Custody mediation can be a dress rehearsal for a court-ordered child-custody evaluation, because if the case is not settled in mediation, an evaluation could be next. Mediation can help parents dig themselves out of entrenched positions, get them to evaluate their goals, and help them develop a child-centered parenting plan that will promote the best interests of their children.
The mediator's job is to reduce acrimony and get the parties to agree to a custody and visitation arrangement. If that process comes to a halt, they can at least prepare the parents for what an evaluator will want to know.
An evaluator in the State of California, where we work, will want to hear about the parental history: when the parents met, when the parents' relationship became serious, when the parents began living together, when the parents got married, when the parents first separated, the total number of separations, the date of the last separation, and whether and when couples or family counseling was ever done.
The evaluator will also ask about grandparents, the parents’ siblings, extended family. And about any other minor children in the households. The mediator will definitely ask about the parents’ drug and alcohol history, and if there is any history of domestic abuse.
And then the evaluator will ask how the parents shared custody during the separation. And what current parenting plan they are using.
Here are the red flags that an evaluator will be looking for:
• The parents offering different dates about when the relationship became serious, or different explanations of current parenting plans.
• Inability to identify troubling aspects of the relationship, even in retrospect.
• Insistence on dwelling in the past, and painting one parent as the transgressor.
• Glossing over or dismissing traumatizing history.
• Inability to put the situation in perspective by recognizing unresolved issues from childhood.
Parents should always present themselves as reasonable, articulate, and flexible. They should cooperate with the evaluator, tell the truth, and focus on the children's best interests. They should not:
Strong feelings may come up, including anger, despair and fear, but they must speak convincingly for themselves.
When it comes time to develop a parenting plan, there may be a range of choices from the best-case scenario and maximum time with the child down to what could be deemed a “nightmare the parent can live with.”
There are red flags in the parenting proposals as well:
• Plans that are not well thought-out or fail to recognize the realities of their lifestyles
• Plans that don't take into perspective the child's point of view and developmental needs
• Plans that aren't based in reality, like starting parenting duties at 3:00 pm when the parent works until 6:00 pm.
It is important that parents stick with the present, and not discuss a drinking history when the person has stopped drinking. They should list present facts, like attending AA, parenting classes or going to anger-management therapy.
And they should be prepared for what the other parent might claim is their weakness – and then give examples of how this has been dealt with.
Red-flag issues include:
• Negative attitudes
• Failing to recognize any positive qualities in the other parent
• Claiming that the other parent can do little or nothing to repair the damage
• Lack of perspective on the client's own role in the conflict
• Perceiving no room for improvement by the other parent.
Tara Fass, LMFT, is a child custody mediator and has served as an evaluator with the Los Angeles Superior Court Conciliation Court. Diana Mercer is an attorney-mediator and founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services. Diana is also the coauthor of Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce (Fireside, 2001).
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