Location: Montgomery County Circuit Court, Room 220 & 307
Phone: (240) 777-9080
Hours: 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
The Child Custody and Access Mediation Program offers parents involved in separation, divorce and child custody cases an opportunity to discuss and resolve issues involving their children, such as primary residential care, decision making and access. It is one of the core programs of the court’s Family Division Services, aimed at resolving issues as early as possible, often without the need for trial.
An Important Responsibility of Parents: Child Custody and Access Issues
Working through child custody and access issues within the family court process often is difficult and stressful for parents. Parents are concerned about the future of their children, their own relationships with the children and the family’s financial situation.
Children experience similar worries about potential loss, uncertainty about where or with whom they will live, and discomfort witnessing parental disputes. They often find themselves caught in the middle of these disputes, feeling disloyal to one parent while trying to be supportive to the other.
By using the mediation process to help resolve child custody and access disputes, parents may begin to work together to create their own child custody and access plan on behalf of their children. They can begin a path toward managing disagreements through discussion while maintaining a more positive and emotionally responsible relationship with each other and with their children.
The child custody and access mediation program is provided free of charge to help parents work together for the benefit of their children, assuring each other’s involvement in their children’s lives.
Decisions by parents concerning child custody and access are among the most important they can make. Children benefit directly when their parents take full advantage of mediation to discuss their parenting issues, focus on the interests of their children and work in good faith to resolve these issues without court intervention.
Child Custody and Access Mediation Program: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
When parents separate, wish to divorce, or experience child custody and access disputes, they may file a case with the court. Prior to trial, the parents may be assigned to meet with one of the court’s professional mediators who will help them focus their discussion on what’s best for their children and work with them as they try to resolve their child custody and access issues. The court makes appointments for two meetings with the mediator, each three hours in length. More than half of the time parents who mediate are able to make tentative agreements resolving some or all of their issues. Below are frequently asked questions regarding the Child Custody and Access Mediation Program:
- Who is eligible for the Child Custody and Access Mediation Program?
- What if I'm worried about domestic violence or abuse?
- Where can I find a private mediator?
- What is a Parenting Plan?
- What are the goals of mediation?
- What issues may be discussed during child custody and access mediation?
- What is Residential (or Physical) Custody? What are Rights of Access?
- What is Legal Custody?
- What happens before, during and after mediation?
- Does mediation work?
- Who are the mediators and what do they do during mediation?
- How should parents talk to each other during mediation?
- How can I change the Parenting Plan?
- Can I have follow-up mediation through the Court’s program?
- What if I have additional questions about mediation?
- Where can I learn more about family mediation?
Parents who have filed cases in Montgomery County Circuit Court seeking decisions by the court with respect to child custody and access are eligible for the Child Custody and Access Mediation Program by court order.
The mediation program for the circuit court does not mediate cases where domestic violence may or has been an issue.
More information on Domestic Violence:
The Child Custody and Access Mediation Program cannot refer parents to private mediators. However, you can obtain help searching for a qualified mediator by asking your attorney or by searching for resources online. Several are listed here:
Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO)
Maryland Directory of Dispute Resolution Practitioners, Community mediation services: Conflict Resolution Center for Montgomery County (CRCMC)
What is mediation?
Mediation provides an opportunity for parties to discuss their individual perspectives in an informal setting. The mediator does not make decisions or recommend solutions to parents; instead the mediator uses questions, dialogue, problem solving and listening skills to help parents create and consider their own solutions.
Mediation sessions are confidential. The mediator may not disclose to anyone statements made or decisions reached in the mediation. Additionally, the parents and mediator may not testify in any court proceeding concerning what was said or decided during the mediation.
However, Maryland law requires the mediator to report statements made in the mediation that raise a suspicion of child abuse or child neglect. If necessary, a report is made to the Child Welfare Services office of county government for further investigation. Threats of violence made during the mediation process may also be reported to the appropriate authorities.
The mediator helps the parents develop their own plan known as a Parenting Plan that focuses on the best interests of their children and is expressed in language the parents use and understand. A Parenting Plan contains decisions that parents have made during the mediation process regarding the welfare of their children, such as custody-related decisions and other agreed rules or guidelines to assist in their parenting. The mediators use draft parenting plans that are then adapted to the understandings reached in mediation. After reviewing the draft plan, parents may change it to suit their own language and wishes for their children, or approve it and submit it to the court to become their custody and access order.
The primary goal of mediation is to help parents develop their own Parenting Plan with minimal or no court intervention that supports their children’s best interests. Mediators strive to help parents---
- Communicate with each other, clear up misunderstandings that may have occurred, identify common ground;
- Resolve issues concerning each parent’s role for parenting the children;
- Consider ways to protect children from feeling that they are stuck in the middle of parental disputes; and
- Encourage ongoing contact between children and parents by putting the emotional needs of the children first.
Parents may discuss any parenting-related issues during mediation. Mediators inform parents about “best practice” guidelines that can be used to help develop the Parenting Plan. However, parents are ultimately responsible for deciding how best to develop their Plan.
Topics that may be incorporated within the Parenting Plan include, but are not limited to:
- Living arrangements (see What Is Residential Custody? What Are Rights of Access?)
- Regular timesharing arrangements
- Holiday and special day timesharing
- Vacation planning
- How parents will make long term decisions for their children (see What is Legal Custody?)
- Communication with the children
- Communication between parents about the children
- Transporting the children between their homes and their activities
- Emergency plans
- Specific issues, such as school placement, extracurricular activities, diet, TV viewing, religious training
Residential custody, also called “physical custody”, refers to the responsibility of one or both parents to provide a primary home for the child, including basic necessities like shelter, food, clothing, and proper care and supervision.
The parent not providing the primary home, sometimes called the “non-residential parent”, has rights of child access, usually consisting of regularly scheduled time periods following the parent’s work day and during weekends, when the parent provides care for the child.
Each parent has the responsibility to provide proper care and supervision when the child is in his/her care.
Legal custody describes how parents reach major or long-term decisions for their children, for example, regarding health, education and religious matters. These issues may include how to treat a serious medical problem, whether children will attend the local public school or a private school, whether children’s special needs require additional health and school services, or in what religious tradition, if any, children will be raised. Legal custody involves any major issues that may affect the welfare of the children.
Shared or joint legal custody means that the parents have the authority to make these decisions together. Sometimes parents agree to share legal custody and define additional ways to manage when they are unable to reach agreement on a particular decision, such as doing more mediation, giving one parent responsibility for making a final choice in an area of the parent’s expertise, or considering additional options for a good decision.
Sole legal custody means that one parent has the authority to make major decisions concerning the children; often the parents have defined a process of receiving input from the other parent before the decision is made.
At the Scheduling Hearing, everyone gets out his/her calendar to schedule dates and times for mediation and other case appointments. Usually, the court will order three 3-hour mediation sessions; if clients are returning to court to enforce or to change an existing custody order, a single mediation session is assigned. After the Scheduling Hearing, a mediator meets briefly with each parent to gather contact information and identify parenting issues. Based on the information gathered, the mediator makes sure that the mediation is appropriate for the parents.
At the first mediation session, the mediator provides an overview of the process. The mediator asks the parents to discuss their dispute as it relates to the children and their goals for the children. This discussion may lead to ideas about resolving present and possible future disputes. The mediator often begins with a discussion of the parents’ current responsibilities for caring and making decisions for the children, setting the stage for work on specific arrangements in these areas. Sometimes parents reach a full agreement during a single mediation session, but in most cases they require two mediation sessions. Parents may also request an additional session if it will help them move forward and the mediators will try to accommodate them.
If parents DO reach agreement on their issues, the mediator provides the parents and their attorneys with a draft “Parenting Plan”. After review, the parents may agree to accept the Parenting Plan as is or may decide to make changes. In either case, they may forward the final agreement with a signed Consent Order to the court, which will make their plan legally binding through a Custody Order. Or, the parents may appear at a Settlement/Status Hearing and put their agreement on the record.
If parents DO NOT resolve their issues, they may try to negotiate a resolution or let a judge or master decide. Their custody or access case continues to further negotiation by the parents or to decision by a judge. The only information provided to the court by the mediator is a Disposition Report stating whether the parents attended the mediation session, and whether they reached an understanding concerning each of the parenting issues referred to mediation.
Preparing for Your Mediation: list of questions that the parents can use before and during their child custody and access mediation process.
Mediation is most effective for parents who are committed to putting their children’s interests and well-being first and who are willing to work together to resolve their parenting issues through honest and open communication.
Many parents develop parenting plans in mediation. Regardless of the outcome of mediation, parents usually gain a better understanding of the other parent’s point of view and appreciate being able to express their views in a non-threatening environment.
Here are some comments of parents about the court’s Child Custody and Access Mediation Program:
“The mediator helped me to see other parent’s point of view and helped me to question my own motives for participation in a custody battle.”
“The mediation was helpful because it opened lines of communications, offered alternative ideas and helped the family express themselves.”
“It helped us to focus on the children instead of focusing on how we feel about the other parent.”
“It gave me a safe place to say what I wanted to say. It kept the situation businesslike and focused on the kids’ needs not our own.”
“Although mediation has not as yet been successful, I believe the discussions with the mediator will ultimately result in a settlement.”
“It was the best conversation I have had with the other parent in 3 years.”
The court employs three part-time mediators, one of whom is bilingual. They are professionals trained and experienced in dealing with parenting issues and conflicts. Their backgrounds are in social work, counseling, conflict resolution, and/or law. Mediation is not a substitute for counseling, therapy or legal advice.
The mediator meets with parents, together and individually, and helps them develop a Parenting Plan that is best for their children. During the mediation, the mediator will:
- Listen to both parents.
- Be neutral, impartial and fair without favoring either parent.
- Help parents communicate with and understand each other.
- Help define and clarify issues.
- Help parents consider different options.
- Help parents design their own solutions instead of imposing solutions.
- Help parents focus on their children’s best interests.
- Help keep children out of parent disputes.
Mediators do not make decisions for parents. They do not pressure parents to reach an agreement.
Each parent should be respectful of the other, listen, understand, and acknowledge the other’s viewpoint. Here are some other ways to communicate effectively from the California Court Self-Help Center:
- Be polite, just like you would be at work.
- Stay on the subject. Focus on doing what is best for your child.
- Control your emotions, just like you would do at work.
- Be clear and specific when you talk to the other parent. Write things down and keep business-like records of important agreements.
- Keep your promises. Your children need to be able to trust and rely on you.
- Watch the words you use when you talk about divorce.
Parents sometimes need to change their parenting plan as their children get older or when their situation changes due to relocation, remarriage, new work schedule, etc. A good starting point is for the parents to discuss the need for changes to their parenting plan and work out new arrangements together, taking into account their children’s best interests, as well as their own circumstances. If this is not possible, parents may meet with a private mediator or may negotiate through attorneys. And if they still cannot agree, they may reopen their case and ask the court to make a decision for them.
If, within the first year after a final court order in their parenting case, either parent wants to work out changes to a parenting plan that was developed with the assistance of a Court Mediator, they may contact the Child Custody and Access Mediation Program (240-777-9080). If both parents agree, a mediator is available, and the court’s custody order permits it, then the parents may attend a follow-up session without formally reopening their case.
Additional questions and/or comments, contact:
Child Custody and Access Mediation Program
Family Division Services
Montgomery County Circuit Court
50 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, Maryland 20850
We are particularly interested in receiving feedback on how the program serves the parents, as well as how the service could be improved.
- Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO)
- Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution (MCDR)
- Maryland Judiciary, Family Administration Department for Conflict Resolution
50 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, Maryland 20850
Office Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM