Judges have a tremendously demanding job, with the lives of the people in their court hanging in the balance. Of all types of cases, child custody is the most challenging. Deciding between two parents can permanently change the trajectory of a child’s life, so making the right call is crucial.
To provide a framework in pursuit of the ideal situation, the court is guided by the Best Interest of the Child Standard. You can think of “Best Interests” as the court’s North Star, leading the judge to the best possible situation for the child. For any custody applicant, understanding this set of principles is key to a successful outcome in court.
First and foremost, the Best Interest of the Child Standard recognizes the importance of identifying abusive and dangerous situations. For children who have been subject to an abusive parent, the goal of the court is to find an alternative arrangement that provides competent care in an environment of love, nourishment, and positivity. Ideally, this is provided by the other parent. While the abusive parent can be awarded some visitation privileges in certain circumstances, the vast majority of time would be spent with the more supportive supervising adult awarded custody.
Of course, many custody situations aren’t so clear-cut. All states and U.S. jurisdictions have statutes stipulating that the best interest of the child must come first in a custody case, determined by the child’s circumstances and each parent’s capacity to provide a safe, stable, productive home. Because each state has its own Best Interest of the Child Standard, it’s important to research the jurisdiction where your case will be heard; comprehensive guidelines are available from ChildWelfare.org. That said, there is enough overlap between states to provide some quick guidance.
In approximately 21 states and the District of Columbia, Best Interests requires the judge to take into account factors including relationships between parents, siblings, and extended family, the mental and physical needs of the child and parents, and the capacity for each parent to provide a safe home. In these states, the framework for Best Interests of the Child is provided from the outset.
In the remaining 29 states, the statutes are more general, and provide an opportunity for the court to operate on a case by case basis with more flexibility in their decision-making.Thought it varies state by state, The Best Interest of the Child Standard provides a valuable framework in every jurisdiction. Each party involved in a custody case - parents, lawyers, and the court - must always keep in mind that the child’s welfare comes before all other considerations.