Dec 12, 2012

A Practical Guide to Navigating Visitation Disputes

All too often, litigants work tirelessly to finalize a comprehensive parenting order only to have disputes over parenting time after the order is entered.  The purpose of this article is to provide a few practical tips to deal with these common problems, including some new remedies for litigants provided by recent amendments to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.

  1. At a minimum, document the situation. If you do not wish to involve police or courts, at a minimum you should document a violation in a letter or email from you or your attorney.  Courts typically do not sanction someone for a single, isolated violation.  By documenting repeat violations, you will be able to show a clear pattern of behavior to the court should you choose to use court action to enforce the order.  If you feel that a child should not attend a scheduled visitation for a justifiable reason (i.e., to prevent abuse), you should document your reasoning and contact your attorney to address how best to handle the issue in order to avoid being held in contempt of Court for violating an order.
  2. Contact the police in appropriate circumstances, but exercise discretion. Visitation interference is a crime in Illinois, and a parent who commits unlawful visitation interference is guilty of a petty offense.  Upon a third conviction of visitation interference, a party is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.  So if a parent is refusing without justification to return a child, it may be advisable to contact the police.  Keep in mind that, as a practical matter, non-emergency visitation issues are often assigned a low priority by police given their heavy workloads, particularly in urban areas.  A local law enforcement agent advised that police typically give one or two warnings prior to issuing a citation for visitation interference.  So it is important to ask the officer to write a ticket for the other parent’s visitation interference.  If the officer writes a police report, request a copy of the report.   In non-emergency situations, it is important to exercise discretion when involving the police to minimize any impact on the children.  Police officers will usually meet the reporting party at a location near the site of the violation (usually the other party’s home) and will make efforts to address the situation without involving the children.
  1. Keep a certified copy of your order handy. You should always have a copy of your visitation order in a readily accessible area.  The visitation order is the first document a police officer will request when responding to a visitation issue. Some officers will insist on seeing a certified copy of the order. Any visitation order may be certified (or authenticated) by the Clerk of Court for a nominal fee.
  2. Enforce the order in court. Unlawful visitation interference is infrequently prosecuted as a criminal matter, but the Domestic Relations Court retains jurisdiction over child related matters and presents another avenue for enforcing visitation orders.  The Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (“IMDMA”) provides expedited procedures for addressing visitation abuse.  Governor Quinn recently signed into law the Steven Watkins Memorial Act, which strengthens the sanctions that the court may impose under section 607.1 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/607.1).  Under the new rule, the court may suspend a violator’s driving privileges, place a party on probation, sentence a party to periodic imprisonment for a period under 6 months, find the party guilty of a petty offense, and fine them up to $500 for each finding of visitation abuse.
  3. Do not involve the children. Avoid discussing the visitation dispute with, or in front of, minor children.   Courts react favorably to the party that attempts to shield the children from conflict and puts the children’s interests first.

Keep in mind that each case is fact-specific, and if you have doubts about how to address a situation, contact your attorney.

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