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Resolving child custody issues through Virginia courts

Newport News mothers and fathers, married or unmarried, have equal rights in legal matters affecting children. The best interests of the child, not a parent's gender, are the primary concern of Virginia courts. Insurmountable problems with initial agreements and conflicts over existing orders may be resolved by a judge.

The court wants to ensure children spend as much time as possible with each parent on a regular basis, no matter where the child resides most of the time. Physical custody refers a child's living arrangements, while legal custody involves a parent's right to make important choices about a child's welfare, like educational and medical decisions.

Child custody petitions may be filed with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, with or without an attorney's assistance. In the first hearing, a few weeks after the filing date, a judge is likely to enter a temporary order. A second hearing follows several months later.

Depending upon circumstances, the court might assign a Guardian Ad Litem or lawyer, to represent the child's legal position. A judge may order home studies to be conducted, to evaluate the parents and living environments. All parents in custody disputes must take part in four-hour parenting classes.

Custody decisions are based upon several factors, all focusing on benefits to the child. Child-parent relationships and parent-to-parent attitudes and interactions are examined. The physical and mental health of the child and parents are considered.

Judges will weigh child-rearing roles parents played, while looking at proposed arrangements. Decisions also depend upon parental abuse, violence, crime and substance abuse as well as adultery, cohabitation and parental impairments due to health. A child's preference influences rulings, particularly opinions of teens 14 or older.

An attorney will help parents who wish to appeal or modify a custody order, based upon a substantial change in child or parent circumstances. Court orders remain intact, unless and until a judge changes them.

Source: Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, Inc., "Child Custody and Child Visitation" Dec. 14, 2014

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