My child’s father isn’t involved. Can he get custody?
It seems like we have a couple of cases like this lately. Dad wasn’t involved in the child’s life (and when I say wasn’t involved, I mean, like, he was completely and totally uninvolved) until, suddenly, he decided that he wanted to be. And not just that he wanted to see the child on occasion (which, under the circumstances, would have been a tremendously large change for the child), but that he wanted a legitimate custody and visitation arrangement that would allow him weeks at a time with the child. Weeks! From spending absolutely no time with his son to expecting to be allowed to have weeks at a time with the child. Pretty preposterous, right? We thought so.
Our office has handled a couple of cases like this recently, but I have one specific case in mind. It was baffling to her that, out of nowhere, after her child turned ten, suddenly her child’s father appeared. She had tried before to set up visitation, but dad wouldn’t show up. And, besides, he lives across the country in Arizona, it wasn’t easy, anyway, and she just kind of figured that he was going to continue being a total deadbeat.
Instead, he suddenly filed petitions for custody, visitation, and support. (Even though, several years earlier, he had petitioned to decrease child support, which was granted, and didn’t ask for time with the child then.) Our client, of course, couldn’t help but wonder what had happened that had changed his feelings. Why now? Why would a dad who never did anything with the child before suddenly petition for (and, presumably, expect to receive) visitation—especially since visitation with this particular father would mean that the child would have to fly across the country? Still, here she was, ten years later, suddenly facing a custody and visitation case.
What do I do if my child’s deadbeat dad suddenly wants to be involved? I’m so worried about my child’s well being!
If your child’s deadbeat dad suddenly files for custody and visitation, what should you do?
Obviously, your position is that it’s just not healthy for the child to be expected to jump right into visitation with a dad who hasn’t been around, and that’s a reasonable position to have. If you faced this kind of case, though, what should you do? Lucky for you, because we’ve been handling so many, I have a couple of pointers for you.
1. Attend a parenting education seminar.
I know, I know. You don’t need parenting education. Obviously, you’ve been parenting this whole time—without any contribution from your child’s deadbeat father. Still, it’s one of those things, like driver’s improvement, that shows a judge you’re taking your responsibilities seriously. It means that, even though you know you know what you’re doing, you’re willing to accept that there are things that other people could teach you, especially when it comes to co parenting effectively, and you’re not afraid to embrace that help.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll get absolutely no useful suggestions. But that’s really not the point. The point is, you went. You tried to learn more information, and you showed the judge that you take your job as a parent seriously, and you want to do the best job possible.
If your child’s deadbeat father doesn’t take a parenting education seminar? It’s a real point in your favor. If he does, it still doesn’t undermine all the work that you’ve done on your own. There’s no risk, and plenty of benefit. I know, it’s lame. But take the parenting class.
Don’t know where to find one? You can Google it, like anything else, or find the list on the court’s website. If you click here, you can search for a court approved parenting education seminar in your area. Want a recommendation? We like this one, Pride in Parenting. It’s run by Christine House, one of our most frequent Girl’s Night Out attendees (why not join us for our next one? It’s free!) and friend of the firm.
2. Enroll your child in therapy.
I know how you feel, but you’re probably not a therapist. And, even if you are, you’re not going to be called as an expert witness and asked to give an opinion on your child.
You should enroll your child in therapy for a number of reasons. First of all, because what he or she is going through, or is about to go through, is going to be incredibly difficult. How does a child reconcile the difference between the dad that hasn’t seen her for years and the dad that suddenly wants to take her away from her mom for large chunks of time? A therapist can help her weather the transitions to come as healthfully as possible—a major concern of yours at this point in time, I would think. Dealing with a deadbeat dad is a big deal, and it can cause a lot of emotional scarring if you don’t help your child learn how to deal with her feelings, especially now that custody and visitation is an issue.
Besides that, YOU need the therapist. No, not that you need to enroll in therapy (though if you did, it certainly wouldn’t hurt). What I mean is that you’ll need that therapist’s input and opinions to help frame what kind of custodial arrangement you might be willing to see take place.
We might need an expert witness in your case, too, and your child’s therapist could come in handy if he or she is willing to testify (or, you know, if we just subpoena him or her) in your case. Sure, it costs money to hire an expert witness (you can’t expect them to spend all day hanging around court just out of the goodness of their heart), but these types of witnesses often make or break a case, especially one like this.
Obviously, because he’s your child’s father, dad does have some rights here, even if, up until now, he has been a total deadbeat. You probably won’t have much luck arguing that he doesn’t, and, really, what’s the point? We don’t want to just annoy the judge. We do, though, want to show that, if visitation is going to take place, it needs to take place appropriately, productively, and in a way that promotes the best interests of the child. To assess how that needs to take place and determine exactly what is in the best interests of the child, we’ll need more than just your testimony—we’ll need someone like an expert witness.
The longer your child is in therapy, the better the child’s relationship with the therapist—and the more the therapist can offer in the way of a credible opinion. Enroll your child now, and begin building that relationship with the therapist. (Sometimes it takes a few visits to be sure you’ve found the right person, too.) Besides, your child is going through a lot. Help give her the tools she needs to navigate this tricky situation.
3. Make a plan for court, with or without an attorney.
Whether you decide to hire an attorney or not is up to you, but many moms choose to in this type of situation. (If I’m being honest, this is a fairly complicated situation.) There’s a lot at stake here, and, in a lot of ways, this is worse than many custody cases, because you’d be throwing your child in with someone who is totally unfamiliar to them. Most of the time, in other custody cases, the child is used to mom or dad having more time, but the child is, essentially, used to having both parents around. In the best cases, both parents are still good people. But, in your case, if your child’s father has just disappeared after a long period of having been completely absent from the child’s life, that may not be the case. I don’t know whether he’s a good or bad guy, and, really, there’s a lot more going on here than just determining whether or not he’s a jerk. (Though, if he is, or if he has a background of abuse or criminal activity, we’ll get to that, too.)
Remember, too, that anything that happens at the juvenile court level is appealable to the circuit court, so if you (or your child’s father) don’t get a result you like, you may find yourself in circuit court. You can appeal to the circuit court for any reason as long as you note your appeal within 10 days, and you get a brand new trial de novo (meaning that you get to start from scratch, without letting the information from the lower court decision come into play). So, it may be that you end up having two full fledged trials; it really all depends.
Many people choose to represent themselves at the juvenile court level and then hire an attorney if there’s an appeal. There’s logic to that, for sure, but it’s always risky to take on your case yourself. Can’t afford to hire an attorney if there’s going to be two trials? Understandable, but why not consider attending our Custody Bootcamp for Moms seminar? It’s designed with you in mind. For more information or to get details on registration, click here.
Dealing with a deadbeat dad who suddenly wants to become involved is difficult, but not impossible. For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.