In California, parents that are divorced - or separated if they were never married - have to reach agreements on how to divide parenting time and responsibilities. If they can't agree, a court will have to make these decisions for them. Parents can enforce custody or visitation rights most effectively when they have a court order that includes a detailed parenting plan. Parents who work out plans between themselves can ask the court to incorporate their plan into an enforceable custody and visitation order.
For more information on how to develop a parenting plan in California, see Parenting Plans in California, by Lina Guillen.
Enforceable Custody and Visitation Orders
To be enforceable, custody and visitation orders should clearly specify when a child is to be with each parent, including how the parents are to divide time with the child on special occasions such as birthdays, vacations and other holidays. The order should also clearly state how the parents will handle transportation of children between homes and extracurricular activities. While many parents are able to be flexible and accommodate each other’s occasional scheduling problems, other parents have a lot of difficulty working together. Parents with high conflict may need to have additional safeguards built into their parenting plans, such as a designation of neutral pick-up and drop-off locations, and possibly even a neutral third-party to act as a facilitator during pick-ups and drop-offs.
Your order should be clear enough to provide guidance to authorities if you need to ask for help. Keep a copy of the order in a safe place where you will be able to produce it if necessary. If you and the other parent will be taking turns picking a child up from day care, school or another location, or if only one parent has the right to pick up a child from any of these locations, it is also a good precaution to provide a copy of orders specifying any restrictions with the person or persons who will be overseeing these transitions, such as your child's teachers or daycare providers.
If you find that the other parent is constantly violating your parenting schedule, keep a journal noting all dates, times and details of the violations. This will be very helpful if you need to go to court to enforce your orders.
If you and the other parent agree to change the terms of your custody and visitation plan in any significant way, be sure to get a new order from the court.
Interference with Custody or Visitation
Unfortunately, it is not unusual for one parent to interfere with the custody or visitation rights of the other parent. The interfering parent may believe (rightly or wrongly) that the other parent poses some kind of a threat, or may be angry because the other parent has not paid court-ordered child support. It is very important for parents to realize that once court orders are in effect, parents can't just take the law into their own hands and deny the other parent access to the child.
In an emergency situation, a parent who believes that a child is in immediate danger of physical or emotional harm from the other parent can take or keep the child for safety reasons, but must follow-up any such action through appropriate legal channels. If you are in this situation, contact the child abduction unit at your local district attorney’s office as soon as possible and follow whatever instructions you receive.
Taking or keeping a child away from the other parent in violation of custody and visitation orders can amount to child abduction under California Law.
Enforcing Custody and Visitation Orders
If you have an order in your possession that clearly specifies when a child is to be with each parent, and the other parent is refusing to allow you to see your child during your designated parenting time, you can call your local police and ask them to enforce the order, or you can request help from the child abduction unit of your county district attorney’s office.
If one parent is intentionally violating parenting orders, the other parent can also file a contempt action in court. The court will order the noncomplying parent to follow the court orders or face civil or criminal penalties, which in the most severe cases can even include jail time. In California, blocking a parent’s access to a child can also be a basis for a change in the parenting plan, including a change in the designation of the custodial parent. If you are considering filing a contempt action, or if you believe that the actions of the other parent are severe enough to require a change in your parenting orders, seek attorney assistance. If you cannot afford an attorney, contact your local superior court to find out whether any free or low-cost legal assistance is available.