When parents end their relationship, it’s rarely easy especially if there are disagreements over custody. As Chicago child custody attorneys, we’re often asked for guidance on what you should bring up in a child custody case to show you are the “better parent“. If you are anticipating a child custody case in Chicago, here’s what you need to know.
Table of Contents
What are Cook County Judges Looking For in Child Custody Cases?
When a child custody case comes before a Cook County judge, their focus is trying to protect the well-being of the child while facilitating a relationship with both parents. Custody cases are always a delicate balance between the best interests of the child and the constitutional rights of the parents. So, when deciding how to divide a child’s time between the parents, the court is looking at the actions of the parents, both in how they treat the child and how they treat each other.
When looking at the issue of custody, judges typically do not want to disrupt the status quo of a child’s life by making drastic changes in their lives, like moving them from the home one parent to the other. However, if a judge feels that the child is unsafe, or the residential parent (i.e. the parent with whom the child lives primarily) is blocking the other parent from having contact and/or a meaningful relationship with the child, such a move could be warranted.
When making a case to increase your parenting time, or request that you be allocated, the judge will be looking primarily at your relationship with the child and with the other parent. The judge will be most impressed by a parent who shows an ongoing dedication to the child, primarily by spending time with them and being involved in their lives. Judges will also look carefully at concerns raised by parents that they are trying to be involved in their child’s life, but the other parent is refusing to facilitate that relationship by denying parenting time, interfering with communication, or talking badly about the other parent. Those behaviors will be looked down upon by the judge, as judges want to see parents make a genuine effort not only to work together but to support their child having two involved, active parents in their lives.
Important Factors in Child Custody Cases
In cases that have never been in court before, the judge will create a parenting time schedule to ensure that both parents have regular and consistent time with the child. For the most part, this will be based on the schedule the parents followed before the case comes to court, which we call the “status quo”. If a parent can show that the other parent is blocking their ability to spend time with the child, then the judge will order parenting time and the other parent will have to follow that schedule. If they do not, they face being found in contempt for non-compliance with the judge’s order.
So, if you are seeking to increase your parenting time with your child, i.e. show you are the “better parent”, it is critical to be able to show that you have routinely made an effort to spend time with your child, support them, and be involved in their lives. If the other parent can show that time has been offered to you, but you have declined it or not tried to spend time with the child (except for a good reason, like a conflict at work), the judge is unlikely to agree that you should have additional time.
Further, judges want to see genuine efforts at respectful co-parenting and an understanding that both parents should be involved in a child’s life. The law recognizes that it is in a child’s best interests to have a good relationship with both parents, which means spending time with both parents on a consistent basis. Parents who engage in alienation, i.e. prohibit or significantly limit contact between a child and the other parent, talk badly about the other parent to the child, etc. stand to lose parenting time, or be admonished by the judge for failing to facilitate a relationship between the child and other parent, unless there are serious safety concerns about that parent (physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse issues, etc.).
If a parent behaves in a way that potentially impacts the child’s safety, that will be taken seriously by the judge. That behavior could include a history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse towards the child or other children, or if the parent is involved with another individual with a history of abuse. Another significant concern is if the parent has a substance abuse problem that could impact their ability to safely care for the child. Another concern would be a parent who leaves a child unsupervised or unmonitored or other acts that indicate a disregard for concern about the child’s safety. Parents looking to expand their time should know that they need to be able to show that they are responsible and concerned with making sure the child is safe and protected in their care.
What Types of Evidence Will a Judge Consider in a Child Custody Case?
In terms of evidence, judges are going to be primarily concerned with evidence of their intent and behavior towards the child. Text and emails exchanges between parties can be an important way to show how the parents interact, including whether a parent is requesting time with the child, and if those requests are being accepted or refused. This is especially relevant because it is evidence of how the parents act outside of court, including their willingness to comply with and follow court orders.
Judges will also look at:
- photographs, videos, audio recordings, or other evidence of behaviors if there are concerns of abuse or other mistreatment, or
- also as evidence of a relationship between the parent and the child.
However, it is important to know that a judge is going to look skeptically at any video that seems coached or overly influenced by the parent. Likewise, parties need to know that in Illinois both adults must be aware that they are being recorded, otherwise the recording is not lawful and could result in a criminal charge, the exception being that the video was created believing a criminal act was imminent.
Testimony From the Parents
Judges are primarily concerned with the testimony of both parents when deciding how to create or modify a parenting time schedule. The judge will want to hear from both parties and make determinations as to who they find most credible and honest. The judge may also want to hear from the child directly, though generally, children do not testify in court. Rather, their interests and wishes are generally relayed to the court by a representative of the child, like a Guardian ad Litem or Child’s Representative. Judges do not want children to have to go through the process of testifying against either parent. If a child needs to speak directly with a child, the judge will generally meet with the child in chambers (i.e. the judge’s office) and have a conversation with them, rather than having the child testify and be subject to cross-examination.
Testimony from Third Parties
In some cases, the testimony of third parties, particularly expert witnesses, can be very important to a judge in deciding about a case. This could be a therapist, a doctor, a parenting evaluator, Guardian ad Litem representing the child, or another individual who has worked with or evaluated the child and/or one or both parents. This person is going to be seen as impartial, which is important to the judge when evaluating the potential for bias in that individual’s testimony.
While in some cases calling a family member or friend to testify may be relevant, or helpful, it is important to remember that this kind of person will always be viewed as someone who is potentially biased because of their relationship with you or the other parents. The same can be said of letters of reference. While they generally cannot hurt your case, they are not the strongest evidence because the judge will know that you have a relationship with that person that influences their statements to the judge.