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Understanding North Carolina Child Custody Mediation

One of the key concerns of divorcing parents is the question of custody of the children. In North Carolina, child custody is decided by the same judge who rules on other issues in the divorce case, assuming the child's parents were married. But, before the judge gets involved in child custody, the parents are required by state law to try mediation in order to reach a mutual agreement about custody and visitation.

North Carolina Child Custody Process: Mediation

By law, the North Carolina child custody process almost always begins with mediation. This process involves both parents meeting with a mediator approved by the judge. The mediator will attempt to help the parents reach an agreement about where the children will live and how often they will spend time with each parent, as well as issues such as what school the children will attend, which religious tradition they will be raised in, and other major family concerns.

The goals of mediation are set out in the North Carolina statutes. They include:

  • Reducing any acrimony that exists between the parents regarding custody or visitation
  • Developing custody and visitation agreements that are in the childs best interest
  • Providing the parents with informed choices and, where possible, giving the parents the responsibility for making decisions about child custody and visitation
  • Providing a structured, confidential, non-adversarial setting that will facilitate cooperation and reduce stress and anxiety for the parties and the child or children
  • Reducing the likelihood of either party returning to court later because of a dispute about custody or visitation

However, the judge can decide not to require the parents to meet with a mediator if certain circumstances exist, such as domestic violence, allegations of abuse or neglect of the child by either parent, allegations of alcoholism or drug abuse, or allegations of severe psychological or emotional problems. The judge can also skip the mediation if either parent lives more than 50 miles from the courthouse.

The parents can also move to have the mediation requirement dismissed if they can show the judge that the mediator is biased or prejudiced, i.e., favoring one party over the other without good cause.

North Carolina child custody laws also provide that anything said in mediation cannot be used in the courtroom later if mediation fails. The reason for this is so that each parent will feel free to negotiate and reach a settlement in the best interests of the child.

Once the parents reach an agreement in mediation, the mediator will write it down and present the agreement to the judge. In most cases, as long as the agreement is reasonable, the judge will simply sign it, making the agreement an official order of the court.

If the parents fail to reach an agreement, the judge will have to decide custody issues. Usually, this will involve calling witnesses and taking other evidence so that the judge can make an informed decision. Clearly, it is in everyones interest that the parents reach an agreement whenever possible without the judge having to intervene.