Reunification and Child Custody in Virginia
It happens more often than you might think that a parent goes missing for a period of time – often, a couple of years or more. When they resurface, though, and want to spend time with their child, a lot of things can happen.
For the mom, who has been there day and in day out, raising the child, without a coparent involved, it can be especially jarring. Whether mom believes there’s something wrong with dad, like that he suffers from drug or alcohol addiction, is abusive, would be neglectful, or whatever, or whether she’s just hesitant to give up time with the child for a father who has been MIA, getting to a place where dad can have parenting time can be tough. Sometimes, it even involves litigation.
I’ll be straight with you, because, if our roles were reversed, I’d want you to be honest with me. In most cases, even when dad has been missing for a period of time, the court will give him the opportunity to be a dad. The court might ease him into it, with a period of supervised visitation, or with a parenting plan that gradually expands his parenting time with the child, but, in general, I see chances given, even to parents who disappeared for awhile.
Why? Well, because, in general, the courts believe that the thing that is in the best interests of the child is to have both parents be involved. It’s not about what’s best for him, or whether he’s a jerk; it’s not even about what’s best for you, even though you’ve been doing all the parenting heavy lifting in dad’s absence. It’s about the kids, and what’s in their best interests.
Sure, in the short term it can be jarring for a child to start seeing – or staying overnight – with someone who has been gone for a long time; maybe, even, the child doesn’t really remember his or her other parent, or thinks of a stepparent as their ‘dad’ now. But none of that means that it’s not good for the child to know the biological father, too. Maybe it isn’t good; maybe there’s other issues. That’s entirely possible, but that would be something that you’d have to prove to the court, and then argue for a different type of visitation schedule to accommodate.
Probably, long term, supervised visitation – or no visitation, or termination of parental rights – is not going to happen. You should prepare yourself for the possibility – indeed, the strong likelihood – that your child’s father will be given a second chance, even if you think that he shouldn’t be entitled to one.
In some cases, the court, or a guardian ad litem, if you’re working with one, recommends specific reunification therapy. That can help to ease the sting of a transition, and help the children cope with the evolving demands of the new arrangement, but ultimately it’s put in place to help support dad’s continuing role in the child’s life.
You can opposite it; it’s certainly within your rights to do so. But, in general, I’d say that you’re going to want to consult with an attorney about how far you want to go. We’re looking at the best interests of the child, and specifically the ten factors, when it comes to making arguments about how custody and visitation are handled. The court has a pretty strong belief in the need for children to have both parents. It would be difficult to upend that.
In general, I think it’s wise to come up with your own parenting arrangement – something you can live with – rather than having it forced on you by the court. There’s no presumption for 50/50 custody in Virginia, but the court is required to consider ALL forms of custody when it comes to making determinations in each case. That means that the court will look at primary physical custody, shared physical custody, and split physical custody with equal weight, so it is possible, especially if you live geographically close to each other, that shared custody would be ordered.
It’s ESPECIALLY possible that he’ll receive additional time if the court feels that you can’t really coparent. If you’re keeping him from developing a relationship with the child, or if you’re doing everything you can to stand in the way of that relationship developing, that could hurt you when it comes time for the court to make a decision about custody and visitation.
For more information, to schedule a consultation, or to request a copy of our custody book (or even our free report on reunification), give our office a call at 757-425-5200.