S.P.A.R.C. Separated Parenting Access & Resource Center
"Keeping Families Connected"
Tips for Parents Seeking Custody
by Vince Regan
Generally speaking, there are some concrete things you can do when seeking custody of your kids that will better your chances. Note that doing these things has to become a "way of life" and must be sincere. By that, I mean you cannot merely approach them as a huge strategy that you execute only in an effort to get custody and forget about later on.
1. Educate yourself about the custody factors and process within your state. Nearly every state has a list of criteria in the state law that is used to determine custody. Find that list and research each item point by point. Factors might include: A.) The child's adjustment to his or her home, school, and community. B.) The love and affection and other emotional ties existing between the child and each parent. And the list goes on…….
2. Take the criteria you've identified above and see where you now stand and how you can impact it. This means looking at each point and honestly evaluating your strengths and weaknesses as they relate to that point. Your goal must be to build upon your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses.
3. You must document where you are and where you are going! This is critical and means you must write down notes about each point in the criteria. It wouldn't be uncommon to have several pages of notes about each point when you are done. The notes should include your thoughts on the specific criteria. Let's say it's from point "A" in number one above: "The child's adjustment to his or her home, school, and community. Your notes would elaborate on each of the three points within that item—notes on adjustment to home, notes on adjustment to school, and notes on adjustment to the community.
4. Evaluate your positives and seek factual information to back up your position. Take the strengths you have listed and seek ways to verify those strengths. If a strength for you is your involvement in your child's school, for example, then come up with ways to illustrate that to others. The goal is to be factual and objective. Below are sources of information, some factual and objective, and comments on their usefulness.
a. Concrete Evidence. This would include items you can touch that show your strengths in a given area. Using the school example above you must think of concrete things that could show your involvement. It might be evidence of being on the school board or a school committee (like meeting minutes). It might be photos of you coaching a school sport. It might be a thank you note from a teacher for helping out with a class party or field trip. The list of concrete items that illustrate your involvement in your child's school could be many things. The example we are using is your involvement in your kids school, but this principle of concrete evidence can be applied to any of the criteria. Concrete Evidence is one of the strongest items you can present to influence the custody decision.
b. Independent Third Party Testimony. Don't be taken aback by the word "testimony." This is really nothing more than getting other people to describe how you rate on a given criteria from the list. The key is that they are "independent third party" people. These are people who have no real vested interest in the outcome of your custody situation. They can be teachers, doctors, childcare providers, neighbors, school counselors, community groups, coaches, and others. The goal is to get these individuals to provide information they know about you. Ideally, in writing and sometimes via verbal court testimony. Again, using the example of school involvement this might be asking a teacher to write a note about how you have never missed one of your child's conferences, or seeing if the school counselor would give verbal court testimony about your efforts to see that your kids emotional needs were being met. The examples are limited only by your unique situation and should be applied to the entire spectrum of the criteria to determine custody. The value of Independent Third Party Testimony is very high. These individuals provide great insights into you as a parent and can also be questioned regarding their opinion on the prospects of future successful single parenting on your part. Sometimes the toughest part can be approaching the individual doctor, teacher, counselor, etc and having a discussion requesting them to get involved. Don't skip this step, however, as it's invaluable.
c. Friends and Family. The best way to use friends and family are for emotional support and to have them help you with ideas on the previous two points. Too often, parents rely only on friends and family to provide their testimony on how you interact with your kids and then have them rate you on the criteria. It just doesn't pack much punch to have this input. Having a brother or parent who testifies you enjoy going into your child's school and reading to the class one day a month doesn't have the impact of having the kindergarten teacher make the same statement. Judges and caseworkers expect family and close friends to say great things about you and that's why the things family and friends say doesn't carry great weight. On the other hand—and this next idea is not as rare as it may sound—if you can get a family member or close friend of your soon-to-be ex to provide testimony to your strengths, then this is a great thing! Think about it—It's very compelling to have verbal testimony or written comments from your soon-to-be ex's parents about how much time you dedicate to coaching your kids sports or helping your child get their homework done. In summary, family is invaluable in the overall process of divorce or a custody dispute—especially from the emotional angle. Just don't give their willingness to testify too much weight.
d. Your input. This begins with the notes of your strengths and weaknesses completed earlier. With both the strengths and weaknesses you should be able to elaborate on various items listed. You should have thought through (and even written down in many cases) how you would respond to a weakness that you recognize or might be a perceived weakness brought up by the other party. So, in our example, maybe you've never been to your child's classroom. That is likely to be a weakness you recognize or might be brought up by the ex. What will your response be? It's important to have thought this through and to be ready to respond. Not being prepared might make you respond with a "Yes, I haven't been in my child's classroom." Being prepared might allow you to say "Yes, I haven't been in my child's classroom as my employer is pretty strict about time off during the day. I have generally called the teacher, Mrs. Johnson, during my lunch break once a week to touch base with her on my daughter's progress and I usually spend one night a week working on my daughter's school scrapbook as I go through papers she brings home from school." It's your input that insures you have accurately and thoroughly addressed each of the custody criteria in your state law. As you can see from reading this far, addressing each of the state custody criteria points with just your words and thoughts is not going to be enough! You must focus on concrete evidence, the input of independent third parties, and friends and family.
5. Act upon your weaknesses. Every action item up to this point focused on how to frame your strengths for greatest impact. At least as important as that is how you handle your weaknesses. If you had no weaknesses or areas needing improvement in relation to the criteria, then you likely haven't done an honest assessment of your situation.
Review your weaknesses to see where you can make an impact. Again, it must be a sincere desire to do what's best for your kids that drives you to action. Don't allow spite, revenge, anger, competition, or other unhealthy motives to cause you to attempt to be someone you really don't want to be. By this, I mean you may have weaknesses that you are aware of and have no intent of changing—either because you don't value the particular issue or because the changes that would be necessary run counter to whom you really are as an individual. For example some state law custody criteria can touch on religion. If you haven't been a particularly religious individual you could list this as a weakness for that criteria and work to build it into a strength. If you are adamantly set against religion you might list it as a weakness and also recognize it's not an issue you can act upon—meaning it remains a weakness with your knowledge.
So, how do you act upon weaknesses? Essentially you take the weakness—-and for our purposes we'll now say "involvement in your child's school" is a weakness—and you examine steps you can take to make it a strength. Calling and arranging a meeting with your child's teacher, principal, school counselor, or other staff might be a starting point. Find out from them how you can be more involved in your child's education. Writing a thank you note to each one you met with and keeping a copy will begin to provide concrete evidence as was mentioned above. Responses you get from teachers will add to that concrete evidence. Over time, as you demonstrate you are working to be more involved in the school environment you may find a teacher is willing to provide a letter, or even verbal testimony about your efforts. Now you've taken a known weakness and have turned it into a strength. And something as simple as school involvement can actually go from a weakness to a strength in just a few months if you really apply yourself.
Generally speaking then the goal is to determine action on weaknesses by looking at the desired end result. One end result is to make it a strength, of course. The two other major end results are to generate concrete evidence and independent third party verification of your efforts. Below is a short example of what this means.
The weakness: You are not very involved in your child's healthcare.
If the other parent has been the only one to bring your young child to the doctor for sickness, you need to take action. One action: Keep a closer eye on your child's health care. Let's say there is a case of diaper rash or diarrhea/dehydration—-pretty common with young kids and often treated with items you can buy at the store. I'd suggest you take the child to the doctor instead. One result: You have something concrete—doctor's instructions or receipt—of the visit and of your concern for you child's well-being from an independent third party. Second action: Check to see if your child needs immunizations and be the one to bring him/her for them. Second result: Immunizations are often overlooked by parents and seeing that your child is current on shots provides that concrete record, the immunization card, that you were involved in meeting this need. It shows you are responsible and plan for your kids needs. And the list of things regarding health care can go on an on from vision screenings to dental cleanings, etc…Think of the items that apply to healthcare and then make a plan to address them with a goal of your child's well-being, concrete evidence, and independent third party testimonies.
6. Communicate! Doing the previous five steps in a vacuum will not help you. Using solid legal counsel and a good therapist/counselor you need to communicate with them about the self-evaluation you have made and the actions you are working on. Your lawyer needs the information to build your case. Your mental health professional needs the information to gauge your progress on coping with your emotions and helping to hold you accountable when times get tough.
7. Educate/Reach Out. You've educated yourself about your state's criteria for custody and made a plan. Don't stop there. You'll need to learn about much more than custody alone as you travel the road of an ended relationship. You need to learn about courts, attorneys, state agencies, counseling services, and more. Finding an organization, like Responsible Single Fathers, that holds local educational meetings could likely prove very helpful. You achieve all of this by reaching out within your local community—saying you could use help in this area or that area and asking for help in locating services that can make a difference during this new stage of your life.
* Learn the applicable law.
* Evaluate yourself honestly.
* Make an informed plan.
* Work your plan.
* Communicate with others.
* Ask for help.
* Keep learning!