Your options for enforcing a child custody agreement depend on whether a court approved your plan. If a judge issued or approved your custody agreement, it has the strength of a court order. That means the agreement is legally binding on both parents and violations will be easier to prove, correct, and sometimes even punish.
Enforcement If You Don’t Have a Court Order
Without a court order, police or the courts can enforce your custody agreement only if you believe your child is in immediate danger. If that is ever the case, don’t wait to call the local police or the child abduction unit at the county district attorney’s office.
If your child is safe, consider whether you can negotiate with the other parent reach an agreement that works better for everyone. Then consider asking a judge to turn your parenting agreement into a detailed, enforceable court order. For resources to help you negotiate an agreement that you can take to a judge, see Get Help Creating a Parenting Agreement.
To find your local court, see the Santa Barbara County family law court page.
Enforcing a Child Custody and Visitation Order
If you have a court-ordered parenting agreement, you have more options for getting the other parent to follow it. Your first two choices are those discussed just above: negotiate with the other parent or, if matters are urgent, call the police or district attorney’s office. But you can also report the other parent’s actions (or inactions) to the judge. This section focuses on going back to court.
Will Police Enforce a Child Custody Order?
This is a common question, but it doesn’t have a clear answer. What happens depends on the police. Technically, if you have a court order that prohibits or requires certain actions, like dropping them off at home on a given day at a particular time, then the police are legally allowed to enforce the order. In practice, however police officers are often reluctant to get involved in family matters unless the custody or visitation violation rises to the level of a crime like child abuse or kidnapping. If the other parent is several hours late bringing the kids home or you have other concerns for their safety, trust your instincts and call the police immediately. Depending on the situation, the officer may direct you back to court, but if you do end up in front of a judge again, you will at least have the police report to help you make your case.
Should you take your complaints to court?
Before you file a court action, take some time to think things through. Remember that a judge will always be most interested in what's best for the kids. If you want to go to court because your ex is irritating you and you want the judge to punish them, spending hundreds of dollars on a court visit may not get the results you want. Ask yourself a few questions before you move ahead:
- Could you negotiate with the other parent to get better compliance without going to court?
- Is it possible that changing the agreement is the best solution for everyone?
- Could you bring in a trusted friend, family member, or professional mediator to help you sketch out a new plan? (Again, here are some resources to help you make a parenting plan.)
If your honest answers to these questions are no, no, and no—and the custody violations are severe—that’s what the judge is there for. Serious custody violations include:
- frequently missing visitation exchanges
- a chronic pattern of showing up late or early
- interfering with your visitation time
- not taking the kids to school, to the doctor, or to court-ordered counseling sessions, or
- abusing alcohol or drugs in front of the kids (or using in any way that compromises the ability to care for them).
Keep Good Records of Custody and Visitation Violations
If you think you may have to go back to court, make sure you keep clear records of all custody order violations. Write them down on a calendar or keep a detailed journal, including dates, times, and a description of the problem. Keep copies of any police reports or other papers, including copies of emails or phone records, that will help you prove your points at a court hearing. When you have enough documentation to show a clear pattern of violation, you can ask a judge for help.
Asking a judge to revise or enforce your custody order
If you feel strongly that the custody order violations are severe and you have enough documentation to make your case, it may be time to go back to court. Think carefully about whether you wish to go it alone or whether you need the help of a lawyer. You may at least want to consult a good family law attorney before you take action or, if you are sure you can’t afford a lawyer, reach out to your local legal aid office for support. For help finding legal assistance, see How to Get a Lawyer for Your Child Custody Case.
Unless you want to pursue your complaint as a criminal matter (discussed below), the judge will likely do one or more of the following:
- reaffirm or adjust your parenting plan, including changing who has physical or legal custody if necessary
- give you extra days to make up for any time you’ve lost with the kids
- direct the other parent to pay your court costs and any lawyer’s fees.
To read California’s law about modifying custody arrangements, see California Family Code Sections 3087 and 3088.
For more information, read California self-help information on modifying child custody or visitation orders.
Asking a judge to hold the other parent in contempt of court
When you ask a judge to hold the other parent in “contempt,” you are not only asking the judge to enforce or change your custody order; you are asking the court to find that the other parent purposefully disobeyed the court order, which is a crime. A finding of contempt can have severe consequences, including time in jail.
Consider carefully whether an action for contempt will best serve your children in the long run and get some legal advice before you choose this path. Unless the violations are repeated and severe enough to put your children at risk, it’s more likely that the judge will act as outlined in the section above, reaffirming or adjusting your custody order and perhaps requiring the other parent to pay your court costs and lawyer’s fees.
To get a contempt finding, you must usually file a court document called a "motion for an order to show cause." That puts the burden on the parent who isn't following the custody or visitation order to explain to the court the reasons why he or she should not be held in contempt. To learn more, read California information about enforcing child custody and visitation orders.
If You’re Worried About Child Abduction or Kidnapping
If you think your child’s other parent may try to kidnap your child, follow these recommendations from the U.S. Department of State:
- Keep a list of the addresses and telephone numbers of the other parent’s relatives, friends, and acquaintances, including those in other states and countries
- Keep a record of important information about the other parent. If possible, include a physical description, vehicle description with license plate number, and Social Security, Driver’s License, passport, and bank account numbers.
- Write down full descriptions of your children, including hair and eye color, height, recent weight, and any special physical characteristics. Consider having them fingerprinted.
- Keep recent, full-face color photographs of your children and, if possible, the other parent.
Also, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) recommends that you teach your kids to:
- use the telephone
- memorize your home phone number
- practice making collect calls, and
- call home immediately if anything unusual happens.
For help, NCMEC offers a 24-hour hotline: 1-800-843-5678. You can also visit the Department of State’s website to find a list of California resources for preventing or responding to child abduction.
To find your local family court and more child custody self-help resources, see the Santa Barbara County family law court page.