Step-up visitation allows for increasing frequency and increments in visitation time as the child gets older. It is often used as a way to slowly introduce a child to a parent he or she is not really familiar with. A court often uses step-up visitation with an infant or young child when one parent must meet specific guidelines before receiving more visitation or when the parents are not married and the child has not spent much time with the other parent.
Step-up visitation can be useful if a child passes through a developmental stage when the present parenting routine no longer works well. In this regime, parents use language like, “Beginning upon the child’s fifth birthday, the parenting schedule shall change to…” Thus, they avoid a trip back to court to modify the court orders.
After a divorce, many experts believe young children must develop an attachment to a primary caretaker and recommend short and frequent but non-overnight visitation with the non-custodial parent, with longer visits and overnight stays later when the children are better able to develop multiple attachments. Separations from the parents should be small to reduce anxiety, maintain secure attachment, and keep the child comfortable with both of them. Infants and toddlers need frequent and continuing contact with a predictable pattern.
The circumstances behind this type of visitation determines the stages of step-up visitation rights. For example, if the child is an infant or very young child, the non-custodial father gets several shorter periods of visitation during the week, especially if the custodial mother is breastfeeding the child. If the child is older or there has been abuse involved, the court may begin with supervised visitation to allow the child to get to know his or her other parent without being left alone with that parent. Once the time period that is assigned to the early stages is completed, the next step begins. Visitation may be directly related to the age of the child or it may be connected to actions taken by the non-custodial parent. The custodial parent cannot deny the next stage of visitation as long as the appropriate amount of time has passed or the appropriate actions have been taken.
If one parent objects to the step-up plan because of concerns about the best interest of the child, he or she requests a court hearing to modify the plan. At the hearing, the court examines the progress made by the non-custodial parent and whether the child is bonding with the parent. In most cases, if the noncustodial exercises visitation on a regular basis and complies with the other requirements established by the court (such as, counseling, or abstinence from alcohol before visitation), the court is likely to rule that the step-up visitation plan remains in effect.