Professor of Practice, UNT Dallas College of Law
SPRING 2022 ISSUE:
If you are a teen stuck in the middle of a custody battle, you may be feeling overwhelmed and confused. At times, you might see people you love argue and put each other down. Other times you might feel like your voice is not being heard. You may experience changes in your living arrangements or your visitation schedule. You might also have strangers visit with you and ask you how you feel or be asked to start attend counseling. This article will tell you what you can expect and what you might want to know when about the legal process behind custody battles.
A child’s parents, certain caregivers, and courts have the ability to make decisions that affect the child. Although you may not think of yourself as a child, in Texas, persons under the age of 18 are considered children. In the most common situations, it is parents who have rights to make decisions over their kids, but sometimes there are unique circumstances when a grandparent or other loved one might be the person making decisions. This may include situations where parents are absent, have died, or left their kids in the care of someone other than a parent. It also includes situations when a government agency, commonly known as Child Protective Services (CPS), steps in because kids are not being properly cared for. In Texas, the Courts and judges that run the Courts can make decisions that impact children’s lives when their parents or caregivers cannot agree on what is best for the child. These decisions can range from who you are going to live with, what doctors you see, and where you will go to school.
When parents or caregivers cannot agree on what is best for you they can request, or petition, the court to decide for them. The judge will have a hearing or a trial where they receive documents and listen to witnesses. This proceeding is very similar to the court proceedings you see in the movies or TV shows. The witnesses are usually other adults who know you and your situation. Documents and witness testimony are called evidence. At the hearing, the judge reviews the evidence presented to the court and determines what is best for you. At the close of the hearing or trial, the judge will make a decision. That decision is then written down on paper and turned into a court order that sets out how your caregivers will make decisions about you in the future, should they not be able to come to an agreement. The decisions that judges make in these situations generally fall into the following categories:
Child Support, Medical Support and Dental Support
Family Violence, Abuse, and Neglect Findings
Injunctions and Standing Orders
Conservatorship involves your parent’s or caregiver’s rights to make decisions that affect you. These rights include where you live, what school you attend, and what kind of medical treatments you receive. In most cases, one parent is given the right to determine where you live. This is the parent you live with the majority of the time. Parents or caregivers share other decision-making powers unless your other parent has been absent or has done something violent or dangerous. In those instances, only one parent or caregiver will have the right to make decisions about you. When you and your parents or caregivers live in the same city, the court might also add a restriction to keep them from moving you away to another city or state without the other parent or caregiver’s permission. Conservatorship also dictates what rights parents and caregivers have to receive information about you, like your school or medical records.
Visitation involves when and how often you will see your parent’s or caregivers. In Texas, when caregivers don’t agree on a visitation schedule, courts usually order what is known as a “Standard Possession Order.” Under the standard order, you visit with your parent from the first, third, and fifth Friday of each month to the following Sunday. This means that when you look at a month on the calendar, your visits will start on the first, the third, and the fifth Friday of that month. An example is set out below
In the month of April 2022 your visits would be from April 1 to April 3, from April 15 to April 17, and from April 29 to May 1.
Under the standard schedule, you would also see your non-custodial parent every Thursday from 6pm to 8pm. For the holidays, your parents would rotate. One parent gets Thanksgiving and the other Christmas one year, then they switch the next year. During the summer, you visit with the other parent for one month. It is usually the month of July but this can change depending on your parent or caregiver’s plans. Parents and caregivers sometimes use a different schedule from the one set out above. This may occur when parents or caregivers have come to an agreement or when the circumstances of your family are so unique that a tailored schedule is best for you.
In Texas, the parent you do not live with will likely be ordered to pay money to the parent or caregiver that you live with to help cover expenses. This is called child support. They may also be required to pay additional amounts to cover medical and dental expenses. The amount that the parent has to pay is based on how much money they make and is calculated using a set mathematical formula. This formula was decided by our lawmakers, who determined it to be a fair amount for Texas families. The amount of child support is payable to the parent who cares for you. This money is owed to them as reimbursement for your expenses. There are sometimes misunderstandings about what the money can be used for and whether it belongs to the kids. In Texas, the money belongs to the parent or caregiver that the child lives with and they may spend it freely. They are not required to spend it on the kids or to give it to you.
Family Violence, Abuse, and Neglect Findings
Courts taken family violence into account when deciding what to do. This may include drug use, abandonment, criminal activity, and violent behavior. The Court will want to know and will make an indication whether or not any violence, abuse, or neglect has occurred in your case. Neglect can include behavior that puts you or other members of your family in harm’s way. It can also happen when a parent or caregiver does not meet their responsibilities towards you.
Below is a list of some of parent and caregiver’s responsibilities towards you:
(1) Provide you with a safe, healthy, and comfortable home in which you are treated with respect;
(2) Make sure you are free from physical, sexual, emotional, and other abuse;
(3) Keep from using any form of discipline that humiliates or demeans you;
(4) Provide you with adequate and healthy food;
(5) Give you access to a quality education; and
(6) Get you the medical, dental, vision, and mental health services you need.
If you or someone in your family is experiencing neglect, violence, or abuse please let an adult who will support you and make sure you are safe know. You can tell your principal, teacher, or school counselor. If you are unsure of who to confide in, a list of safe places where you can find help is available using this link: https://www.nationalsafeplace.org/find-a-safe-place
You can also report abuse and neglect by calling 1-800-252-5400 or by following this link:
If you are in immediate risk of harm or in an emergency call 911.
Injunctions and Standing Orders
In order to keep you safe, the judge might ask parents or caregivers not to engage in activities that might harm you. Some examples of these orders include orders to make sure parents or caregivers to not withdraw you from your school, to not speak poorly about each other in front of you, to not smoke around you, to not interfere with your visits, to not call at inappropriate times, and to not let someone dangerous around you. In most cases, parents and caregivers are asked by the court not to talk about the legal case with you. Do not worry or get upset because your parents or caregivers do not share the details of a case. The courts want you to focus on being a teen and deal with the all of the challenges and joys of growing up. You should not worry about what is going on in court but instead let the adults handle the legal stuff.
Sometimes, judges make temporary decisions. Legal cases can take a long time to resolve, and you may find that the court will order one thing and later change it. This is not unusual in custody cases. Temporary orders may include changes to your visits, where you live, where you go to school, or other decisions impacting your life. Judges may require your caregivers to attend parenting classes and they may also require you or other members of your family to participate in therapy or counseling. Through these orders, the judge is trying to make sure you and your family are prepared to handle the challenges it has ahead. It is important for everyone to follow the decisions of the Judge and do as the judge requests in order to give the Judge a clear understanding of how your family works. These decisions are made at temporary hearings and may continue until a case is finalized. The last stage of a case is the final trial. At the trial, the judge will make the final decisions and sign what is called a final order that sets out what is expected from each of your caregivers in the future. Once a final order is signed things should settle down. The final order will be in place and can only be changed by another court order. To make changes, caregivers or parents would need to go back to court or have an agreement.
The laws in Texas require courts and judges to consider what is best for each child when making decisions that impact children’s lives. Judges are looking out for what is referred to as the best interest of the child. Some of the things Judges think about when deciding what is in your best interest are: (1) your wishes, (2) your age, (3) your emotional and physical needs now and in the future, (4) things that can cause you emotional and physical danger, (5) the parenting abilities and plans of your parents or caregivers, (6) the stability in each parent or caregiver’s home, and (7) how your parents or caregivers act towards you and others. Judges will look at evidence that can give them information about one or more of the considerations listed above. Judges give high priority the evidence that shows what is in your best interest.
When the Judge Wants to Hear from You
As stated previously it is the courts priority to free you from the stress and pressures of the legal system. Kids don’t usually get involved in these kinds of proceedings. Judges prefer to let the grownups make the decisions and not burden kids like you with grown up questions. The Court will take into consideration what is best for you but will very rarely involve you personally. Every so often Judges decide or are asked to hear your opinion. When this happens, Judges use a variety of tools to let your voice be heard. Among those tools are:
Guardian Ad Litem
Attorney Ad Litem
Child Custody Evaluation
Interview in Chambers
Guardian Ad Litem
Judges may decide that they need help from other people who are not involved in the case. This is to get an opinion that is disinterested and not influenced by your parents or caregivers. The Judge may bring in a person to get to know you. This person will provide a report and recommendation to the court and let the court know what you want. This person will likely visit you on several occasions and talk to you about your experiences. They may ask you how you are doing in school and in your extracurricular activities. They will want to know about your health and your habits. They will likely ask you about your feelings and your preferences regarding your caregivers, your parents, and where you want to live. They want to make sure that you are happy, healthy, and safe. It is very important that you tell this person the truth and that you be open and honest about your feelings. They may ask personal questions and you may feel that they are being nosey, but it is important that you answer their questions truthfully and that you give them the information they are requesting. If you are in danger, are being abused, are having problems or mental health issues, or you have experienced harm please let them know. They may also interview other people in your life, including teachers, doctors, counselor’s, mental health providers, family members, and friends.
Attorney Ad Litem
Sometimes the Guardian Ad Litem is also an attorney, in those instances they are referred to as an Attorney Ad Litem. The Attorney Ad Litem may fulfill the same role as the Guardian with the added responsibility of being your attorney. This means they will go to court and represent you and what you want, in the courtroom, without the need to have you attend. It is important that the Attorney Ad Litem know what you want and have all the information they need to support your wishes. They are required by law to meet with you before every court hearing. It is also required that they meet with you in a place where you can talk privately and give you a space to talk freely outside the presence of others. If there is something you want to say but are worried about others knowing, you can let your attorney know and they will keep the information you provided confidential. However, if you are being harmed or abused, the attorney is required to report it to keep you safe. If you have concerns about someone knowing what you said, talk to the attorney, they will act to try to keep you safe from harm.
The Amicus Attorney is very similar to the Attorney Ad Litem, but this attorney is more like the eyes and ears of the Judge. In these cases, the attorney does not go to court to fight for what you want, but instead reports to the court your desires and makes a recommendation about what they think is best for you. The Amicus Attorney is also required to meet with you in a place where you can talk privately and outside the presence of others. The Amicus is allowed to tell the court what you said, if they think it is necessary. If you have something you want to say but are worried about others finding out, talk to the attorney and let them know your desires.
Child Custody Evaluation
The Judge might have a set of people investigate and issue a report related to your case and your wellbeing. This report is called a child custody evaluation. When an evaluation is used in your case you will have people visiting your home and asking questions. Their questions will be similar to those the Guardian, Attorney Ad Litem, and Amicus Attorneys ask. They will interview your parents, caregivers, and anyone else they think knows you or your situation well. They will create a report that is given to the Judge to read. Their report will have recommendations about what they think is best for you. It is important that you answer their questions truthfully and that you give them the information they are requesting as they only want to make sure you are safe and figure out what is best for you.
Interviews in Chambers
There are instances when the judge will want to meet you personally. In these cases the Judge will ask that you be brought in to meet with them. If you are brought in to talk to the Judge, it is important that you be truthful and that you provide the information they are requesting. If there is something you want to tell the Judge that want to keep confidential you will need to let the Judge know.
No person should tell you what to tell your Guardian, Attorney Ad Litem, Amicus Attorney, Child Custody Evaluator, or the Judge. They want to know what you have to say and not what others want you to say. If anyone you know is trying to influence what you say, please let them know. Being dishonest about how you feel or making them think that you want something you do not, can result in you being placed in an environment that is unsafe for you and can hurt your opportunities to be happy and healthy. It may be easier to say what you have been told to say then to speak to your own feelings, but sometimes doing the best thing isn’t always the easiest. Resist telling them what you think they want to hear or what others have told you to say. Be honest and speak from your heart because your feelings and opinions are what matter the most.
Don’t be afraid if you are a teen stuck in the middle of a custody battle. The most important thing to everyone involved in this process is to find a resolution that is best for you. The priority is to ensure that you have a prosperous future and that you are given everything you need to be happy, healthy, and safe.