Connecticut Custody Law
October 29, 2009
By: Barry Armata
Unmarried parents – How Child Custody in Connecticut Works
It was not so long ago that the concept of the American family brought up images of a husband who went downtown to work, the stay at home wife and mother, 2.2 children, and Fluffy the dog. But today that image has been replaced with parents who may or may not be together, parents working different shifts – possibly with a parent working in other states or even out of the country – and extended family members filling in the gaps by providing support and sometimes even housing, daycare, financial assistance, and parenting advice.
Often this new American family can face legal issues as it tries to raise children in a safe and supporting way. Issues like who has the ability to make decisions for the children, who is entitled to financial support, what are the rights of non-residential parents and what are the rights of extended family are often now decided by Connecticut family courts. These courts, always guided by the legal principle of what is in the “best interest of the child,” must still balance the rights of the parents against each other, but now the courts must also balance the rights of people such as grandparents and aunts and uncles against those of a biological parent who may or may not be involved in the child’s life. Now, when there is a custodial conflict or challenge courts must consider not just the relationship of parents to the child but also of half siblings to each, as well as those of stepchildren, other family members such as cousins, and other people residing in the home.
So what are everyone’s rights and responsibilities to the children in the ever changing definition of family?
When couples are married and have children there is a presumption (meaning the law and courts believe that is always in the best interest of the child) that both parents have joint custody, or in other words that both parents have equal say with regards to all important decisions concerning the child. This specifically involves decisions about medical treatment, education, religious upbringing, and the like. That presumption can be changed to allow one parent to have sole custody if that parent can show the court that such a joint custodial arrangement is not in the best interest of the child. The joint-custody presumption, i.e. that it is in the best interest of the child for both parents to have custody, also applies to unmarried parents. Again, this presumption may be changed if the parent seeking sole custody presents evidence to the court that such a joint custodial order is not in the best interest of the child and that the child would be better served by one parent having decision-making responsibility for the child.
Once the court or the parties have decided on the custody arrangement, then they must focus on creating a “parenting plan.” This document tells the court many things, including: where the child is residing, when and how decisions regarding the child are being made, how the parents will resolve any disagreements between them, what happens if the parents do not live up to the agreements in the plan, how the parents are going to deal with the changing needs of the child, and how the parents are going to prevent the child from being exposed to conflicts between the parents.
It is helpful to remember that the court’s objective is to provide for the child’s physical care and emotional stability, the child's changing needs as he/she grows, and letting each parent know what their responsibilities are with respect to the child.
In some cases, parents cannot agree that there should be “Joint Custody” or they cannot agree on a “Parenting Plan.” If this is the case, the court stands ready to step in and decide which parent can better meet the needs of the child. In making this decision the court is guided by a law which says that the court must look at the following factors as outlined in Connecticut General Statue 46b-56(c).
(1) The temperament and developmental needs of the child;
(2) The capacity and the disposition of the parents to understand and meet the needs of the child;
(3) Any relevant and material information obtained from the child, including the informed preferences of the child;
(4) The wishes of the child's parents as to custody;
(5) The past and current interaction and relationship of the child with each parent, the child's siblings and any other person who may significantly affect the best interests of the child;
(6) The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders;
(7) Any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents' dispute;
(8) The ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child;
(9) The child's adjustment to his or her home, school and community environments;
(10) The length of time that the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity in such environment, provided the court may consider favorably a parent who voluntarily leaves the child's family home in order to avoid stress in the household;
(11) The stability of the child's existing or proposed residences, or both;
(12) The mental and physical health of all individuals involved, except that a disability of a proposed custodial parent or other party, in and of itself, shall not be determinative of custody unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interests of the child;
(13) The child's cultural background;
(14) The effect on the child of the actions of an abuser, if any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or the child;
(15) Whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected, and
(16) Whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parenting education program established by the court.
The court is not required to assign or give more importance to one factor over another one and the court is free to consider additional factors not on the above list, such as what effect removing a child from his/her half-sibling or step-siblings may have on that child’s development.
Also, if a biological parent does not receive custodial rights to the child, they can still obtain information about the child from school and medical personnel. Under Connecticut law, “a parent not granted custody of a minor child shall not be denied the right of access to the academic, medical, hospital or other health records of such minor child, unless otherwise ordered by the court for good cause shown.” Connecticut General Statue 46b-56(g).
So what do you do if you find yourself and your family dealing with these issues? First, you should consult an experienced family lawyer to help you determine what is in the best interest of the child and what evidence you have to present to the court to support that claim. Whether you’re the biological or non-biological caregiver, the attorneys at Brown, Paindiris & Scott have experience with these important and often delicate issues.
With over 60 years of combined experience, the firm’s attorneys practicing Connecticut divorce law and Connecticut family law have the ability to handle difficult issues and to craft creative solutions to meet the needs of our clients. Our attorneys and staff work as a team to devote the time and individual attention to each matter that it deserves because no two cases are exactly alike.