Written by attorney Robin Marie Estes

Family Court Services Mediation

When child custody or visitation is in dispute, the parties MUST attend mediation with Family Court Services. A Mediation is conducted by Family Court Services to help the parties try and reach a resolution. Different counties in California handle this in different fashions. Some counties do not tell the court what the parties discussed, or write a recommendation to the court. Sonoma County is a "reporting county". This means that a recommendation will be made after the mediation, to the court, whether or not an agreement is reached. If an agreement is reached during mediation, it is prepared by the mediator and reviewed by both parents. It is then submitted to both parents and/or their attorneys for review. Typically, the agreement reached during the mediation process ends up becoming a court order. It is extremely important that parents realize the importance of the mediation process. Understand that if they parties do enter into an agreement during the mediation process, that agreement can and often does end up being a formal court order. During mediation, sometimes mediators place significant pressure on a parent in an attempt to force an agreement. It is important for you to understand that you do not have to reach an agreement just because the mediator wants you to or because someone is else is putting pressure on you to enter an agreement. One thing that you should prepare well in advance is what type of arrangement would be acceptable to you. If and when you go to mediation, do not allow anyone to talk you into something that does not feel right, or is not acceptable to you. While it is important to stand up for what you feel is best, do not be unreasonable during the mediation, it can alienate the mediator, which is certainly not in your best interest. A few important rules to follow during mediation: 1. Be respectful of the mediator and the other parent. 2. Do not interrupt the mediator or the other parent. 3. Dress appropriately, as though you were attending a job interview. 4. Focus on what is best for your children. Even though mediators are not judges or lawyers, sometimes they will tell a parent that their position is not valid or legally correct. In addition, they may make statement regarding what will occur at a hearing. While mediators are not lawyers or judges, do not ignore what a mediator says as to what might happen in court. Their interpretation is often correct. If after the initial mediation session an agreement is not reached, the mediator will make a recommendation. (In recommending counties.) If the mediator thinks that progress can be made, a follow up mediation session may be set. The mediator has essentially, four choices. They can recommend a continuation of the status quo (The current arrangement.). They can recommend a slight change to the current system. When the case is particularly divisive they can recommend either an evaluation or a psychological evaluation. In any event whatever the mediator recommends it will be based upon what is in the child's best interest. A custody evaluation consists of in depth psychological profiles of all the parties, the children and any significant others. These are typically performed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist experienced in child custody disputes. They interview teachers, doctors, friends, and essentially everyone involved in the lives of the children. This is an extremely thorough examination of every aspect of both parties and children. It has a cost of approximately $5,000.00 - $6,000.00, with the court apportioning the cost, and takes approximately three months to complete. (However, it can often take at least three months to get in to see the evaluator.) The time spent by the evaluator may be as much as forty hours, and the recommendation may be as long as fifty pages in length. At the conclusion of the process, a written report is generated with a recommendation. If both parties accept the recommendation, then the recommendation will usually become an order of the court. If either party objects to the recommendation in a timely fashion and if appropriate objections are filed, then a hearing/trial will occur. As previously stated, during any dispute involving custody or visitation, the primary concern is what is in the best interest of the children. The courts do not look at what is in the best interest of the parents. Sometimes parents will argue that a certain arrangement is not convenient for them or it interferes with their life or activities. However, the major concern is what is best for the children. Whenever custody or visitation is disputed, the status quo is given a significant amount of weight. The arrangement that has been in existence prior to the dispute is often considered to be the appropriate arrangement unless that arrangement creating problems for the children. With this in mind, be very careful not to change the status quo unless you feel that it is not working.

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