Lawmakers in California have passed legislation that protects children in custody and visitation disputes. State law requires judges to consider the wishes of children who are old enough to express a preference in these matters, but children may be reluctant to voice their opinions if doing so entails appearing in open court in front of their parents. Lawmakers determined that putting children in this position contradicted the best interests of the child doctrine that custody and visitation decisions should be based on, so they drafted and passed Senate Bill 654 to address the issue.
Alternatives to court
SB 654 allows judges to permit children to express an opinion in court during custody or visitation hearings, but it requires them to state on the record why they felt doing so was in the best interests of the child. The law requires courts to allow children to make their wishes known in alternative ways, and it gives the Judicial Council until the end of 2022 to make the necessary rules changes. The bill received broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021.
Protection from abusive parents
SB 654 also strengthens the rules protecting children from abuse during child custody disputes. The existing law required judges to state their reasons on the record when they awarded sole or joint custody to parents who have a history of domestic violence, psychological abuse or drug or alcohol problems. The new law requires them to also state their reasons on the record when they allow unsupervised visitation in cases involving parents with a history of abuse.
Custody disputes can leave children emotionally damaged even when they are not required to appear in court, so parents should do all they can to resolve these matters as amicably as possible. Court proceedings are adversarial in nature and make finding common ground difficult, but alternative approaches like mediation are sometimes able to provide a breakthrough.