To cut to the chase and state the obvious as simply as possible: if there’s no custody order in place (as in, you and your child’s father have never (1) been to court to let a judge determine custody, and (2) you’ve never signed an agreement related to custody and visitation), both you and your child’s father have equal and complete rights to your children.
You can take them when and where you want, including but not limited to Timbuktu. Though your child’s father might disagree, he can’t really stop you. All he can do is either (1) propose a custody and visitation agreement, and (2) file for custody and visitation to be determined.
Custody and visitation has to be determined judicially in one of two ways: either (1) as part of a divorce in the circuit court, or (2) independently in the juvenile and domestic relations district court.
We always advise our clients to take the children with them when they go, but, for whatever reason, it does sometimes happen that the children get left behind with dad. That may seem shocking (maybe not quite so shocking if you’ve found your way to this article), but usually, in this position, clients tell me that they felt, for whatever reason, that it would be less shocking to the children if they stayed in their normal environment.
After all, the impact on the children is, for almost all mothers, the biggest concern. And, besides all that, every single family is different, and what’s right for one family may not be the same for the next. It’s not one size fits all. No judgment here, of course.
But still, when you leave the house without the kids, all sorts of things can happen. One of the things that I’ve seen happen lately is that, when mom leaves the house, dad stops allowing her to see the kids. Of course, he can’t really – but insisting that he give you the children can lead to all sorts of drama you’d prefer if your kids didn’t witness. After all, fighting in front of them (particularly screaming for your children to be released to you) is incredibly potentially damaging. No mom wants to be a part of that.
It harkens back to that story from the bible, right? The moms, fighting over the baby, each insisting that it belonged to them. The king suggested they split the baby in two; the non-mom agreed, while the mother preferred instead to give up her baby to keep him whole rather than see him harmed. That way, the king knew the real mom from the pretender.
It’s a story with application today, too, isn’t it? By being unwilling to harm our children, we make ourselves a little extra vulnerable. In these custody cases, it sometimes means that dad wins – at least in the short term – because mom is unwilling to take steps that would cause damage to the children, no matter how much that hurts them in the meanwhile.
It’s not easy, but that’s what being a mom is, isn’t it? It’s always been a ton of sacrifice, and it can be even harder during a custody case.
So, what’s to be done?
Obviously, you need to get a custody agreement or order in place. That may mean you have to file petitions – which you can do either in the juvenile court or the circuit court – but it certainly means you’ll have to take some steps. If he’s agreeable enough (which he probably isn’t, if you’ve found your way to this particular article), you may be able to negotiate an agreement instead.
It’s probably a good idea to talk to an attorney about your situation and your goals to come up with a plan for moving forward. There are advantages and disadvantages either way – whether circuit our juvenile court – and it’s best to be as well versed in these as possible.
Different courts have different limitations, too, so it may be worth considering which way will get you a hearing the quickest, especially if you’re really concerned about the influence your husband is having over your children.
It’s a difficult situation to find yourself in, but you’re not without options. For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.