Calling the police to enforce Virginia child custody and visitation
For every highly contentious case I see, there are probably hundreds of other where the parents are able to work things out. There are likely a bunch of families where mom and dad split up, but they never see the inside of the courtroom. Professionally, I see some people like that. They come in for a separation agreement, which of course does involve custody, but after the agreement is signed, they never really worry about it. They work things out, and they never go back to court for a modification. I never hear from them again.
But I also know lots of other types of families. Families who, for whatever reason, can’t really agree on what the best course of action is for the kids. Families who, though they may reach an agreement, constantly butt heads, occasionally winding up situated on opposite sides of a courtroom.
I’m a mom, too, and I get it. I understand both sides. I understand wanting to be cordial and amicable and completely cool with the coparenting relationship. I understand wanting to keep it all out of the courts – of course I do. That’d be the easiest way, there’s no doubt about it. But not everyone is so lucky. For some women, and I’ve seen that firsthand, there’s a concern (or, probably more likely, many, many concerns) with the child’s father. I understand that there’s no price you wouldn’t pay to keep your child safe and with you, where you know his/her interests will be protected and promoted at all costs.
I get lots of questions from clients about custody and visitation, and what exactly is involved. How it works. What happens when people can’t agree. It goes on and on, but this one cuts to the core of a lot of the problems that my clients end up having. What happens when he says no? When he won’t let you do something? When you’re supposed to have the child, and he won’t budge? Well, there are a lot of factors involved, and that’s what I plan to explore here today.
I want to take my child to _______, but my child’s father says no. Can I take her?
It seems simple, but it’s not. Now, I have a couple questions for you. Do you have an agreement or an order in place currently? That’s the first thing we have to look at.
Unless and until you’ve got an agreement in place, both of you have complete, unfettered access to the child. You can take the child anywhere you like – Timbuktu, China, North Vietnam (okay, maybe I don’t recommend that one) – as the child’s parent, it’s up to you. Both of you. Without needing permission from the child’s other parent, either, because, like I say, you both have complete access to the child.
There’s no such thing as “parental kidnapping” unless you have a custody order, and one of you is violating it by exercising visitation outside of your predetermined time in violation of the other parent’s rights to the child.
Technically, yes, you could take her. Pretty much anywhere you want. Does that mean there won’t be consequences? No. Pushing your child’s other parent to the limit could result in a lot of unpleasant consequences – like, perhaps, him filing for custody. If you’re doing something excessive (say, a four month RV tour of the United States—I only mention this because I’ve seen it happen!) that disallows him time with the child, the court could find that you’re not facilitating the relationship between dad and the child, and it could hurt your case later on. After all, custody is based off of the best interests of the child factors, and one of those factors is the propensity of the parent to support the child’s relationship with the other parent (I’m paraphrasing). The court views this as very important.
Do I think your case will be irreparably harmed by going on a vacation or something in spite of the other parent’s wishes? No, probably not. It could be bad, but more likely it will just spur the child’s other parent to take specific action to have custody and visitation determined. Either that – or he’ll extend to you the same courtesy, taking the child where he wants over your objections.
It’s a risky place to be, for sure. You don’t want to have to guard your child suspiciously, always worried that he’ll snatch her up and take her somewhere for a week without notice to you and without regard for your feelings. That being said, it’s probably not fair, either, to expect you to miss out on major life events (family reunions, weddings, trips to visit grandparents, etc) just because your child’s father won’t agree to let the child go, too. In these cases, I do recommend visiting with an attorney to discuss your options for getting a specific custody and visitation schedule drawn up so that neither of you have to deal with the ambiguity of not having some kind of guidelines.
Do you have a custody agreement or order in place?
Your custody agreement or order is going to be your guide for all things related to custody and visitation. If you want to know whether you can do something, you just look to the agreement or order, and it should tell you. Want to take a vacation? Do it on your parenting time. Many agreements/orders include a specific timeframe for taking a vacation, so you’ll just have to work within that framework.
How do I get a custody agreement or order in place? What’s the difference?
An custody agreement is something you and your child’s father work out between you. That’s not to say that it’s easy! In lots of cases, it’s pretty difficult to reach an agreement. But, still, it’s often possible to reach an agreement about how everything will be handled.
Agreements are usually pretty comprehensive. I had a friend show me his custody order from a judge the other day who told me it was “so specific”. It was less than one page, single spaced. Our agreements, on the other hand, can be 10 or more pages long, detailing pretty much everything to do with the child’s life. We can be more vague, if necessary, but it’s often better to come up with specific answers to everyday questions, so that no one is left confused about what’s expected or appropriate. We also try to be specific enough that there are no questions about what certain provisions mean; if there are two different interpretations, that’s not ideal.
A custody order is something that was decreed by a judge. That comes from either filing custody, visitation, and support petitions in the juvenile court, or handling custody and visitation as part of a divorce (or possibly even an appeal from a juvenile court ruling) in circuit court.
Generally speaking, judges are less creative than attorneys drafting agreements on behalf of their clients. They usually give less specifics about how day to day scenarios should be managed. They often deal mostly with just the visitation portion, spelling out who has the child when – and they’re often notoriously un-creative with those. If you stop to consider, though, it makes sense. How much time can a judge spend on one case, when there are hundreds of others waiting to be heard? Additionally, to come up with a super specific custody and visitation plan would take a ton of time, evidence, witnesses, and exhibits, and would possibly also open the judge up to the possibility of being overturned on appeal. A week on/week off custodial arrangement, on the other hand, is seen as even handed of the judge. (Though that’s not to say that week on/week off is automatically awarded; it’s just one of the models we see judges tend to favor. I use it here as an example, not a prediction.)
That leads me to the other part of your question. What’s the difference?
A court’s order has the most force and effect. If you need to enforce your order, you can – you can call the police to force visitation, and you can file show causes with the court if your child’s father isn’t living up to his end of the deal.
With an agreement, you can’t do that. You will find that no one can really help you enforce your agreement – until you get it incorporated as an order of the court. Then, it takes on the same force and effect as a court order. It’s one extra step, but it’s a small one. And it’s often a small price to pay for having the control to come up with a custody and visitation arrangement that is customized to your specific situation and that both of you have agreed to.
Calling the police to enforce Virginia custody and visitation
Women ask me, from time to time, whether they should call the police to enforce custody and visitation. Obviously, first, you need to have a court order that the police can see and understand. The “and understand” part is pretty important. Generally speaking, police won’t work that hard to understand your order. And if they’re confused, they’ll refuse to enforce it. (They’re often confused.) They also don’t like to get involved on these types of things, so they’re not very helpful in many situations.
Whatever you do, don’t get into a physical altercation. The last thing you need is to be facing criminal charges on top of everything else.
Generally, I don’t advise involving the police, especially where custody is concerned. That doesn’t stop many parents from resorting to it, though. Keep in mind that if you call the police, your child will likely see, and be scared and confused. It’s not the best move, parenting-wise. Is it necessary? I think that’s a bigger question that needs to be addressed with your attorney, one on one. I find that very few situations justify the risk to the child, but your case may be different. It’s a good idea to sit down and have a one on one chat with a Virginia custody attorney before calling the police.
To me, it all goes back to the whole “split the baby” thing. The best parent is the one who puts the child’s needs above her own. Calling the cops is almost NEVER going to be in the best interests of the child, especially if you’re going to have a custody tug o’ war right over her head. Tread carefully, and think of the child first.
Having visitation that you agreed to or that was court ordered denied to you is frustrating. It’s also scary, and makes you feel like things are spiraling out of control. I understand that custody is emotional, too, and that what you’re dealing with is a huge deal. It might be time to talk to an attorney about it, if you haven’t already, if you’re asking these types of questions.