Custody has to be one of the most stressful situations a person can face. I’ve heard it said that having a child is like having your heart walk around outside of your body. As a parent, I relate to that.

Parents are human and that means that parenting can be complicated, especially when parents separate, experience challenges with their employment, housing, and health (including mental health and substance use disorder), or become involved in the justice system.

If you are facing a custody case, self-advocacy is going to be very important.

Use the SAY IT program to prepare for difficult conversations with people like your lawyer, the other party, and the judge. You may want to focus on:

Chapter 2 (positive language): Describe yourself and your situation in a way that protects your self-respect. Staying positive, strong, and steady in these conversations will go a long way.

Chapter 4 (SMART Goals): It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Have a specific goal in mind with reasonable and achievable options and timelines. This is a great place to get an ally’s help. See below for some resources.

Chapter 6 (understand your audience): Your audience can include the other parent or person who currently has custody, lawyers, and judges. The judge will make the final decision, so be sure to focus on the information that is most important to the judge. See below for information on understanding judges.

Chapter 7 (accountability): Be ready to talk about what may have gone wrong in the past, what you learned from it, and how you plan to do things differently in the future. This chapter also has information on dealing with guilt and shame so that you can focus on your goal.

Chapter 8 (expectations and compromises): Once a matter gets into the justice system, it’s a good idea to think about compromises. This chapter will help you strategize for reaching a win-win outcome.

Chapter 9 (communication skills): It can be hard to find the right words, especially when the discussion is important. Chapter 9’s Sentence Toolkit has lots of sentences that you can use to feel confident and speak clearly as you start, stay in, and finish hard conversations.

Chapter 10 (elevator speech): When you get the chance to speak up for yourself in a custody case or discussion, be ready! Make and practice your elevator speech so that your voice is heard and understood.

Your main audience: The judge

If you can’t reach a compromise, the judge will make the final decision, so it’s important to know what the judge is trying to accomplish. The judge’s goal is to reach a decision that is in the best interests of the child. According to North Carolina Advocates for Justice, “[h]ere are important facts that help a judge decide a child custody case:

• What is the child’s age?

• Who has assumed primary responsibility in caring for the child throughout the child’s life?

• Who feeds, bathes, and clothes the child?

• Who assists the child with homework? Who attends parent/ teacher conferences? Who is involved in the child’s schooling?

• What is the work schedule of each parent who works outside the home?

• What is the physical, emotional, and parenting ability of each parent?

• With whom has the child bonded?

• Does the child have any special needs?

• Is a parent trying to prevent the child from continuing a relationship with the other parent?

• Is a parent trying to use the child to hurt or manipulate the other parent?

• Is a parent unfit, unwilling, or unable to raise the child properly and appropriately?”

These links can help you with custody issues in North Carolina.

Some cases are more complicated

Does your situation fit into one of these categories?

  • A parent is in the military or lives outside of NC.
  • A case is already pending or child welfare authorities are involved.
  • The child is living with someone else.
  • The child has a Juvenile Court case pending.

If so, you’ll want to talk to an attorney. The NC Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service provides 30 minute sessions for $50. Time with a lawyer will go quickly. Be ready so that you can get the most for your time and money:

  • Have your paperwork together from any pending or prior cases, including custody cases, DSS and Child Protective Services, Juvenile Court, Recovery Court, probation, or parole.
  • Read the list above, the one that says what a judge considers in a custody case. Go through the list and think about your situation. Write down the information. Also, write down things that you could do to improve on anything on that list. How can you help your case? What community resources can help you get there?

No matter what your situation, I hope that you can find ways to continue growing bonds with your child throughout their life.

My mother did not have custody of me after age 5 and she died when I was 15. It was complicated and painful. But I knew every day, and I know even still, that she loved me with all of her heart. Simply loving and being loved is a powerful thing that stays with your child for life, even when you’re not together. I wish you, your child, and your family all the best.