When parents divorce or separate, the court must make an order for custody and visitation of the minor child. In Vermont, the court first determines what custody and visitation schedule is in the best interests of the child, and then makes an order for joint custody (both parents) or sole custody (one parent). If the parents cannot agree to share parental responsibilities, the court will make one parent the primary custodial parent; the other parent will be the noncustodial parent and will have visitation with the child. Neither the parent's gender or financial resources are relevant in custody decisions--either parent may have primary custody regardless of these factors.
In determining the best interests of the child, the court will consider the following factors: the child's relationship with each parent, each parent's ability to provide the child with love, affection, and guidance, and each parent's ability to provide for the child's physical and medical needs in a safe environment. The court also looks at the developmental needs of the child, whether each parent can meet those needs, and whether the child is adjusting in school and the community after the parents' separation. A judge will consider the child's relationship with caregivers, siblings, and any other significant person in the child's life before making a decision. Finally, a judge will look at the parents' ability to communicate and cooperate with each other about their child, and at any other factors the judge considers relevant.
The judge's goal is to ensure that the child will continue to have significant contact with each parent so the child can build and maintain a positive relationship with both parents. However, if there is evidence of child abuse or possible harm to the child, the abusive parent may only be allowed supervised visits or no visitation at all. The court takes allegations of child abuse very seriously and will not risk putting a child in danger.
It is helpful to the court if the parents can talk about a custody and visitation schedule before meeting with the judge. If parents agree on a schedule, they may submit the schedule to the judge for approval. Usually, the court will approve and make the schedule an order if it is in the child's best interest. Proposed schedules should list the general visitation schedule during the week and on weekends, and should also specify which parent the child will be with during school vacations and holidays. Some parents may also decide how they will divide costs such as medical and school expenses and extracurricular activities.
Once the court makes an order about the custody and visitation schedule, it cannot be changed unless both parents agree or there is a significant change in circumstances.