Custody and visitation orders in Georgia are based on the best interests of the children involved. Parents can agree on how to share custody and visitation as long as the agreement meets their child's best interests. Regardless of whether the court or the parents decide on the parenting arrangement, the court will issue an order that includes a detailed plan stating when a child is to be with each parent, and both parents must comply with the order.
This article provides an overview of the consequences that might result from a parent's violation of a custody or visitation order.
Violating Custody and Visitation Orders
- Blocking Visitation. A parent who makes a child unavailable for court-ordered visitation, including arranging the child's schedule so that other activities interfere with visitation time, is violating the court's orders. The benefit of having a specific order outlining when a child is to spend time with each parent is that the order provides a clear directive to police and gives them the authority to enforce it. If your child's other parent has been denying you visitation, bring a copy of your order with you when you go to pick up your child. If the other parent claims that the child isn't at home or doesn't want to see you, call the police and show them your order. Even if you don't succeed in seeing your child, you will have documented your attempt to comply with the parenting order and the other parent's interference.
- Blocking Communication. Activities such as blocking phone calls or emails between the child and the other parent may or may not be a specific violation of a parenting order, but these kinds of activities interfere with the parent-child relationship, and a court will be less likely to grant custody to a parent who engages in such behavior.
- Children Refusing to Visit. Parents are responsible for encouraging children to spend time with their other parent. If a judge believes that a child isn't spending time with one parent because of the actions of the other—including actions such as influencing the child by speaking negatively about the other parent—may order one of the remedies outlined below, which could include changing the custodial parent.
- Denying Visitation for Non-Payment of Child Support. Sometimes, a parent that isn't receiving child support payments on time feels entitled to withhold visitation. Parents must understand that visitation and support are two entirely separate matters. A parent who has not received support on time can contact the Division of Child Support Services of the Georgia Department of Human Services (DCSS), or file a motion in court to enforce payments, but must never use the children as bargaining chips. Similarly, if one parent is blocking access to the children, the other parent must seek help from the courts, not withhold child support.
- Parent Consistently Missing Visitation. Failing to arrive for scheduled visitation times or constantly arriving late is also contrary to a child's best interests. Children need to know that parents care enough to make consistent efforts to spend time with them. A parent who doesn't fulfill this responsibility risks losing future visitation time.
Consequences of Interference with Custody or Visitation
If a parent violates a Georgia court order regarding custody or visitation, the other parent can file a motion asking the court to enforce the order and hold the parent in contempt. The exact procedure will depend on which county you live in; many county courts have forms that you can fill out on your own. You'll have to serve (deliver) your motion (legal paperwork) on the other parent, and the court will set a hearing date, generally within 30 days of service. If you need help finding the right court or forms, you can consult the Georgia Judicial Branch's Self-Help Resources. You can also contact your local court or a local family law attorney for more specific information.
A Georgia court can't order a change in custody at a contempt hearing, but it can order changes to visitation arrangements. If a custodial parent repeatedly interferes with the visitation rights of the non-custodial parent, this is grounds for a change in custody, but the non-custodial parent will have to bring a separate motion for modification of the custody order.
Possible remedies a court might consider for interference with custody and visitation include:
- ordering "make-up" visitation
- ordering the interfering parent to attend parenting classes
- ordering the interfering parent to pay any costs resulting from the interference
- changing the children's transportation arrangements or the pick-up location, and
- holding the interfering parent in contempt of court and imposing a fine or even sending the parent to jail (this is typically reserved for cases where the interference has been serious or ongoing).
Interference with court-ordered custody can amount to a criminal act under Georgia law. A non-custodial parent who keeps a child under 17 away from a custodial parent, including failing to return the child after expiration of court-ordered visitation time, is committing criminal interference with custody under Georgia law. Even a single instance of this kind of interference is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, jail time, or both; a third conviction is a felony. If the parent removes the child from the state, or keeps the child out of state after expiration of a legal out-of-state visitation period, the offense is interstate interference with custody, which is always a felony.
Even if you believe that your child is in danger from the other parent, you need to be very careful about taking matters into your own hands. Contact an attorney or Georgia Child Protective Services to find out how best to protect yourself and your child to ensure that a court doesn't end up charging you with contempt of court or interference with custody. If the situation is an emergency, call the police. If you can't afford an attorney, your county court can provide you with the location of a family violence shelter or social service agency that can help you file a motion for emergency protective relief.