The law in the U.S. recognizes that, when parents separate or divorce, the children need to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents, in order to ensure both parents are able to share in the rights and responsibilities of raising healthy, happy children. The court has discretion in accomplishing this goal, and often awards primary physical custody of the children to the parent that is more likely to encourage the children to have frequent, quality time with the other parent. To explore this concept, consider the following frequent and continuing contact definition.
Definition of Frequent and Continuing Contact
- The legal concept that a child should have regular contact with both parents, enabling him or her to maintain a genuine, ongoing relationship with each parent.
1980s U.S. Family Law
Basis of Frequent and Continuing Contact
When a court hears a child custody case, it determines what custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child. Maintaining frequent and continuing contract between children and both parents is important for the children to emotionally develop in a healthy manner. It also eliminates negative feelings, such as abandonment by the parent not living in the home. The details of maintaining frequent and continuing contact varies with each situation, but typically involves keeping lines of communication open, and allowing the children to have regular visitation with the non-custodial parent. In cases in which there is a history of abuse or neglect, the court may deem frequent contact to not be in the child’s best interests, and limit visitation.
When a couple with children separates or divorces, the issue of child custody is a painful one, fraught with high emotions, for both the parents and children. Parents who are able to work together to come up with a custody and visitation arrangement that works for the entire family can avoid many of the hurt feelings and angry reactions that are a natural result of such a dispute. In the event the parents cannot work together, the court will make the decision for them, based on a number of factors. When the court does make a child custody order, it will specify both legal and physical custody.
Legal and Physical Child Custody
Physical child custody refers to where the child will live the majority of the time. Most commonly, the child resides primarily with one parent, visiting with the other parent on a regular schedule, often including weekends and holidays. In some cases, in which the parents are truly sharing physical custody, the child will go back and forth between the parents’ homes on an equal basis. Both of these arrangements, referred to as “joint custody,” allow frequent and continuing contact with both parents.
Another custody arrangement that may be ordered is “split custody,” in which each parent takes primary custody of a different child. Because the court rarely sees the separation of siblings to be in the children’s best interests, it is a rarely used option.
Legal custody pertains to the right and responsibility to make decisions about the child’s major life issues and events. These include such issues as where and how the child will be educated, in which religion the child will be raised, what social activities he will participate in, and his health care needs. Most commonly, parents are awarded joint legal custody, being required to consult with one another regarding these issues.
Other Factors Considered in Determining Child Custody
When a court takes on the task of determining child custody, frequent and continuing contact is the basis for evaluating a variety of other issues. In addition to determining which parent is more likely to allow and encourage frequent and continuing contact with the other parent, the court considers:
- The wishes of the child if he or she is old enough
- The mental health of the parents
- The physical health of the parents
- Religion and educational interests of the parents
- The support of extended family members
- The gender and age of the child
- The previous history of the parents as it pertains to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
Some courts also look at which parent has been, or will be, the child’s primary caretaker. This includes looking at which parent:
- Bathes and grooms the child
- Plans and prepares meals for the child
- Takes the child to school, and helps the child with school work
- Makes arrangements concerning healthcare
- Encourages extracurricular activities and teaches basic skills
Traditionally, women were seen as the primary caretakers or children, but roles are shifting. It is becoming more common for men to act as primary caretakers of their children.
Example of the Importance of Maintaining Frequent and Continuing Contact
The courts view the issue of frequent and continuing contact between children and both parents as of paramount importance. For example, Emily and Robert file for divorce, and through the hurt feelings, find they cannot agree on child custody issues. The court makes a temporary order for the children to remain with the mother, and visit the father each weekend, then orders the family to work with a family court mediator to come up with a parenting plan that is in the best interests of their children.
During the time of the temporary order, the father, because he is angry, brings the children home several hours after their scheduled time twice, and fails to return them at all one weekend, delivering them instead to school on Monday. The father is argumentative in mediation, remaining focused on blaming the mother for all manner of evils resulting in their breakup.
In such a case, the mediator is likely to see the father as a risk to allowing the children frequent and continuing contact with their mother, as well as to continue alienating them against their mother. As a result of this report, the court is likely to award primary physical custody to the mother, with more limited visitation to the father. If the pattern continues, the father may end up being allowed only supervised visitation.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Best Interests of the Child – A doctrine used by the court to determine which parent is suitable for ensuring the health and happiness of a child during custody proceedings.
- Child Custody – The care, control, and maintenance of a child, often awarded by the court.
- Divorce – The legal dissolution of a marriage.
- Non-Custodial Parent – A parent with whom the children do not live the majority of the time, by court order.