What do you do if you are sued for custody of your children? If a friendly breakup turns ugly? If your kids' other parent disappears with them? If you suddenly have to sue for custody yourself?
Few life-crises are as emotionally taxing as a custody battle, so we asked family law attorney Linda French to walk us through the scary first steps parents should take when the fight for the kids gets nasty. Remember, many millions of us have survived psycho exes as well as the family law courts. Chances are, you will too. Instead of panicking, take a deep breath, and read on...
Calm down: Remind yourself "I can handle this." Then exhale.
Now determine whether or not you have a real emergency. Legally, your ex can't take the children away from you because you have wild sex, took drugs five years ago, or have purple hair. Forget what you saw on Divorce Court, the soaps, or the Movie of the Week.
Ask an expert for their opinion of your situation: Call information and get the number of your local Commission on the Status of Women or get the name of another respected women's organization from the phone book and ask them for the name of a good family law attorney in your area. Call for an appointment just for advice. Write your questions down as they occur to you so you do not forget them. Also ask what free family law services are available in your community. There may be free legal clinics to help you with paperwork. Many attorneys offer an initial consultation at a reasonable cost-- $50-$100.
Get court orders to deal with real emergencies: If you have a real emergency, such as your child was kidnaped, you need legal backup. An attorney can assist you in getting a court order that grants you immediate custody and forces the kidnapping parent to return the child. The police and the district attorney's office will help you to enforce your order.
Get help from others: Your emergency has happened before. The "system" is geared to handle emergencies. Go to the library and look for books on the subject. Look in the phone book for Battered Women's Shelters and other agencies to help out with resources and referrals.
Act now to avoid future emergencies: If there is no custody order, either parent can legally take a child for as long as they want and the other must get an order to get the child back. If you were never married, you can get a custody order by filing a court action (in some states this is a Complaint to Establish Parental Relationship). Establishing a legal parental relationship has its pros and cons; by taking the matter to court, shared custody or visitation may be established where there was none. You'll need to decide if your child is at risk without a custody order or if you should leave well enough alone.
If you were married, the husband is assumed to be the father. You can file for divorce or legal separation and get custody orders. In some states you can get a custody order before filing an action for exclusive custody. In any case, make sure the custody order spells out where the child will be and when, so that the police can enforce it if necessary. The police cannot enforce an order that says "reasonable visitation."
If your child is over four months old, get her fingerprints and store them in a safe place.
If you fear parental kidnapping, talk to your child's teachers, babysitters, and relatives about the situation. Take your child to and from school. Teach your child vital safety information: their address, how to use a pay phone, etc.
Linda French is a family law attorney practicing in Santa Rosa, California.