Parenting Time Interference

In an ideal world, disagreements involving parents would be resolved amicably between the adults without involving the child. In many custody cases, however, parenting issues can result in parenting time interference.

When parents separate or divorce, the family court will address custody rights and parenting time. Parenting time can also be referred to as visitation time. Unmarried parents who do not reside together with their minor children also face these same issues. If an unmarried father establishes paternity, he can also seek court orders on child custody and parenting time.

Parental time interference occurs when a parent actively disrupts another's allotted time with their child. In some cases, this can rise to a civil contempt of court action or criminal charges.

This article describes parenting time interference. It includes a discussion of potential consequences and remedies.

What Is Parenting Time Interference?

When two parents share custody of a child, they will often create a parenting time agreement. This may be called a shared parenting plan or custody agreement. Even when custody remains with one parent, the parents may enter into a parenting plan or visitation agreement.

If the parents never go to court, their agreement remains informal. In other words, there is no actual custody order issued by a court.

When a parent believes that the child's other parent has violated an informal parenting plan, there are limited ways to address the issue. The parents can meet and try to work out their differences. They may hire a mediator to assist them. The first time they disagree about an informal plan may often lead to legal action in court for formal legal rights of custody and parenting time.

The process of deciding and issuing a formal custody order and setting the parenting time schedule can take several months. The court will review any proposed agreement or weigh the evidence presented in a contested case. The court will determine whether any proposed plan or schedule is in the best interest of the child.

Each state sets forth standards for custody cases. This may include a list of factors the court must consider in determining the best interest of the child.

If the parents have already litigated before the family court, then the court either adopted their agreed parenting time schedule or issued one for them in a court order. The court-ordered parenting time schedule then becomes key to their disagreement or discussion going forward.

The parenting time schedule should clearly state the regular time each week that the child is with each parent. It should also include a schedule for holidays, vacations, and other days of special meaning.

Parenting time interference occurs when a parent denies or obstructs the other parent's court-ordered parenting time. This can occur directly or indirectly.

Direct Parenting Time Interference

Direct interference with parenting time can take many forms. In the most drastic cases, one parent may physically prevent the other parent from seeing the child. The offending parent may take the child without permission outside their scheduled time. The parent may refuse to return the child at the appropriate time. The parent may move the child to another state or country in violation of a court order. Direct interference may also include "cancelling" the other parent's visitation time.

Unless the court-ordered parenting plan or schedule provides an exception, denial of parenting time may be seen as a violation of the court order. Sometimes, a parent claims a right to deny time if the other parent has not paid child support. Courts may see this as parenting time interference.

Generally, courts view the legal issue of parenting time as separate and distinct from child support. A child has the right to a healthy and productive relationship with each parent.

Parents do not always have a realistic idea of what may cause a court to suspend the other parent's parenting time. If a parent believes there are good reasons to modify the parenting time order, they need to file a motion in court. They should consider getting legal advice before making any unilateral changes to the parenting time schedule. Only the court can change the parenting time schedule when the parties do not agree.

Indirect Parenting Time Interference

A parent's visitation time can be interfered with in indirect ways as well. For example, a parent may interfere with the other parent's rights by disrupting communication between the other parent and the child. Refusing to allow a child to make a phone call to the non-custodial parent can constitute unacceptable interference. In a similar way, preventing a parent from participating in a child's school or extracurricular activities may amount to visitation interference.

Indirect interference with parenting time may include disparaging or talking badly about the other parent in the child's presence. It can involve asking the child to report on or "spy" on the parent's personal life. Some parents may coach the child to "refuse" visits with the other parent. Parents who take such steps assume a great risk. A parent that does not make a child available for parenting time with the other parent can be found in contempt of court.


What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

When seeking custody of their child, some parents attempt to alienate their child from the other parent. Parental alienation is a tactic wherein one parent attempts to turn the child against the other parent via manipulation. "Parental alienation syndrome" refers to a mental health condition of a child who refuses to see or interact with one of the parents.

For example, a father claims that a mother's angry comments about the father have "programmed" the child against him. The syndrome describes the child's unreasonable behavior of refusing contact with the father. Some psychologists see the syndrome at work only in cases where there is no legitimate basis for abuse or neglect by the targeted parent. Some claim the child is suffering from emotional abuse by the alienating parent who is seeking to deny the other parent's visitation rights.

Some mental health experts may refer to the alienating parent's conduct as malicious parent syndrome. However, it's important to understand that neither parental alienation syndrome nor malicious parent syndrome is formally recognized by the medical or psychological community as a mental disorder.

Alienating behaviors and their impact on children are often brought up in contentious divorces and custody proceedings. Such behaviors have been extensively studied and documented. They may influence court decisions on custody arrangements.

What Remedies Are Available for Parenting Time Interference?

When a parent does not comply with the other parent's court-ordered parenting time, the other parent can pursue different remedies.

Civil Remedies

When the incident is isolated or a one-time occurrence, the parties may agree to informally make up time elsewhere on the calendar. Sometimes, parties will find that the court-ordered schedule no longer aligns with their work schedules or the child's schedule of activities.

In such situations, the parties may elect to see a mediator. A mediator can assist the parties in achieving a new agreed schedule. Either party can then file a motion in court requesting that the court adopt the new schedule.

If the dispute centers on communication problems, the parents may agree to use a parenting communication tool. There are a variety of internet-based programs (paid and no cost) that may help. These programs often include a shared calendar for the child's school and activities, holidays, and vacations. The parents can also post information to each other regarding the child's health care appointments. They can post invoices for shared expenses like extracurricular activities.

Where the parents cannot agree on a resolution, the parent who lost time may file a civil contempt of court motion with the court that issued the custody order. The contempt motion must be served on the other parent. The court will schedule a hearing. Both sides can present evidence. If the court finds clear and convincing evidence that a parent violated the court order, it can set forth an appropriate remedy.

In a civil contempt case, the court will often order jail time or a fine. It may also require the losing parent to pay the other parent's attorney fees. The goal of civil contempt is to obtain compliance. So, the court will provide the offending party an opportunity to "purge" the contempt by taking remedial action.

If the offending party takes the remedial action, then jail time or fines will not be imposed. Common remedies to purge contempt may include:

  • "Make-up" parenting time within a certain time frame
  • Following the court-ordered schedule consistently for the purge period
  • Attending a parenting class or counseling
  • Enrolling and paying for both parents to use a parenting communication tool

If a parent who lost time also files a motion to modify the parenting time schedule, the court may consider whether adjusting the schedule would be in the child's best interest. Adjustments may include new provisions regarding transportation for parenting time. The plan may also require attempts at mediation within days after a dispute arises.

In cases where one or both parents engaged in alienating conduct, the court may prohibit the parties from talking badly about one another in front of the child.

Criminal Remedies

At what point does custodial interference become a crime? It depends on the circumstances and your state law. Many parents may use discretion before contacting law enforcement. They may elect to try other options, such as mediation and filing motions before the court that issued the custody order.

When there has been a history of domestic violence, advocates may recommend that a parent involve law enforcement more quickly in the process.

Many states designate interference with parental rights as a crime under certain circumstances. In California and Texas, for example, interference with custody can result in felony charges. In many states, such as Ohio, a first offense will be a misdemeanor. Subsequent offenses may be charged as felonies. In New York, custody interference is a misdemeanor. However, it will become a felony if the offender takes the child out of state or exposes the child to a safety or health risk.

If you contact the police, be prepared to present the officers with your current custody and visitation orders. An experienced attorney can provide you with legal advice specific to your state.

When a Lawyer Can Help

A family law attorney can help you draft a parenting agreement that meets your needs. Many parents clearly address the parenting time schedule. They may include provisions to address when a parent has an emergency or cannot pick a child up on time. They may also agree that legal disputes will first go to dispute resolution procedures such as mediation. This may reduce the parents' trips back to court when they disagree.

Concerned About Parenting Time Interference?

Contact an Attorney

There are times when one or both parents stop following a court-ordered parenting time schedule. There can be good reasons for occasional accommodations by the parents. However, when changes start to happen on a regular basis, it may be a case of parenting time interference.

If this is happening to you, there are many options available. You may decide to return to court to seek enforcement or modification of the court orders. You may consider contacting the police and treating the matter as a crime. Before you do so, you should consider meeting with a family law attorney to discuss your case.

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