In every divorce where there is an issue of child custody and visitation and the parents cannot agree on a custody or visitation schedule, the family law court is required by California Law to have the parties attend a mediation session prior to having their case heard by the judge.
The mediation is conducted by a trained professional who specialize in custody and visitation matters. Financial matters are not discussed during mediation. Generally only the parties are allowed to participate and attorneys are not allowed to be part of the process.
The purpose of the mediation is to give each parent a chance to discuss their differences about custody and visitation and to try to resolve them. The session can last up to two hours. The goal is to have the parties develop their own plan about their children. The parents make the decisions and the mediator is there to assist the parties with their decision making process. The mediator can provide ideas and information about the social, emotional, and psychological needs of the children. It is the goal to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children. It is usually better for the parties to reach an agreement where they know all of the terms of their agreement as compared to letting a judge make a decision, which may not please either parent.
All meetings with the mediator are confidential. Anything said to the mediator cannot be repeated in court. The mediator cannot take sides and will not testify in court about the mediation session. The mediator may meet with both parents together or may meet with one separately. Sometimes during the sessions, the mediator meets both jointly and separately with the parents.
Finally, during these meetings as emotions can be high, the parties must be respectful to each other and communicate in a proper manner.
The parents have responsibilities during this mediation session. The first and most important responsibility is to do what is best for the children. Treating each other with respect at the mediation and all times is a major step in doing what is right. Additionally, at mediation, the parents should be prepared to offer solutions or suggestions as to how a parenting plan or visitation schedule can be developed for the parties. Each family is unique and the parenting plan created for one family may not be the best plan for another family. The mediator will be able to assist the parties in developing a plan that is right for that family.
It is important to know that all decisions that are made in mediation are voluntary. If an agreement is reached, the mediator will record the terms of the agreement and ask the parties to sign it. The parties then have ten days to think about the agreement (and discuss it with their attorney) before it becomes official. This agreement is for the current status of the parties and can be modified as the children get older and situations change. Also the agreement can be made on certain parenting issues and other parenting issues on which an agreement cannot be reached can be referred to the court for its decision.
The agreement, or parenting plan can be as simple or detailed as the parties want. The Plan can discuss how decisions about the children will be made and when each party will be responsible for the children. It should be based upon the needs of each child, the child's age, and the needs of the parents. The Plan can include daily, weekly or monthly schedules as well as vacation and holiday schedules.
Experience has shown that it is usually better to reach an agreement where both parties have participated in developing a parenting plan and know its terms as opposed to letting the court dictate a plan where neither parent knows what the court will rule.