Child Custody and Mediation
FAMILIES DON'T END... SOMETIMES MARRIAGES DO.
Mediation is playing an expanded role in the resolution of child custody and visitation disputes in Fairfax Circuit Court.
The primary motivation for instituting mediation of custody and visitation disputes, is to reduce the emotional and monetary costs borne by the parties and their children when custody is litigated. Our judges and court believe that mediation is the preferred method for addressing custody disputes.
The court believes that early resolution of custody issues benefits the children in divorcing families, by providing stability early in the process. Fairfax Circuit Court also believes that early resolution of custody benefits the parents by taking out of contention an issue which is among the most emotional and difficult to litigate. Most parents would agree that they would not want a stranger to determine the outcome of their children's lives. Early disposition of custody simplifies divorce litigation, leaving generally only the division of property and the establishment of spousal support for trial.
Other possible methods for mediation that are being explored by Fairfax include mediation of child support.
The parties who expect to litigate custody in conjunction with divorce proceedings are scheduled to appear before a judge for a status conference approximately 100 days after the case is filed. Currently two Judges, namely Judge Smith and Judge Jamborsky, conduct these mediation status conferences. Beginning in August 1996, Judge Keith and Judge Roush will also be conducting the mediation status conferences. Before meeting with the judge, the parties are required to review a 30 minute film "Don't Forget the Children" which briefly explores the issue of custody and the impact of divorce and custody litigation on the children. This film was produced by the Dallas Young Lawyers Association and is quite well received by both the parents and the attorneys.
The film also orients the parties to the process of mediation. With few exceptions, all custody litigants must participate in the mediation program of our court before they can proceed to trial. The only exceptions made are in those cases in which abuse-drug or alcohol, child or spousal sexual abuse is alleged, or in which there is a genuine threat of kidnapping. Also if one of the parties do not live within the area, mediation is not recommended.
A trial date is assigned in the event the parties do not reach an agreement 5 months from the status conference. Also at that time, a stipulation conference is ordered among counsel and parties at 130 days from the status conference, and a mediation report is due at 100 days from the conference.
Mediation is preferred in Fairfax Circuit Court because it gives the parties a chance to participate and control the outcome of their lives.
The court also believes that mediating custody disputes will be less costly emotionally and monetarily than litigating them.
The parties themselves must commit to making a good faith effort to mediate the dispute. Most parties require 5 to 6 sessions to mediate and reach agreement. When agreement is reached, the case is taken off the trial docket and the agreement becomes binding on the parties and part of the court's order. The mediation sessions are held in strict confidentiality, the court is not advised of anything that transpires there except the refusal to cooperate or complete the process. Currently our Fairfax Circuit Court uses the Northern Virginia Mediation Service in conjunction with George Mason University as well as other state approved mediators, many of whom are attorneys who conduct mediation on the side.
Additionally, the Court refers parents to The Northern Virginia Family Service Program. The NVFS "Children Cope With Parental Separation" is an educational program which focuses on the experience of divorce as seen through a child's eyes.
The four hour seminar covers topics such as
How children experience divorce
Age and developmental factors and how they should influence planning for custody and visitation
Skills to help children cope
Recognizing the signs when a child is in trouble
How parents can get support and access community resources for assistance.
The program is available generally to anyone. To obtain
information about the program, call (703) 533-9797. NVFS has offices in
Alexandria, Baileys Crossroads, Dale City, Herndon, Falls Church and Leesburg.
Most child custody and visitation disputes are resolved without the need for court intervention. Good lawyers, mediators and concerned parents seek the best interests of the children in attempting to resolve custody disputes with civility and compassion. Every case does not settle out of court. Of the cases that end up being tried, many involve allegations of physical or mental cruelty.
Overall, child custody and visitation mediation is a very worthwhile alternative to costly litigation and seems to be truly working in the Fairfax Circuit Court.