Many times custodial mothers struggle with noncustodial fathers who violate custody and visitation court orders. About 80 percent of children of divorce are placed primarily in the physical custody of their mother who often faces unequal struggles with a former husband. These violations can be lumped in the category of custodial interference, which can become a particularly volatile form of domestic violence that often involves the police and sometimes end tragically.
Custodial interference occurs when a parent tries to disrupt the custody rights of the other parent. Interference with visitation can be anything that inhibits the relationship between the child and the other parent, including not only extreme behavior, such as preventing contact entirely, but also things like intercepting letters or emails, blocking phone calls, or continually scheduling children’s activities away from home during the other parent’s normal visitation time. Refusing to release the child to the other parent for a scheduled visit, limiting the child’s telephone contact with the other parent, failing to return the child on a timely basis (i.e., keeping the child past the time allotted under one parent’s custodial rights). Enticing the child away from the parent with custody, or visiting the child when the other parent is supposed to have custody – all are forms of custodial interference.
While courts encourage parents to stay in touch with children during separations, behavior such as telephoning constantly or dropping by the other parent’s home uninvited is considered disruptive. Interference also includes speaking negatively about the other parent to the child, as this can reduce the child’s desire to spend time with the other parent.
Interference with custody orders can be a huge point of contention for some couples; it can lead even to criminal consequences.
Sometimes situations arise when it may be legally permitted to interfere with another parent’s custody rights, at least temporarily. Under some circumstances, custodial interference is not a violation of the law. Such circumstances include protecting a child from danger, events preventing timely transfer, such as bad weather, and previous agreements that disrupt custody arrangements, such as a trip or special event.
A parent is entitled to report custodial interference to the court, as well as to law enforcement, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
Common remedies involve petitioning the court to request relief such as new, specific orders for visitation (to prevent future violations), make-up visitation time, or family therapy or mediation.
When more severe intervention is required, a parent may request more significant relief from the court such as supervised visits by a third party, transfers at a neutral location, restrictions or loss of visitation or custody, or fines and fees.
Custodial interference is a crime in many states and can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony.
Custody and visitation struggles often take many turns. The parent who has not received timely child support payments feels entitled to prevent the late-paying parent from seeing his children. In all jurisdictions, child custody and child support are two entirely separate issues. A parent who has not received support on time can contact the office of child support, or go to court to enforce payments, but he or she must never use the children as bargaining chips. Similarly, if one parent is blocking access to the children, the other parent must seek help from the courts, not withhold child support.
Parents must encourage children to spend time with the other parent. The court can order a parent to transport a young child to the other parent’s home or mutually designated location, but older children become less moveable and more difficult to manage. A judge who believes that a child is not spending time with one parent because of the actions of the other will not attempt to force the child to see both parents, but will instead order one of the remedies outlined below, which could include changing the primary residential parent. A court will only order such a change, however, if it finds that it’s in the child’s best interests. Failing to arrive for scheduled visitation times or constantly arriving late is not in a child’s best interests. Children need to know that their parents care enough to make consistent efforts to spend time with them. Parents that don’t fulfill this responsibility may lose future visitation time with their children.
If a parent violates a court order regarding custody or parenting time, the court can order almost any remedy that is fair and appropriate, including holding the parent in contempt. Possible remedies include ordering “make-up” parenting time, ordering the interfering parent to pay for counseling for the children or for either parent, ordering the interfering parent to pay any costs resulting from the interference, changing the children’s transportation arrangements or pick-up location, changing parenting time either temporarily or permanently, ordering the interfering parent to participate in community service, or ordering the arrest and imprisonment of the interfering parent.
Interfering with court-ordered parenting time can amount to a criminal act, and in some places, a parent who conceals a child from the other parent for the purpose of interfering with custody or visitation may serve jail time.
A parent with lawful custody who is fleeing from imminent physical danger posed by the other parent also has a defense, provided that the parent reports the child’s location to the appropriate authorities or brings a custody action in an appropriate court as soon as reasonably possible.