The focus of this blog is parents involved in contested custody cases and required custody mediation. Contested custody cases come in all shapes and sizes. On one end of the spectrum you have the high-conflict custody cases (the knockdown, drag out fights) and on the other end you have the “we agree on most things, but there are some details that we still need to iron out.”
No matter where on the spectrum your case falls, if you and the other parent cannot reach a full agreement on custody issues, you will be required to attend child custody mediation. Under California law [Family Code §3170], any contested issue related to custody and visitation must be set for mediation.
There are several types of custody mediation; there is private mediation, there is court provided mediation (in San Diego that is handled by Family Court Services or FCS), there are non-confidential reporting mediations and confidential mediations. This blog will focus on court provided non-confidential reporting mediation provided by FCS since this is the scheme in San Diego. My next blog will discuss the benefits of private child custody mediation.
San Diego is a reporting county. That means that whether the parents reach an agreement or not, there will be a report issued following the mediation. If an agreement is reached, the report will generally set forth only the agreements reached by the parties. If no agreement is reached (or if there are a few areas of agreement and a few areas of disagreement), then the mediator will prepare and issue a report summarizing the parent’s respective positions, his/her analysis of the case, any third party contacts that were made (including meetings with the children) and finally, his/her recommendations.
These reports and recommendations are very important in San Diego and carry a great deal of weight with the Judge. It is important to remember the Judge deciding your case does not know you or your children beyond what has been filed with the court. More importantly, Judges are just attorneys with a fancy robe, so they rely heavily on the professional opinion of the mediators. Most court provided mediators are Counselors, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, or have a Masters in Social Work. They are specifically trained to do the work that they do and generally their education was focused on family or child custody related coursework. That does not mean the mediators always get it right; in fact sometimes they get it horribly wrong.
One of the downsides to court connected custody mediation (FCS) is the time that is allotted to each case. As you can imagine when every case is required to go to mediation, no case is given the amount of time it likely deserves. At best, parents can expect to be with the mediator for 3 hours, though the typical mediation only last between 1.5 to 2 hours. Sometimes the children, if the mediator feels they are old enough, are interviewed, but that is the extent of the mediation.
So how can you maximize your success at court connected custody mediation? The answer is to be prepared. Prior to the start of your mediation, you will complete a FCS Data sheet for the file. The form requires basic information about you and your family, but it also asks for a specific plan for the children that you would like. The mediator will not read your file or any other documents before you go to mediation, so this is the only information they will have about you and your case. The importance of getting this form completed correctly cannot be overstated. You can discuss this form with your attorney, which can be a great deal of help. Alternatively, you can complete the form before your mediation session so that you can give it mature thought. Hands down, the best way to prepare for mediation is with the assistance of a professional mediation coach.
There are several mediation coaches that you can consult with prior to attending mediation. Most of the coaches are former mediators themselves (many worked at FCS) and understand the process. They can assist you in completing the FCS data sheet and discuss strategies for mediation. They will answer your questions and discuss your options. Most clients I have referred to mediation coaches have told me being prepared made all the difference.
Bottom-line; custody mediation is a stressful time for any parent, so being prepared and understanding the process is of the utmost importance. That is why it is important to consult with a qualified family law attorney and a mediation coach before you go to mediation. The consequences of a child custody mediation gone wrong can negatively impact your case for a long time.
We understand that this is a sensitive situation that could greatly affect your family and your relationship with your children, and our team can provide you with the caring and outstanding legal counsel you need and deserve. If you would like to discuss your rights under California’s child custody laws, we encourage you to contact us as soon as possible.
Nancy J. Bickford, a Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Please call 858-793-8884 to understand how she can help your child custody battle begin and end with keeping your kids where they belong; with you.