What to Expect from Court Mandated Child Custody Mediation

When initiating a divorce, our clients often ask us how child custody and visitation is decided. Many questions arise when formulating a child custody schedule such as who will get to visit when, for how long, and what happens on holidays, birthdays, or with vacations. We explain that parents can choose to agree on a schedule without the court’s help; however, as one might imagine, this is not always possible. When parents cannot agree and end up in court, California law states that they must participate in child custody mediation.

Court mandated mediation sounds like an intimidating process and can be confusing to those who have never encountered the court system. While not always, possible, child custody mediation is designed to facilitate helpful and respectful discussions, while reducing animosity between parents. The goal of the mediation process is, first and for most, to make sure the best interest of the child is honored and in most situations to enable close and continued involvement of both parents and a consistent parenting plan.

To initiate this process, our office prepares a Request for Order (“RFO”) concerning case specific child custody issues, and upon filing, the court automatically refers our clients to the Officer of Family Court Services for Child Custody Recommending Counseling, which is available at no cost every six months. Depending on the client, we may alternatively request to use a private mediator at the expense of one or both of the parties. Either way, the child custody mediator, also known as a “Child Custody Recommending Counselor” or “CCRC,” is a neutral third party who assists both parents in coming to an agreement concerning visitation, custody, and other parenting issues.

Prior to the first meeting with the Child Custody Recommending Counselor, parents are required to participate in a “parent orientation.” This orientation is held by Family Court Services and in some counties is available online. The orientation teaches parents about important developmental stages children go through as well as conflict resolution skills. There is no fee for this class and it takes approximately one and a half hours of a parent’s time.

The next step is for the Child Custody Recommending Counselor to interview the parents about the current custody arrangement and depending on age, the mediator will also interview the child or children involved. After mediation, the Child Custody Recommending Counselor prepares a report indicating what he or she recommends as far as a parenting plan. If a parent, or both parents, disagrees with the counselor’s recommendations, the party must be prepared to state why and explain their position to the judge. In some cases the court orders a more intensive child custody evaluation, through which a private child evaluator will determine what is in the best interest of the child and provide an extensive report to the parties, their attorneys, and the judge. In addition to the parents and children, the child custody evaluator interviews collateral contacts such as grandparents, schoolteachers, counselors, mental health professionals, and law enforcement where applicable. The parties involved pay the cost for this evaluation.

Required child custody mediation is designed for the benefit of the child, or children, at the center of the case. At the conclusion of this process, whether through agreement or via judicial decision, the parties will have a court order as to their child custody and visitation schedule and the aforementioned questions as to visits, holidays, etc. will be formally resolved.