Updated: Jan 13
Whether you are like Kevin, the father in my first blog post, or a dad who just wants more time with your child, you may need a Family Court to help you with that goal. Fathers have just as much right to have time with their children as mothers do. However, I have seen many fathers feel frustrated by the court process. I believe the key is to know what to expect in Family Court and being prepared to present your case. We will go over some essential information and tips so you can be as prepared as possible when you go to Family Court. This is not intended to be legal advice, but just helpful information so you know what to expect if you are representing yourself in Family Court.
Family Court Structure and Tips
Family Court is a dedicated court to address the legal matters of divorce, child custody, child support, and restraining orders. In any court, you will find judges, family relations officers, the clerk's office, a court services center, and marshals. Each has a crucial role, and if you understand their position, it will help you navigate the system better. This blog post is not a complete outline of the system, but to offer some tips on how to handle yourself in court. Each case is different, so no one answer fits all scenarios. However, as Sir Francis Bacon once said: "knowledge is power." Don't allow a lack of information to hinder your efforts in being able to spend time with your children.
Judges are the final arbitrator on the family court matter at the Superior Court level. They decide the outcome of the case if the parties do not reach an agreement. The Judge will listen to the evidence, hear the arguments by the parties, and then render a decision. The Judge is governed by what we call rules of evidence. https://www.jud.ct.gov/Publications/code2000.pdf. This means not everything you want to come into evidence will be allowed. Only those things that are reliable and relevant to the case and do not violate any of the rules. This can be tricky for anyone new to the court system, but the Judge may remind parties of the rules if she chooses.
TIP: make sure when you are presenting your case, you only present facts, and be sure you actually have the proof with you. Text messages, emails, and eye-witnesses are some of the best evidence available to you. Make sure you have three copies of everything: one for the court, one for the opposing side, and one for your use while in court.
Before, going to the Judge, the parties are allowed to speak with a Family Relations Officer. Their role is "to assist the Court and clients in the timely and fair resolution of family and interpersonal conflicts through a comprehensive program of alternative dispute resolution services, case management, evaluation, and education." (See https://www.jud.ct.gov/Publications/FM211.pdf) The family relations have more time to listen to the two of you and they are not bound by the rules of evidence. Their job is not to make the parties agree, but to find a way to reach a solution. If the parties cannot agree, then the matter may be referred to Family Relations for an evaluation. They will complete an investigation and make a recommendation to the Judge. You may be stuck with the recommendation or have to find a means by which to convince a judge that this is not the right recommendation.
TIP: When speaking with family relations, never use the words "my child." It is better to say, "our child." This will indicate to the family relations officer that you understand that this child has two parents, and both have an equal interest in having a relationship with the child. Try to be reasonable in all of your requests. Put yourself in the other person's shoes and make sure what you are asking is something you could live with if the shoe were on the other foot. This way, the Family Relations Officer could inadvertently become an advocate. They may say to the opposing party that your request is reasonable and ask what the barrier to an agreement is. The other party may look bad by not agreeing.
The clerk's office is the keeper of the court records and they understand firsthand the flow of the work that occurs in the courthouse. If you need copies of any prior court orders, you can start there. They will also be able to tell you where you need to go on your court date. When I was a new prosecutor, I decided to make friends in the clerk's office. I would go in person to speak with them when I had a question and offer assistance when I could. They became a valuable source of information that I needed to do my job effectively. Never underestimate their helpfulness.
TIP: The Clerk’s office is not a law firm. They cannot tell you how to proceed with your case and how to get what you want from the court. They are only there to explain the court process. I have seen people become frustrated with the clerk's office staff because they could not answer questions which are really requests for legal advice. I find the clerk's office to be an excellent resource for understanding how the court runs. While each court is guided by the same rules and statutes, how it is executed is different everywhere. Before your court date, I suggest going to the clerk's office after 3 pm when the day's business is just about concluded, and ask what to expect for your court date based on the matter at hand. They will probably look it up for you, advise of the documents you need, and tell you where to go when you come. Do not wait until the morning of the court date, as they will be too busy to exercise that kind of patience.
Court Services Center
The Court Services Center is designed to help people who are representing themselves. According to the Judicial website, the Court Services Center must “provide services for self-represented parties, members of the bar, and the community at large. They are located within Judicial District Courthouses and are staffed by Judicial Branch employees trained to assist all court patrons.” (See https://www.jud.ct.gov/csc/). The staff there can answer questions related to what you need to file if you are seeking custody, visitation, or child support. They may not be able to tell you how best to present your case, and what evidence you need, but they can answer the questions relevant to where to start the process. They also have computers, printers, a fax machine, and printed guides to help you in the process.
TIP: Much like the clerk's office, the Court Services Center cannot help you with legal advice. However, they can help you start the process if you are not sure where to start. You can also get all the forms that you need there, in the event you don't have access to a printer at home. I would also advise going in the afternoon when it is not as busy. The staff will have more time and resources available to you then.
When going to court, many will overlook the importance and role of the judicial marshal. Yes, you have to get past dealing with airport-like security checks. However, marshals serve a vital role. They are not only there to keep the peace in the courthouse, but they will be the ones to tell you if and when the court is opening up, whether it is on break, and when it is expected to reopen. This is important because you don't want to miss your case being called by the Judge. The Judge could dismiss it for your failure to appear in front of the Judge. This means you will have to start the process all over again.
TIP: If you have a hostile party on the other side and you are not sure how they will behave towards you in court, stay close to a marshal. Quietly approach a marshal and let them know of your concern and they will endeavor to keep a watch over the situation. No marshal wants a disturbance in the court and they would rather know upfront what to look out for, rather than wait for it to happen unexpectedly.
There are other critical people in court, such as lawyers. Some are there on their client's behalf, and others are appointed as Guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem acts in the best interest of the child. She makes recommendations to the court as to how best to resolve the matter. The attorney must be appointed by the court, but the parties have to pay for their services. Cases with lawyers are often called first as lawyers tend to be busy and it is costly to have them in court all day. This means those without attorneys could be called later in the day or at times at the end of the day. Prepare to be patient.
How to Prepare for Your Court Date
Here some important steps and tips for anyone going to court, especially dads, who do not have custody. These steps and tips do not guarantee that you have the outcome you desire, but it may lessen the stress and anxiety that occurs when going to court and give a greater chance at success.
On a day before your actual court date, locate the court, and figure out the parking. Every courthouse is different. Some have free parking, some have only paid-parking areas. However, for some courthouses, free parking may be a block away from the court. You need to be sure of where you are going to avoid dealing with parking tickets or arriving late because you do not know where to go.
On your "field trip" to the court, locate the court services center. Inform the staff of your pending petition in court and ask them what to expect. Inquire if you need to bring any documents with you. At the very least, they will let you know where you need to report to when you come to court. They will also have brochures and other ready materials that may help determine what to ask for while in court.
If you filed the petition, contact the clerk's office at least 10 days before the court date to make sure they received proof of service. If you submitted the application, the clerk's office should have directed you to get those documents to a marshal so that the other party can be served. This is a necessary step as the party has a right to know what you filed in court, and the Judge will not proceed without proof this was done. Therefore, you need to check back with the clerk to make sure the marshal sent the proof of service to the court. Make sure to keep the name and number of the marshal you used as you may have to track down the marshal yourself. You can find the list of marshals in the State of Connecticut on the Connecticut Judicial Website. (See https://www.jud.ct.gov/faq/marshals.htm)
On your date, you will need to be directed to either wait for the court call – this is when the court calls the names on the docket to see who is present and who is ready to proceed. After your name is called, the court will either direct you to a courtroom or tell you to see family relations. As noted above, when you go to family relations, the Family Relations officer is tasked with determining if you and the other party can reach an agreement as to petition. If you can't reach an agreement, the Judge will determine the next steps. They may send you back to family relations to try again at an agreement, ask family relations to do an evaluation, or allow you both to present evidence so that the court can make a decision.
Keep your child's best interest at the center. This is not the time to seek vindication or revenge. It is time to demonstrate what you believe is needed for your child to have a good relationship with both parents.
Stay laser-focused on why you have come to court. If you are seeking to spend more time with your child, then don't leave until a decision is made about that request. Let the other party argue and fight. It is best if you remain calm and clear about what you want to accomplish.
Be ready to compromise. Honestly, the best agreements in family court are the ones where no one is completely happy with the outcome. This means both parties gave up something so that an agreement can be reached. If you stay focused on being the "winner," you could end up losing everything you actually wanted.
I have heard that Family Court in Connecticut is a "women's court." The mother always gets her way, and she always ends up with the child. This, however, is a very limited view of the general purpose of the family court, which is to resolve family matters. The party that has the law and evidence on its side is more than likely to prevail. However, when it comes to children's matters, the priority is not the satisfaction and happiness of the parents. The priority is what is the best interest of the child or children involved. If you keep this at the forefront and as the focus of your efforts, you may be able to prevail in court. In turn, this may be your best course in ensuring you give your child the best opportunity at growing up with "a daddy of his own."
Family court isn't the only place a father's voice needs to be heard. There is also a Juvenile Court, which is VERY different from the Family court. I would argue the stakes are even higher in Juvenile Court, which makes a father's involvement even more important. In part 4 of "A Daddy of My Own Series, we will discuss Daddies and DCF.