Your Los Angeles Child Custody Case: The Basics

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and you’re about to jump on the 405 to battle traffic when your ex-girlfriend calls. She tells you not to bother picking up your daughter this weekend because she’s taking her on a trip to the San Diego Zoo with her new boyfriend. When you protest, she says there is nothing you can do because she is the mother and she decides when you get to see your daughter. Is she right? Custody and visitation problems can arise in countless different ways. However, if you are seeking some general information about child custody in the Los Angeles area, this article may be a start.

Does the Law Favor One Parent Over the Other?

Fortunately, California law provides for “frequent and continued contact” with both parents. Parents should “share the rights and responsibilities” of bringing up their child, so long as it’s in the best interest of the child. The law does not automatically prohibit custody or visitation based on your sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or physical disability. This is true even if you were never married to the other parent.

How Do I Get a Custody Order?

The process for getting a custody order depends on whether you are married to or in a domestic partnership with your child’s other parent.

If you are married or in a domestic partnership you can get visitation and custody orders as part of these types of cases or proceedings:

If you are not married or in a domestic partnership you can get visitation and custody orders as part of these cases:

  • Paternity Case;
  • Domestic Violence Restraining Order;
  • Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Children;
  • Local Child Support Agency Case.

Can Parents Create Their Own Child Custody Agreements?

Yes, cooperation and co-parenting is encouraged, whenever possible. However, informal agreements between parents become legally enforceable only when they are written, signed by both parents, and signed by the judge as part of a court order.

When parents cannot reach an agreement about custody, both parents must attend mandatory, court-ordered mediation before a judge will hear the case and issue custody orders.

What is Court-Ordered Mediation?

Mediation is a 1.5-2 hour appointment between parents and an employee from Family Court Services called a mediator. The mediator meets with the parents together or each parent individually to ask questions about the child and family history. Mediators serve as neutral professionals who help parents resolve disputes about child care and custody. They work with parents to develop a parenting plan and custody schedule to address the unique needs of each child. If the parents reach an agreement, the mediator will draft the document and it will become a custody order if signed by the Court.

In Los Angeles County, mediation is provided free of charge. You can request an appointment online for one of several court locations throughout Los Angeles County. Before attending mediation, you must complete an online parent orientation.

What Happens If We Do Not Reach an Agreement in Mediation?

If parents are unable to reach an agreement in mediation, a judge will decide the parenting plan for the child at a contested custody hearing.

In certain circumstances, the judge may order a custody evaluation. A custody evaluation is an investigation by a trained mental health professional known as an evaluator. The evaluator will interview the child, parents, and other adults like doctors and teachers. An evaluation may also include a home visit and review of other reports such as police reports and court files. The evaluator will then draft a report and recommend a parenting plan to the court.

A custody evaluation could take up to sixty days and usually the parents must pay a fee for this service.

What Does the Judge Consider During a Contested Custody Hearing?

The law states that the judge must analyze the “best interest of the child” when granting child custody. Along with other relevant evidence, the court weighs the following factors:

  • the age of the child;
  • the health of the child;
  • the bond between each parent and the child;
  • the ability of each parent to care for the child;
  • a history of domestic violence;
  • a history of substance abuse; and
  • the child’s ties to his or her community.

What Is Included in a Child Custody Agreement?

A child custody agreement goes beyond a simple time-sharing schedule between parents. Holidays and vacations, transportation plans, and designated drop-off locations are often part of an agreement.

The agreement also addresses long-term decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the child. This includes where the child will go to school, what religion the child will practice, and who will be the child’s doctor. The agreement also designates whether these decisions are to be made by one parent or both parents.

Whether your child custody plan is agreed to by both parents or ordered by the Court, it is important to understand the different types of custody and how they affect your parental rights.

What If I Fear There May Be Immediate Harm to My Child?

In rare circumstances where a parent can prove immediate harm to a child, that parent may ask for temporary emergency orders from the Court. These orders, known as “ex parte” orders, are very difficult to get.

A parent must be able to show immediate harm to a child -- a pattern of violence against the child, sexual abuse of the child, or a risk that the child will be taken out of California.

If the Court grants these temporary orders, the judge will schedule a hearing to determine whether the orders should be extended.

Where Can I Go For Help With My Custody Case?

Child custody matters can be complicated and overwhelming for parents and children, alike. Several organizations, such as 211 LA County can help you locate family counseling and supervised visitation services. The Los Angeles Superior Court Self Help and Resource Centers provide assistance for people not represented by an attorney. Alternatively, you can look for an experienced family law attorney in Los Angeles County.

Next Steps: Search for a Local Attorney

Contact a qualified attorney.