let her child’s father have a chance to parent. You also don’t want to not raise the alarm when there’s really an issue. Most moms wants to feel like they’ve toed the line between not being too overbearing but still stepping in to protect their children when there’s an issue.

The problem is that things have already gone south between you and your child’s father, so you’re probably not his biggest fan. You’re probably already really in tune with all his weaknesses, and you’re maybe a little bit too inclined to find fault with him – or, at least, that’s what the court thinks.

You have to remember that the court is jaded, and that it has seen lots of moms using whatever tools they had at their disposal to try to keep their child’s father out of the child’s life. In these cases, there’s a lot of he said/she said issues, so it can be hard for the court to make sense of it all. In a lot of cases, this can make it seem like the court doesn’t care or isn’t listening. I don’t think that’s true; though there are bad apples everywhere, in general, most judges, attorneys, and guardian ad litems are doing the best they can to find good outcomes for families. It’s just that it’s a nearly impossible job.

One of the moms I talked to last week said something about how her child’s father doesn’t feel that her concerns are more important than his rights as the father. I would counter with a different point entirely – it’s not mom’s rights or dad’s rights that matter, but the child’s right to have a relationship with both parents.

In all of the hullaballoo about shared custody – and the way the court seems to favor shared custody arrangements over other kinds lately – this is the principle that seems to have risen to the top the most prominently. The courts believe that having mom AND dad in a child’s life is the best possible outcome, and they’ll outright deny a lot of requests (like for relocation) in an effort to avoid sidelining one of the parents.

The courts place a really high value on coparenting, and on the abilities of each parent to support the other parent’s role. In fact, I can think of at least one contested custody case I heard of recently where one parent won custody over the other BECAUSE the parties’ ability to coparent together was so nonexistent. The courts want to see cooperation taking place, and it’ll punish you for being seen to be the one that is not attempting to facilitate the relationship with the child’s other parent on the child’s behalf.

Ultimately, if you’re wanting to petition the court for a change in custody because of problematic behaviors you’ve seen, it’s going to come down to a couple of points.

It’s not enough to allege that he’s not doing a very good job. You’ll need specific evidence.

Specifically, what evidence do you have? You’ll need some pretty concrete evidence that what’s going on is harmful, and that the child is suffering as a result. You may need a doctor or a therapist or someone else to help you prove causation and correlation here.

Exactly what you’ll have to be able to use is going to depend a lot on what you’re alleging, and what the problems are. You’ll definitely want to talk to an attorney about this.

Consider what you want the court to do, and the kind of custody arrangement you currently have.

What’s your goal here? Sometimes, I find that the actual goal is really out of whack compared to the parenting arrangement that already exists. It can be hard to know, especially if you’re not in the business of litigating and negotiating these points.

If you already have primary physical custody, for example, you may not want to do anything. It may be a bit of a leap to say that shared custody is the “norm” because the new law simply requires the judge to consider all forms of custodial arrangements equally, but suffice it to say that judges like shared custody. A lot. So, you always run the risk of shared custody getting awarded – especially if dad has a strong defense planned.

Depending on what, exactly, is happening and what your goal is, you’ll need to plan accordingly. If you’re hoping for, say, supervised visitation, you may want to talk to someone about the likelihood of this happening in your case.

Consider possible negative consequences of filing custody petitions with the information that you have.

Custody, visitation, and child support are always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances. This, in all likelihood, will not be your last time in court, or attempting to negotiate an agreement.

There are a lot of negative consequences that could arise, from him being quick to file a petition to modify next time, to a different parenting arrangement to the one that you’re advocating for being ordered, to a finding of contempt or a show cause being found against you (especially if he alleges that you’re unreasonably denying visitation or that parental alienation is taking place), and so on.

It’s not a low stakes proposition to file these petitions. You should consider all possible consequences.

Courts can chalk a lot of things up to differences between mom and dad.

The courts are often willing to make a lot of allowances for differences between the parenting styles of moms and dads, and of the difficulty for children in learning boundaries between the two homes. Just because a behavior might seem problematic to you does not mean that the court will find it so.

Generally describing a situation where a child doesn’t feel heard or respected, of feeling like dad isn’t listening to specific concerns, or isn’t tailoring his activities appropriately to age and developmental restrictions of a child are really probably not going to get you very far. I find that behaviors need to be pretty wildly and universally seen to be problematic before the court will take action.

It’s hard to describe exactly what the court is looking for, but it’s probably not completely off base to say that, essentially, its abuse and/or neglect that will rise to the level to warrant a change in custody. Even then, you have to tread carefully, and you won’t want to move forward without specific proof.

You should talk to an attorney ASAP if you have concerns like these. For more information, to schedule an appointment, or to talk to our office about your options, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.