Child custody disputes are highly stressful and difficult issues for all parties involved. They are also highly prevalent, especially in inner-city areas where marriage rates are low and out-of-wedlock birth rates are high. Separated parents are more logically more likely to engage in child custody disputes. The issues and complexity of these disputes vary, involving primary custody, visitation, living arrangements, transportation schedules, and more. Parents often have limited options for guidance in these matters: a complicated court system that they don’t understand, or police assistance that can rarely do anything to help them. The State of Connecticut has taken a measured approach to help these families mediate their issues in order to preserve the child’s best interests and resolve these disputes through the cooperation of the involved parties.
Child custody disputes are an issue in all aspects of society, however, like many other issues, affects inner-city residents disproportionately. Inner-city, minority, or poverty stricken families may have lower rates of marriage, higher rates of parental incarceration, and increased non-traditional parental roles. With a lower percentage of conventional nuclear families, these non-traditional families have a higher potential for conflict within the family, leading to these custodial disputes. These disputes are also exacerbated by the other conditions that frequently afflict these families, such as poverty, poor or no education, untreated mental health issues, and drug addiction or alcohol abuse. While an affluent family may have the support system and resources to successfully negotiate a child custody dispute, a poor single mother may not be so lucky.
When these disputes first come to a head, the first resource the family turns to is often the police department. New Haven may serve as an example for typical inner-city Connecticut. The police are frequently called to mediate these disputes, facing expectations from parents that the police will solve all their problems. Police have very limited options in these cases, however, and often leave the parents with little more than advice on how to proceed to the court system for help. In Connecticut, prior to any court intervention, both parents are assumed to have equal custody rights. The police must respect whichever parent has physical custody at the time they become involved. If a mother has cared for the child without any support for the last decade without any assistance from the father, but the father picked up the child from school today and is refusing to give the child back to the mother, there is nothing the police can do other than verify that the child’s welfare is not at risk. The police will advise the mother to turn to the courts for help, and warn her that the father has an equal right to the child and that she can be arrested if she tries to take the child back. Police in Connecticut can only intervene if the parent has in hand a court order signed by a judge which clearly delineates custody. In the absence of that document, the police’s only recourse is to refer the parent to the court system.
For a parent that has the means to hire a family law attorney, the court system provides myriad options to solve the dispute. Connecticut provides parents with legal options to file for emergency or permanent custody, visitation, divorce, modification of orders, or contempt of court orders. Connecticut determines custody through an analysis of various factors that are designed to determine a custody schedule based on the “Best Interest of the Child Standard.” Per the state’s judicial library website, the court lists sixteen statutory factors to consider when determining the child’s best interests. The main factors are the needs of the child and the parent’s respective abilities to meet those needs. The State also outlines that this is a flexible standard that will consider other factors, including the wishes of the child. While the courts provide a comprehensive and organized method of resolving these custodial disputes, this may be a difficult environment to navigate, especially for those who can’t afford the services of a lawyer. Although the court system does its best to assist families navigate the system, it can be especially difficult for those with limited education or resources, those who may not speak English, or those who may be fearful of exposing themselves or their families to the legal system due to immigration status. For these families, legal recourse may not be an option, leaving them to resolve these disputes on their own.
While Connecticut has taken admirable steps to assist its inner-city residents with legal custody issues, the State could do more to help people navigate the system. Just as state-funded public defenders are available to indigent criminal defendants, the State would serve its residents by offering state-funded representation in family matters or organize a program for private lawyers to provide these services pro bono. The inner-city populations need this assistance more than ever, and would greatly benefit from state assistance in navigating the complicated legal world of family matters and child custody disputes. In a state that holds itself to a “Best Interest of the Child” standard for children that make it to court, it should be clear that assisting other children and families in need of court services will benefit the best interests of all affected children.