Your San Francisco Child Custody Case: The Basics

Your relationship with your children’s other parent has had more ups and downs than a drive through Russian Hill. Although interactions between the two of you can be colder than a famous San Francisco summer, you hope to put your differences aside when it comes to raising your children. Co-parenting can be challenging, and each family is different, but this article may be a start to understanding the basics of child custody and visitation in San Francisco.

For general background, take a look at Findlaw’s article on child custody basics. This page contains specific information about child custody cases in San Francisco.

Who Can Get Custody of a Child in California?

California law encourages both parents to have frequent and continued contact with their child, and to share the rights and responsibilities for raising that child, unless doing so would cause the child harrm. In California, custody is generally awarded in the following order of preference:

  • One or both parents;
  • A person with whom the child has been living; or
  • A third party the court deems acceptable.

How Do I File for Custody in San Francisco?

In San Francisco, you can get custody orders as part of the following cases or proceedings:

  • Divorce, legal separation, or annulment (if you are married to or in a domestic partnership with your child’s other parent);
  • A parentage case (if you were not married to or in a domestic partnership with the other parent when your child was born);
  • A Domestic Violence Restraining Order;
  • A Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Child (whether or not you were married to or in a domestic partnership with the other parent and paternity has already been established); or
  • A child support case brought by a local child support agency.

Paperwork associated with these family law cases should be filed with the Court Clerk of the Civic Center Courthouse located at 400 McAllister Street in San Francisco.

Child custody cases can be legally complex and you may consider consulting an experienced family law attorney in San Francisco before filing your case. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, low-cost or free legal services may be available through legal aid. Alternately, you can visit the self-help center at the superior court.

Can I Get Custody Orders Without Going to Court?

It is possible to avoid a court hearing if you and the other parent can reach a parenting plan by agreement. A parenting plan is a co-parenting arrangement that describes the parents’ specific obligations to each child. It outlines a custody/visitation schedule with each parent and indicates how decisions will be made about the child’s health, education, and other necessities.

Agreements between parents are encouraged whenever possible, but they are not legally enforceable until written, signed by both parents, and signed by the judge.

What is the Process for Getting Custody Orders in San Francisco?

In the event parents cannot reach an agreement about custody and timeshare, both parents must attend mediation before a judge will conduct a hearing and issue custody orders. Mediation is typically a two-hour meeting between parents and a trained employee from Family Court Services called a mediator. The purpose of mediation is for parents to receive guidance on negotiating an individualized parenting plan and establishing better communication for successful co-parenting. If parents create an agreement during mediation, the mediator will draft the parenting plan and it will become a custody order if signed by the court.

In San Francisco, Family Court Services provides mediation free of charge. Typically, a mediation appointment will be automatically scheduled for you after you file your child custody case. Prior to your mediation appointment, you are also required to attend an orientation session. For more information about mediation services, you can call (415) 551-4007.

When parents are unable to reach an agreement during mediation, a judge will make custody determinations at a hearing.

What Does the Judge Consider at a Hearing?

Before the hearing, a judge may order an evaluation to assist with deciding custody orders. In the evaluation, a trained professional may conduct interviews with the parents and other adults, review police and medical reports, and observe child/parent interactions in home visits. Following the investigation, the evaluator will issue a report to the judge with a custody recommendation.

In San Francisco, a judge has significant discretion when granting custody orders. The primary focus for a judge is the “best interests of the child.” When determining the best interests of the child, the judge considers all factors impacting the child’s health, education, and well-being, including the following:

  • The age of the child;
  • The health of the child;
  • The relationship between each parent and the child;
  • The ability of each parent to care for the child;
  • A history of family violence;
  • Substance abuse by a parent;
  • The child’s preference;
  • Whether a parent encourages a positive relationship between the child and the other parent; and
  • The child’s connection to his or her community.

California law prohibits a judge from giving preference to one parent based on either parent’s gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or immigration status.

How Do I Enforce Custody Orders?

Enforcing custody orders can be complicated and you may want to talk to an attorney to help you with the process. Options for enforcing orders include contacting the San Francisco Police Department and providing a copy of the orders, or initiating a contempt action with the court. In a contempt action, you ask the court to find the other parent willfully disobeyed the orders and request that the judge enforce them.

Can I Change Existing Custody Orders?

Maybe. The process for modifying a custody order is similar to seeking initial custody orders. In addition to proving the changes would be in the best interests of the child, you will also need to show a significant change in circumstances since the custody orders were first issued.

What If I Fear Immediate Harm to My Child?

In rare circumstances, you can request temporary, emergency orders to address a custody issue that cannot wait until the standard hearing. You will need to prove risk of immediate harm to the child, such as continued abuse or a serious likelihood the child will be taken out of California.

Emergency orders, called ex parte orders, are difficult to get and there are very specific rules that need to be followed. A qualified attorney can assist you with this process.

For additional information about your child custody case, including counseling resources and help creating a parenting plan, you can review this Guide to Family Court. For information specific to your case, you may want to contact a local child custody attorney.

Next Steps: Search for a Local Attorney

Contact a qualified attorney.