One of the most pressing concerns for any parent going through a divorce, legal separation, or break up is what will happen with the children. Even in the most amicable of breakups numerous new challenges arise, including changes in housing, finances, scheduling, work, and many other areas of life, all of which must be considered and addressed to create a parenting plan in the children’s best interest. In more contentious breakups there may be additional serious issues present such as neglect, abuse, addiction, as well as other serious concerns.
California Family Code §3170 requires that in any contested custody case that the parties first participate in mediation to attempt to resolve custody disputes with an agreement before the issues are tried in front of a judge. This requirement is imposed under the belief that an agreement which the parties come up with themselves for their children is usually better and will be more successful in the long term than one imposed by the courts. To assist the parties in working through these various difficult issues the mediation is conducted with the assistance of highly trained therapists who are familiar with the common issues that need to be addressed in custody disputes.
In some counties, commonly referred to as “recommending” counties the mediator has an additional role when the parties are unable to reach an agreement. In these counties the mediator will present a written recommendation to the court regarding a parenting plan for the minor children. In these counties the mediation process has increased significance as the mediator’s recommendations are often adopted in whole or in large part by the court. Many local counties, including Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus counties are recommending counties. In other counties, the mediation process is entirely confidential and the mediator does not make recommendations to the judge if the parties are unable to reach an agreement.
All courts in California have an office called Family Court Services to provide mediation services to the parties in contested custody cases. Most custody mediation is handled through these court offices that provide their mediation services at no cost to the parties. As an alternative parties may request (either with an agreement or without) that the parties be referred to private Child Custody Recommending Counseling (CCRC) to assist parties in resolving contested custody issues and if needed, to investigate and prepare a recommendation to the court regarding custody. This counseling is done by an experienced therapist within special training dealing with contested custody issues. The expense of the private CCRC is paid by the parties, usually with the party who requested it advancing or paying 100% of the cost upfront with the court reserving the ability to divide the cost between the parties at a later date. Due to limited resources in the office of Family Court Services, most mediation sessions last between 15 minutes to one hour, whereas when the case is set for private CCRC the parties will spend multiple hours with the counselor who will also invest time outside of these meetings investigating and preparing recommendations. While it is not necessary or affordable for parties in all cases, private CCRC provides a valuable service to resolve difficult custody disputes.
If you are facing decisions regarding custody issues it is important that you contact an experience family law attorney who can advise you regarding your options and strategies to obtain a custody order in your children’s best interests.