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Child Custody & Family Law

PLANNING FOR SAFER CHILD CUSTODY EXCHANGES

On January 15, 2013, thousands of child custody exchanges took place throughout the country, as moms or dads transferred physical possession of their kids to an ex-spouse for visitation and co-parenting time.  Dozens and dozens of those exchanges likely took place here in Kentucky, and virtually all of them were carried out safely and without incident.

But one exchange made headlines when it was stained by deadly violence.

That evening, in Hazard, a man was returning his two-year-old son to the boy’s mother after exercising court-ordered visitation.  During the exchange, the man opened gunfire toward the mother and the car in which she was traveling.  The mother and both of the other occupants in that vehicle died of their wounds.  In the end, three lives were taken, and the life of the young boy who survived has been immeasurably altered.

Some saw the shooting at Hazard Community College through the lens of the current gun control debate.  But to those of us in family law circles, the incident shows the importance of revisiting how parents, their lawyers, and courts hearing custody cases can plan for safer child custody exchanges.

For moms and dads with co-parenting arrangements, having strong guidelines in place to help ensure safe child custody exchanges is as fundamental a parenting responsibility as placing kids in car safety seats or bicycle helmets.  Fortunately, finding strategies to make those exchanges safer is no more complicated than buckling a car seat or a bike helmet strap.

“No Contact” Exchanges

Perhaps the safest form of a child custody exchange is a “no contact” exchange.  This method allows the kids to transfer from one parent to the other without the parents having to be in the same place at the same time.  A common example of a “no contact” exchange finds dad dropping-off the kids at school in the morning, and mom picking-up the kids from school at day’s end.  When it is time to return custody, the process is simply reversed.

The “no contact” exchange is particularly well-suited when school-aged kids are involved, but can also work with pre-schoolers and toddlers.  Rather than taking place at a school, the exchange can be configured to occur via a day care center, baby-sitter’s home, or even the residence of a trusted friend or relative.

Once a “no contact” exchange is designed, it is important to stress to the school, care provider or friend/relative that a specific schedule has been adopted by agreement of the parents and by court order.  Each parent should only be allowed to pick-up the kids on the days called for in the schedule, and the third parties with whom the kids are temporarily placed should assure strict compliance with such arrangements.  With attentive cooperation from the school, care provider, or friend/relative, concerns over the risk of parental kidnapping are reduced.

“Highly Public Place” Exchanges

When a “no contact” exchange is not feasible, the next best option is one occurring in a “highly public place” such as a store, restaurant, or even a crowded parking lot.  The presence of large numbers of other people can be an effective deterrent to misconduct or threatening behavior.  At a minimum, a crowd presents a number of potential witnesses to any disruption that takes place.  Most modern stores and parking lots are equipped with multiple cameras, providing additional “witnesses” when necessary.  Some places even have security guards on premises, and an exchange taking place in the vicinity of a guard carries with it some additional measure of safety and security.

“Police Station” Exchanges

If yet a higher level of structured security is required beyond the “highly public place” option, it may be worthwhile to consider conducting the exchange at an area police station or sheriff’s office.  In most instances, law enforcement cannot, for valid reasons, commit an officer to monitor each and every custody exchange.  Still, having police in the immediate vicinity naturally serves as an increased deterrent to criminal conduct, whether it be threatening communications or actual assault or battery.  It also assures that there is a fast response from law enforcement if, despite this deterrence, the exchange escalates toward domestic violence.

Whatever method of custody exchange is developed, it is critically important that the plan be made part of the official child custody and visitation order issued by the judge overseeing the case.  Mom and dad must be fully aware of the details of their obligations regarding drop-offs and pick-ups, and the kids involved should be reassured they will be safe and sound during the exchanges.

Parents must take every opportunity to do what is best for their kids, including during a custody exchange.  Therefore, it is obviously unwise to use the exchange as an opportunity to discuss pending legal issues or disputes.  Any communication should be strictly limited to conveying information about the current health and welfare of the kids involved – – “Jason has had a runny nose all day” or “Elizabeth has a quiz at school tomorrow” are two such examples.  Concerns relating to any legal proceeding are best left for the courtroom or the mediation table, to be handled by lawyers and judges outside the presence of the kids.

Regrettably, as news reports occasionally demonstrate, even the safest custody exchange plan can be overcome by a person determined to inflict harm on those present.  Even if it is not possible to fully prevent such occurrences, thoughtful planning by parents and their lawyers can help to significantly reduce the chances that a violent episode disrupts a custody exchange.

Disclaimer

This article presents only general information. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Reading this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.  This article originally appeared in the March 2013 edition of SOKY Happenings.