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Custody agreements can be frustrating for parents. It’s difficult to accept that you can no longer be a full-time parent to your child if that’s the arrangement that you were accustomed to, and it can be even more difficult to share parenting rights and responsibilities with a former partner that you may not feel kindly toward. Most parents want what’s best for their child, and they often also believe that they are what is best for their child – sometimes to the exclusion of the other parent.

Experts agree that whenever possible, children should have an ongoing relationship with both of their parents and that children who do have meaningful relationships with both parents after a divorce tend to have better social, academic, and personal outcomes than children who are separated from one parent or the other. Because divorced parents cannot always agree on a custody arrangement that allows both parents to maintain their relationships with their children as much as possible, family courts are set up to help by determining and enforcing a custody arrangement that’s in the child’s best interests.

However, when parents don’t agree with the court’s decision, they may decide that they need to take matters into their own hands. This has a name: custodial interference.

What Exactly Is Custodial Interference?

Essentially, custodial interference is what it’s called when a parent or other guardian takes or keeps a minor child when they know that this action violates a court order or family court judgment. A father who refuses to return the children to their mother after his scheduled visitation time is over is interfering with custody. So is a mother who takes her children and moves far away without informing the court or the children’s father.

Custodial interference can sometimes happen with the child’s consent and cooperation – a parent who convinces their child to stay with them or leave the geographical area with them, against the terms of a custody order, is still committing custodial interference. Custodial interference can also be temporary. A parent may not be trying to keep their child away from their other parent altogether, but purposely keeping a child away from their other parent for hours, days, or weeks.

For example, if a child is supposed to spend weekdays with one parent and weekends with the other, but the weekend parent takes the child on a trip during the weekend and doesn’t return the child to the weekday parent until Wednesday, that can still be custodial interference. Preventing a child from contacting their other parent or influencing the child against their other parent can also be considered custodial interference.

Is Custodial Interference Ever Justified?

Typically, parents who commit custodial interference are aware of the terms of the custody agreement that they’re defying and know that they’re acting against a court order. In many cases, the parent who commits custodial interference has a reason for doing so and believes that they’re justified in their actions. But are they? In some cases, custodial interference may be justified. When circumstances outside of the parent’s control necessitate taking or keeping the child away from the other parent, they might be justified.

For instance, a parent who fails to return their child to the other parent because a vehicle broke down, leaving them stranded overnight, might be justified – but in order for the court to excuse it, the parent with the disabled vehicle would need to make an effort to contact the other parent and let them know what happened, and would also need to rectify the situation as soon as possible. If a parent wants to change the custody arrangement, they can petition the court and ask for the change.

In some cases, a court may grant a temporary or permanent change in custody if the circumstances warrant it. A parent who is acting in accordance with a new court order granting them access or custody is not committing custodial interference, even if the new court order interferes with a previous order granting the other parent access or custody at that time. Finally, parents who are fleeing attempted family violence or actual family violence with their children are not committing custodial interference, though they may need to provide testimony about or evidence of family violence to the family court.

What Happens to Parents Who Interfere With Custody?

Custodial interference charges can be serious, and a parent who’s found to be guilty of custodial interference can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony based on the circumstances. In severe cases, custodial interference can even rise to the level of a parental kidnapping charge. Cases of custodial interference can vary widely in the details, so it’s difficult to say what will happen to a parent who engages in parental interference without knowing the specifics.

A parent who takes their child away from the other parent without any intention of returning them will probably face harsher penalties than a parent who sticks to the court-ordered visitation schedule but refuses to allow their child to call or contact their other parent when it’s not scheduled. However, potential criminal charges aren’t the only things that parents who interfere with custody have to worry about – courts generally take a dim view of people who violate their orders, and family courts are no exception to this rule.

A parent who interferes with custody – even in small ways that don’t rise to the level of serious criminal charges – may find their own custody or visitation time reduced. A parent who has a history of custodial interference could find themselves ordered to have only supervised visitation – that is, they can only see their children in the presence of a third party whose job it is to make sure that the parent doesn’t take any more actions that could interfere with the other parent’s custody. Parents who engage in custodial interference could, in some cases, find their access to their children removed entirely.

If you’re experiencing custodial interference, or if you’re a parent who wants to approach changes in your custody arrangement in a legal way that will not be considered custodial interference, a legal resource group like Family Law Legal Group can help. NFS will help you review your legal options, fill out relevant documents, and prepare to present your case in court.

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