Child custody is never a simple matter. Even parents with the best of intentions may disagree over how to divide legal and physical custody of their children. And even when the parents agree that one of them should have full custody, there is still the question of visitation time for the other parent.
In California, a parenting plan spells out the custody and visitation arrangements for the parties and their children. The plan itself can be fairly broad—leaving the parents room to make adjustments as they go—or highly specific, providing a strict schedule for alternating custody or allowing visitation. Ideally, the parties can develop their own parenting plan without the need for judicial intervention.
A judge must still approve any parenting plan, but such consent is usually granted when the parties work out the details among themselves. No judge wants to wade into complicated questions about custody if it can be avoided. But there are cases where the parents simply cannot agree on a parenting plan. If that is the case, the judge may refer the parties to Family Court Services (FCS), a mediation program offered by the California superior courts that can help parents reach an agreement.
Mediation is not litigation or arbitration. A mediator will not impose a parenting plan or try to convince the parties to reach a particular decision. Instead, the mediator is there to listen to both sides and guide their own discussion. Mediation allows both parents to address each other in a confidential environment without interference from attorneys or other outside parties.
Mediation may not always result in an agreement. In some cases, that means a judge will have to decide how to divide custody and visitation rights. The parents may also pursue other methods of dispute resolution aside from FCS mediation. The parents can hire their own mediator to continue negotiations. They can hire attorneys to conduct out-of-court negotiations. In some California counties, they may even be able to meet with another judge or attorney not involved with the case who can provide an outside perspective.
There are also cases where mediation may simply not be a viable option because there are allegations of domestic abuse or one of the parents does not wish to meet alone with the other. Family Court Services can suggest options in such cases. But it is important to remember that mediators do not serve the same function as attorneys. If a parent needs legal advice, he or she should hire an attorney to represent their interests alone.