This article continues my series on the various agencies that one encounters in a Family Law proceeding beyond the Court, itself.
Last week, I stressed the importance of the Family Court Services (FCS) recommendation (in “recommending counties”). It is the opportunity to quickly and cheaply resolve a custody/visitation fight–or a chance for your whole case to unravel. Here are tips on how to make the most of your all-important appointment with FCS.
Firstly, understand that your FCS mediator/counselor has already seen hundreds if not thousands of couples before you. With only 30-90 minutes of interview time to determine the best arrangement to accommodate the interests of the minor child(ren), the counselor is inclined (if not compelled) to pigeonhole your case very quickly in the context of what she/he has seen before. That means you have to quickly frame your case in a way that gets you in the right pigeonhole–or makes it clear why your case is something new.
FCS’ default positions are to recommend that the parties share the minor children as close to equally as possible or to preserve the status quo that exists on the day of the appointment. If either of those are what you want, your goals will be easier to achieve.
It used to be that FCS would look at your previously-filed declarations; this is no longer the case. Now, you submit an FCS Data Sheet (form FCS-002) with the bare essentials of your situation. Take advantage of the little space that is provided so that your mediator/counselor has a good idea of what is happening in your case and what you want out of the appointment.
One of the biggest challenges you will face is working with your spouse/partner. You are both going through a divorce, probably painfully, and the future of your children is at stake. Your first instinct will be to get the story out your way and to undercut the other side. Don’t. The mediator/counselor will not let either party take control of the appointment. Instead, be calm and don’t rush. Get your story out in a concise manner, but don’t exclude important details. Explain why the current situation is ideal or unsustainable.
It is exceptionally important to take ownership of the custody/visitation situation. FCS doesn’t like to hear that a current crisis is all the fault of the other party (even if that is largely true). Avoid talking about how wonderful you are and how awful the other party is. Their actions will speak for themselves. If the other party says something vile about you, don’t counter-attack. Say you understand the stress motivating his/her statement and then explain the context behind the statement so the mediator/counselor understands what is really going on.
The most important factor to keep in mind and to emphasize when talking to FCS is the best interests of the children. Don’t just tell the mediator/counselor that your children miss you or that you want to see them more–these are standard arguments, and they won’t sway FCS. Don’t express the children’s preference as to with whom they want to live. If it is appropriate, FCS can interview the child(ren) and get their preference first-hand. It is very important that you do not indicate to FCS that you have talked to the child(ren) about their preference. That sets up loyalty conflicts, and it can make you look like an alienator. All it takes is one warning sign for a mediator/counselor to put you in an unfavorable pigeonhole.
Money is often an issue when deciding on a visitation agreement because the amount paid in child support is strongly tied to the access time share of the parties. Avoid discussing percentages or using the term “50/50.” That makes it sound as if your primary concern is money. If something close to “50/50” is what you really want, use the phrase, “equal partner.” If your partner seems fixated on percentages, you can explain to FCS that you understand that money is an issue for your partner, but it is more important that the children’s best interests are served.
When presenting your case for your ability to care for the child(ren), it is important to to talk about what you are capable of doing at that moment. FCS is more interested in the situation as it exists rather than possibilities, so if you say that you plan on changing your hours or getting a bigger place to facilitate access, that will be less compelling than stating that you have already done so.
Keep uppermost in your mind that the FCS mediator/counselor wants to help. Treat him/her with respect and patience. If the mediator/counselor makes a suggestion, and it is contrary to what you want, don’t reject it out of hand; express your concerns regarding its implemenatation. If you have already tried what FCS recommends, explain how it didn’t work.
Finally, don’t worry about coming off as “coached,” if you are trying too hard to keep all of these factors uppermost in your mind. If your mediator/counselor makes this observation, let him/her know that you recognize the importance of the meeting and that you approached the meeting with the same thoroughness that you approach everything involving your children (school, doctors, etc.). You just want what is best for the child(ren).
Next post, I’ll talk about what you can do if the FCS recommendation is undesirable.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes and it should not be relied on as legal advice. An attorney-client relationship is not formed by reading the information on this site and can only be formed by a written agreement that sets forth the scope of the relationship and the fee arrangement. There is no substitute for expert legal assistance. If you need representation, schedule a consultation with the Barefoot team.