Enforcement of Child Custody Orders: Contempt of Court
When parents engage in parental alienation and/or custodial interference, it can be very destructive to not only the targeted parent, but the children involved as well.
Enforcement of parenting agreements and orders helps parents (in particular – non-custodial parents) who are denied access to the children by the high-conflict parent, get their parenting time restored. Sadly, custodial interference is another method of parental alienation and is usually accompanied by “justification” to the children via bad-mouthing the targeted parent.
Enforcement of these order most often involves the family court system. It’s treated primarily as a civil matter and that’s the venue where the matter is likely going to be heard and addressed. However, if the custodial interference is more serious and is a parental kidnapping, criminal authorities, up to and including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will eventually become involved.
Once a parenting plan is developed and approved by the court (or the court issues a custody order), all parties are bound to its provisions. Violations of the order/agreement are punishable in a variety of ways and are generally heard through contempt-of-court proceedings. If the violation is serious enough – criminal proceedings involving serious federal kidnapping charges may be pursued.
A question that invariably comes up involves child support. We’ve often heard or have seen parents want to tie the two together. “Can I withholding visitation or parenting time if my ex hasn’t paid their child support?” The answer is a resounding NO! The family legal system maintains a separation of visitation and child support issues. Therefore, even if the non custodial parent (NCP) or child support obligor fails to pay child support, parental rights cannot be denied. On the flip side of the equation (and some would say “unfortunately”), even if parental rights are denied a child support obligor cannot legally withhold child support payments. The law exists to “protect” both custodial parents who have not received child support payments and non custodial parents who are denied their parental rights. Unfortunately, the children are the ones who suffer no matter what negative actions either parent may illegally take in situations like these.
Enforcement of parenting plans is generally done at the state level, though there are federal programs designed to facilitate state-level child visitation enforcement. The 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Act created the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS) to supposedly help states conduct child visitation enforcement efforts in addition to child support enforcement actions:
The FPLS is an assembly of systems operated by OCSE, to assist States in locating noncustodial parents, putative fathers, and custodial parties for the establishment of paternity and child support obligations, as well as the enforcement and modification of orders for child support, custody and visitation.
However, the reality of the situation is that FPLS is far more often, if not always, used to locate a non-custodial parent so that child support orders can be enforced and money collected. Still, as long as there are domestic violence or child abuse issues involved, this law is supposed to also allow the government to provide information to the non-custodial parent about the child’s whereabouts.
Despite all that you have read here, the sad reality is that enforcement of child custody orders pales in comparison to enforcement of child support orders. It’s common knowledge that when child custody orders are in place and followed, child support payments and compliance remains high. When custody orders are not followed, NCPs often do what they believe will have the maximum impact – withhold child support. Unfortunately, the punishments for custodial interference is not nearly as punitive as those for failure to pay child support. In our minds, this makes no sense given all of the available data that demonstrates high custody order compliance means high child support order compliance.
Until the financial incentives to the states for child support enforcement are eliminated or are shifted instead to custody order enforcement, we’re unlikely to see meaningful changes on these issues in the near term.