In California, the law requires that all disputes regarding child custody and visitation must first go to mediation before being brought before a family law judge. Obviously, if there are emergencies, such as recent incidents of child abuse, a family law judge will make temporary emergency orders as soon as possible, but otherwise, the case must first go to mediation.
The CA family courts therefore offer free custody mediation services, and it's the hope of the family law judges that parents will resolve their differences and reach agreements in mediations. It is important to note that many of the courts in CA allow the mediators to make recommendations to the judges if the parents don't reach agreements, and the judges will consider those recommendations in issuing child custody orders. The mediator's recommendation to the judge is presumably based upon the children's best interests. It is also very important to note that the family law judges rely rather heavily on the recommendations of the mediators. If a mediator recommends to a judge that a child should live with the father, for example, it is very likely that the judge will accept that recommendation and make it his order. The mother can contest the mediator's recommendation, but it is an uphill battle.
So, the outcome of custody mediation is very important. Despite the importance of mediation, I typically explain to my clients that the free mediation services provided by the family court are somewhat of an assembly line process. The mediators who serve in this capacity, while qualified mental health professionals, only have so much time for each case, usually no more than a couple of hours, and you can only do so much in a couple of hours. So, if there is a long, complicated history between the parents as it relates to child custody (abuse, drugs, drinking, violating prior custody orders), those parents are likely going to feel that the mediator didn't give them enough time, pay enough attention, get the facts right, or was perhaps even a bit surly.
There are alternatives to the free mediation services provided by the family court, however. Many mental health professionals offer their services as private mediators, and if the parents agree to a private mediator, the family law judge will appoint that private mediator to the case. You will have to pay for the services of a private mediator, but that mediator will put in the time you feel needs to be put in to your case (since you'll be paying for it), and is far more likely to address the issues you feel needs to be addressed, as opposed to the free mediation services provided by the court. The private mediator may also make recommendations to the judge in the event the parents still can't agree to a custody schedule, but this really depends on the the scope of the agreement between the parents when agreeing to private mediation to begin with. If the parents agree to private mediation, but don't agree that the mediator can make recommendations to the judge, then that mediator will not be able to make recommendations to the judge.
I offer my services as a mediator, and can help mediate child custody issues, but my mediations are entirely confidential. I am not a mental health professional-- my services as a mediator are based significantly upon my experience with the courts as a family law attorney-- and so I do not make custody recommendations to the family courts. If you reach an agreement on a custody schedule however, I can draft that agreement up, and help you submit that to the court. Additionally, I can mediate issues other than child custody, such as child support, spousal support, and property division. The mental health professionals offering private mediation only do child custody.
Other alternatives to the free mediation services provided by the courts or private mediation, are custody evaluations. Custody evaluations are typically referred to as 3111 evaluations or 730 evaluations. 3111 refers to Family Code Section 3111 which allows a judge to appoint a custody evaluator. 730 refers to Evidence Code Section 730 which allows a judge to appoint an expert to a case who is to investigate an issue and make a report to the judge. Evidence Code Section 730 doesn't specifically refer to expert custody evaluators, but it is understood in the family court that when a judge orders a 730 evaluation, it is a custody evaluation.
Without getting into too much detail about the practical differences between 3111 custody evaluations and 730 evaluations, I will just say that 730 evaluations are usually more costly, involve psychological testing, and are more comprehensive. Whether or not it's pursuant to 3111 or 730, custody evaluations are for the more difficult, high conflict custody cases. They are used to address issues such as child abuse, drug abuse, parental alienation, or when one parent wants to move away (relocate) with the children.
Have more questions? Contact the Law Offices of Evan Samuelson now for an initial consultation.