Depending upon which county you reside in, or if you and your former partner are unable to agree on child custody and/or visitation issues, you will likely be required to participate in child custody mediation.
You will be able to choose your mediator. If you and your spouse can’t agree on one, the Court would most likely order the parties to mediate through the Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR). ODR would then assign a mediator from their small bank of mediators. The only caveat here is that ODR mediation is only set for two hours, as such, not optimal in helping parties reach meaningful resolutions.
The objective of mediation is to give parents an opportunity to discuss and resolve issues relating to the best interests of their children in a neutral setting. Mediation is a great tool for conflict resolution because it allows for both sides to feel heard and helps you to find common ground in order to work towards a mutually beneficial solution, rather than the Court making these decisions for you, which you may not agree with. There can also be custody evaluations performed by child and family investigators and parental responsibility evaluators. These evaluators are appointed by the court to offer input on the specific case.
Some goals of mediation include: helping parents make a parenting plan; helping parents to make a plan that allows children to spend time with both of their parents; and helping both parties learn skills to deal with anger and resentment.
Everything that occurs in mediation is held strictly confidential, except for any agreements the parties reach that are then signed and filed with the court.
What should I DO at mediation?
DO focus on your child’s needs:
Remember: it is the goal of the court to make an order that serves the best interests of your children. Spending time rehashing upsetting past events will waste precious time and frustrate your counselor. The focus should not be on your needs, but rather on the needs of your children. This is not to say you should agree to an order that is impractical or too burdensome, but the focus should not be on your convenience or on punishing the other party.
DO go to mediation prepared:
Always go to mediation with a custody and time-share plan. You could also bring in a calendar with days marked off for each parent and addressing school holidays, work schedules, and extracurricular activities. The mediator may use your proposal as a starting place for negotiation. You will impress the counselor with preparedness and will also feel more confident knowing you have thought through a plan that feels doable.
DO have an open mind and a business-like attitude:
Your ex-spouse might say things that are hurtful, untrue, or counterproductive. Trust that the mediator can see through unreasonable requests. Take a deep breath when communications get heated. Engaging in back and forth bantering and/or bad-mouthing will be noted by the mediator and addressed in their recommendations. Mediators have extensive experience and are well aware of schedules that most often work for parents. If they don’t work, parents come back to court and often see the same mediator. You may feel that a 5 day on/5 day off schedule would be best for your child (to limit exchanges with your ex), but for a young child, 5 days may be too long to go without seeing one parent. While you know your child best, the counselor may have proposals that are worth considering.
DO bring up valid concerns about the other parent’s ability to care for your child:
But be forewarned – nitpicking is not helpful. Some valid concerns include inappropriate child restraints in vehicles; domestic violence in the other parent’s household; getting your child to school late on a regular basis; consistently arriving at visitations late; harassing emails or texts from the noncustodial parent; and substance abuse issues. Less valid concerns are those relating to the other party’s apparent disinterest in parenting before the breakup. Mediators and the Court want to give all parents a chance to be present for the children.
DO be realistic:
A settlement isn’t a settlement if you are totally happy. Nobody is a true “winner” in co-parenting disputes. Keep in mind your schedule and obligations as well as the other parent. If you work the graveyard shift three days a week, who will the kids be within the evenings?
DO understand that co-parenting is a process:
While we’d all like the first agreement or order to be the ‘final’ one, it is usually not that easy. Sometimes the court will give a less active parent an opportunity to become more involved. If they do, great! You’ll get a break and your child will benefit from two engaged parents. If they don’t, you’ll now have an opportunity to return to court and demonstrate that an order has been violated, giving rise to a modification.
- Refer to your children as “ours:” Failing to acknowledge your ex-partner as a parent typically annoys a mediator.
- Try to obtain an order that is as specific as possible to avoid ambiguities, arguments and misunderstandings: If you are in mediation, it’s because you have already had issues that have led you to court. You want an order that you can enforce and an order that clearly defines vacations, holidays, transportation, legal custody, and time-sharing. You need to be able to plan your life, too!
- Be firm: Sometimes agreements are not in your children’s best interests, especially if the other parent is being unreasonable. While you need to be flexible, you do not need to agree to a parenting plan that will leave you unhappy. If necessary, you can leave it up to the judge to decide. An experienced family law lawyer can guide you through the process.
Mediation is an integral part of family law when you have child custody and visitation issues. It’s okay to be nervous or emotional, but by staying focused and on task, you are much more likely to have a successful outcome.