Family Court Services

The Family Court Services (FCS) Program in the Center for Families, Children & the Courts (CFCC) provides training, technical assistance, consultation and support to court programs that serve families and children involved in child custody and visitation disputes. The program supports trial court staff who provide family and child custody mediation, evaluation, and other related services.


Although they may use a different name, all California courts have some kind of a family court services office through which mediators and other professionals assist families experiencing disputes about custody or visitation in family court. These offices assist in addressing child safety, family violence, and conduct interviews with children, as needed. In some courts, they also assist with related issues such as guardianships, marriages involving minors, and adoption.

The FCS program in CFCC works directly with local family court services staff through providing and supporting:

  • Technical assistance, including consultation, support and site visits
  • Mandatory training
  • Research
  • Identification of effective practices
  • Policy development
  • Legislation affecting the delivery of family dispute resolution services
  • Statewide rules and forms development

In California, when child custody or visitation is contested, the parties are required to participate in mediation.

The purposes of mediation, under Family Code 3161, are as follows:

  • To reduce acrimony that may exist between the parties;
  • To develop an agreement ensuring that the child has close and continuing contact with both parents, in the best interest of the child;
  • To settle the visitation rights of all parties in a way that is in the best interest of the child.

Courts in California make available professionally trained mediators to meet with families at no cost. Parents who obtain a private mediator outside the court will be responsible for all costs.

Mediators working in Family Court Services (FCS) offices, by statute, are mental health professionals who are required to have a master’s degree in a behavioral science substantially related to marriage and family interpersonal relationships and at least two years of experience in counseling or psychotherapy.

Service Models
There are two primary types of mediation: confidential, also known as non-recommending, and recommending. While most courts offer one or the other, some local courts use what can be referred to as a hybrid model, where both non-recommending and recommending services are available, depending upon the needs and issues presented by the families. The services of the courts with a tiered approach to mediation may include:

  • Non-recommending – parents make a custody/visitation agreement through the mediation process and the agreement is submitted to court;
  • Fact-finding – When an agreement is not made, in whole or in part and where there may be issues and allegations that need to be researched through investigations or evaluations that can be conducted, with reports to court; and
  • Recommending – the mediator is a child custody recommending counselor who will conduct mediation and will write a report with recommendations that will go before the court if parents do not reach an agreement in mediation. This model can include interview of the child(ren).

Parents should contact their local superior court to inquire about the model offered in their county. Superior Court websites may be found here:

Participants
Each local court has a policy on who participates in mediation other than the parents. Some courts permit attorney involvement; some do not. Parents should confirm in advance with Family Court Services in their county. In special circumstances, a support person may be included. For non-English speaking clients, courts make every effort to provide certified court interpreters who are extensively trained to provide interpretation services in the courts, and who may be present to interpret during the mediation.

Domestic Violence Protocol for Child Custody and Visitation Disputes
When there has been a history of domestic violence between the parties or when there is a protective order in effect, parties shall meet with the court-appointed investigator separately and at separate times. The party alleging domestic violence or who is protected by the order makes the request by submitting a written declaration under penalty of perjury.

Parties who are concerned about their safety should notify their court-appointed mediator or evaluator. Additional resources regarding domestic violence can be found here.

Outcome
When parents reach an agreement through mediation, the mediator helps the parties draft the agreement for the parties, their attorneys (if represented), and the court. If the parents are unable to reach an agreement through mediation, the next step varies according to local court procedures. Some courts ask for more information from the parents during the court hearing; some courts require a report, with or without recommendations, regarding custody and parenting plans; and, other courts refer the families to evaluation or investigation services. In some situations, the court might appoint an attorney for the child(ren). Parents can contact their local court for information about family court services programs.

Domestic Violence Protocols for Family Mediation Cases
By law, in cases in which there has been domestic violence, court-connected child custody mediators must meet with the parties separately at least initially (and in appropriate cases, such as where a request has been made, throughout the case) when any of the following circumstances exist:

  1. There has been a history of domestic violence;
  2. A protective order is in effect; or
  3. When a party alleging domestic violence in a written declaration under penalty of perjury requests a separate mediation.

Additionally, mediators may decide that separate sessions are appropriate and necessary in any case. They may also decide that a joint session must end and that mediation can continue only in separate sessions.

Support Persons
Courts must advise the party protected by a protective order of the right to have a support person attend any mediation orientation or mediation sessions, including separate mediation sessions.

Parties who are unsure whether separate or joint sessions are appropriate for their case should contact their local family court services unit or assigned mediator. Family court services personnel are trained to be sensitive to issues pertaining to domestic violence and to respond as needed. 

Domestic Violence Protocol for Child Custody Evaluation
When there has been a history of domestic violence between the parties or when there is a protective order in effect, parties shall meet with the court-appointed investigator separately and at separate times. The party alleging domestic violence or who is protected by the order makes the request by submitting a written declaration under penalty of perjury.

Parties who are concerned about their safety should notify their court-appointed mediator or evaluator. Additional resources regarding domestic violence can be found here.

In some instances, the court will appoint a mental health professional to evaluate a family and make recommendations about visitation or custody. There are two primary types of evaluations:

  • Full Custody Evaluation. This is a comprehensive examination of the health, safety, welfare, and best interest of the child.
  • Partial Custody Evaluation. This is an examination of the health, safety, welfare, and best interest of the child that is limited by court order in either time or scope.

In California, evaluations can be conducted either by court staff or private professionals, depending on the local court’s resources and structure. California Rule of Court 5.220 governs the purpose, responsibilities, scope and ethics of custody evaluators. California Rule of Court 5.225 addresses appointment requirements for child custody evaluators.

In addition to a master’s degree and two years of experience in counseling or psychology, FCS mediators also are required to participate in annual continuing education training.

Court-connected child custody mediators, supervisors, directors (CRC 5.210):

  • Must complete 40 hours within the first six months of employment;
  • Must complete 8 hours of continuing education annually;
  • Must complete 4 hours of domestic violence update training


Court-connected mediation supervisors and directors (CRC 5.210):

  • Must complete a total of 32 hours of training each calendar year. This requirement may be satisfied in part by the 4 hours of domestic violence update and the 8 hours of continuing education.

Court-connected child custody evaluators/investigators (CRC 5.225):

  • Must complete 40 hours of training before appointment;
  • Must complete 16 hours of advanced domestic violence training within a 12 month period;
  • Must complete 4 hours of domestic violence update training annually;
  • Must complete 8 hours of continuing education annually

Judicial Council Sponsored Trainings

The FCS Program provides education to family court services staff to help them provide exceptional services to the public and assist them in meeting their mandatory education requirements. The FCS Program collaborates with other departments under the Judicial Council, such as those who train judicial officers, court staff, and experts in different divisions of California courts. This sharing of resources encourages collaboration, broadens diversity of ideas, and increases cost efficiencies. The FCS Program offers an array of in person and distance training programs aimed to meet education requirements under California Rules of Court, rules 5.210, 5.225, 5.230 and 5.518 and other requirements under rule 10.474 (Trial Court Personnel). The key in person trainings include:

  • Statewide Educational Institute
    This biennial conference is held during Family Law Education Programs and brings together more than 400 California FCS directors, managers, supervisors, and court administrators, mediators, and evaluators for mandated continuing education per California Rules of Court listed above. Content includes an array of topics including legal updates, policy and practice, conflict resolution skills building and enhancement, and self-care programs.

 

  • Directors Training Symposium and Monthly Education
    This biannual training is provided for family court services directors, managers, supervisors, and court administrators. The in-person trainings are provided at statewide events and/or regional programs, generally alternating between northern and southern California. The FCS Program also hosts monthly distance learning conference calls and webinars for FCS Directors on the first Wednesday of every month. The trainings provide an array of topics related to program administration, legal updates, practice and research as well as opportunity for attendees to engage in discussion regarding mediation views and practices prevalent throughout the state. Directors may discuss statewide initiatives and share emerging practices that improve services models, create efficiencies and allow for innovation in the field.

 

  • Institute for New Court Professionals 
    This training is for newly hired child custody mediators and evaluators in the trial courts and provides a portion of the required training under California Rules of Court, rule 5.210, supplementing the orientation and training that local courts provide when a new staff person is hired.

 

  • Regional Trainings
    These one-day events are held in various regions throughout the state and are designed to address diverse regional interests and current needs or concerns. The FCS Program partners with local courts to set up these events.

Trainings by Outside Providers
Judicial Council sponsored training programs covers only a portion of the annual training requirements needed. Additional training is supplied at the local level and through distance learning. Rules of Court require the Judicial Council to approve trainings offered for credit. In order to administrate the approval process, the FCS Program team has developed a training approval request form.

  • For Program Providers:
    To receive Judicial Council approval for a training program, the provider must complete and submit a form with accompanying documents to the FCS Program requesting approval for the training. Please contact the FCS Program at FCS@jud.ca.gov to receive a copy of the form.

  • For Participants:
    To receive approval for an upcoming training or one already attended, and the training provider did not seek approval by the Judicial Council’s CFCC FCS Program, the participant may submit a form with accompanying documents to the FCS Program requesting approval for the training. FCS directors may also request approval of an upcoming training on behalf of their staff by contacting the FCS Program. Please contact the FCS Program at FCS@jud.ca.gov to receive a copy of the form.


TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE

The FCS Program provides a variety of assistance to local courts to help them enhance or improve family court mediation services. Program staff and researchers examine best and promising practices in the area of child custody and the reduction of litigation. Assistance to local courts may include site visits, the use of program experts, specialized trainings, collaboration on research projects, and administering grants for research, study, and demonstration projects in the area of family law. The Family Court Services Program also facilitates and supports the collaboration among family court programs across the state, allowing for opportunities to observe other programs and share information about program management and services. Family Court Services directors who would like to request technical assistance or participate in research related to family court services are encouraged to contact the FCS Program at FCS@jud.ca.gov.