What is supervised visitation?

California’s law and public policy is to protect the best interest of children whose parents have a custody or visitation matter in family court. Custodial stability, continuity, and a loving parent-child relationship have been classified as the most important criteria for determining a child’s best interest. In certain circumstances, however, a judge may place safeguards when there are issues of protection and safety. In order to protect the safety of a child, a judge may order that a child only have contact with a parent when a neutral third person is present during the visitation. This type of third-person visitation arrangement is often called supervised visitation.

How does supervised visitation become mandated by the court?

Although California law recognizes the importance of frequent and ongoing contact with both parents, that rule is not absolute. The exception to the rule is when such an order is not consistent with the child’s best interest and where there may be conditions that make visitation uncomfortable or even dangerous for a child.

In those scenarios, supervised visitation may be an appropriate answer. Family Code Section 3200.5(b) also requires a California family court to determine whether supervised visitation is necessary or not. Supervised visitation is typically ordered by the court to give the non-custodial parent the chance to work through certain issues and enhance the parent-child relationship and visits. If a child’s safety or well-being are at issue, there are a number of reasons why the judge may order supervised visitation, including:

  • To give the visiting parent a chance to address specific issues;
  • To help reintroduce a parent and a child after a long absence;
  • To help introduce a parent and a child when there has been no existing relationship between them;
  • When there is a history or allegations of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, or substance abuse;
  • When there are parenting concerns or mental illness; or
  • When there is a parental threat of abduction.

Parents may be able to establish a parenting plan and agree on the supervised visitation provider. However, if parents disagree on a parenting plan or provider and depending on the nature of the situation, the court will specify the time and duration of the visits, and may also specify where the visits are to take place and who is to supervise the visits.

California family courts have wide discretion to consider any factor that may be relevant to visitation if it affects the health, safety, and welfare of the child. Thus, if supervised visitation is ordered, keep in mind it will be because the judge deems it to be in the best interest of the child.

Compare professional providers and non-professional supervised visitation providers, and when are each is appropriate?

When the court orders supervised visitation, a neutral third party must be present when a child has contact with the visiting parent. The supervised visitation provider is there to facilitate interactions between the visiting parent and their child in a safe, stable, and secure environment. Ultimately, the supervised visitation provider’s responsibility is to keep your child safe and free from unnecessary stress.

California recognizes two (2) types of supervised visitation providers: Non-Professional Providers and Professional Providers. When selecting a provider and before any supervised visits, it is helpful for parents to understand what qualifications are required for both types of providers. Generally, all supervised visitation providers must meet minimum qualifications before providing services and must follow the uniform standards of practice outlined in Family Code Section 3200.5. As with any decision-making matter related to your child, parents should consider all factors, requirements, advantages—as well as disadvantages—when selecting between a non-professional or professional supervisor, further discussed below.

Non-Professional Providers: A non-professional provider typically is a family member, friend, or acquaintance who is not paid for providing the supervised visitation service. While choosing a non-professional supervisor may be an attractive option in order to save on costs and have a familiar face at the visits, selecting a non-professional provider frequently does not work out for various reasons.

First, it is often difficult for parents to find a neutral supervisor on whom they both agree. Second, although friends and relatives may be quick to agree to provide supervision, they also may be unable to maintain their regular supervising commitment or find it difficult to refrain from taking sides. Once neutrality is lost, then the supervisor’s credibility is now at issue and much of the feeling of security and safety for the parents and child will be gone. Lastly, having a friend, relative, or acquaintance as a supervisor may detract from the visiting parent and child’s time together because the visiting parent may be tempted to spend time interacting with the familiar supervisor, rather than focusing only on the child during visits. In that kind of situation, the child may resent or even refuse the visits because they feel less important to the visiting parent.

Professional providers: A professional provider is any person paid for providing supervised visitation services through a supervised visitation center or agency. While both types of supervisors must meet the court’s requirements, professional providers must satisfy more stringent standards for education and training requirements, are well-trained in supervising techniques, and have experience in facilitating safe and supportive visiting environments. If there are concerns about domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, or abduction, parents may benefit from choosing a professional provider who has been trained in those issues and clearly understands the specialized knowledge and skills required for those types of cases and concerns.

How might a visiting parent deal with supervised visitation?

It may be uncomfortable being with your child in the presence of a third party, regardless of the supervisor’s relationship to you. You may not agree with the court’s order of supervised visitation, however, your patience and commitment to your child are critical during this time. Do your best to focus on your relationship with your child and try not to displace any anger against the other parent, the courts, or the fact that supervised visitation was ordered. The following is a list of the court’s suggestions to keep in mind before and during any supervised visitation with your child:

  • Read the court order.
  • Arrive and depart on time. Factor in commute time and make sure you have enough time before each visit to arrive on time.
  • Get your head in the game. Before each visitation, take a few minutes before your parenting time to clear your mind and get ready to focus on your child. It may sound easy enough, but it’s important to not let outside worries or personal issues impact your visit. Listening to your favorite music, meditating, or using a calming app on your phone can help get you focused for your parenting time.
  • Avoid discussing the court case or terms of the visit with your child.
  • Avoid quizzing your child about the other parent’s activities and relationships.
  • Avoid making your child messengers to the other parent.
  • Say brief and positive good-byes to your child when the visit is over.
  • Give yourself breathing time afterward. If possible, try not to schedule any appointments or meetings immediately after your visit. Knowing that you have another commitment right after your visit may serve as a distraction during your parenting time and may make you feel rushed and stressed out during the visit.
  • Keep a journal to reflect on your visits. Supervised visitation should be an enjoyable experience for you and your child. After your visit, think about anything you learned from your child – Does he or she have new interests or hobbies? Does your child no longer play certain games or activities? Try to think of your child’s current interests and find something you both can partake in and look forward to doing together during each visit.

How might a custodial parent deal with supervised visitation?

Supervised visitation may also be a stressful and challenging situation for the custodial parent. The custodial parent is accustomed to tending to their child’s everyday needs and have established a routine for themselves and the family. Supervised visitation may raise concerns and questions about the visits, and how they will affect the relationships between the child and visiting parent, and relationship between the child and custodial parent. These concerns are completely understandable. The custodial parent also may not agree with the court’s order of supervised visitation, however, it is equally critical for the custodial parent to demonstrate from the outset the willingness and ability to cooperate in parenting. Here are a few suggestions from the court that may assist custodial parents in the supervised visitation process:

  • Read the court order.
  • Explain to your child where and when the visits will take place. Be sure to discuss the visits with your child beforehand and mark the date on a calendar that your child has easy access to. This will help keep your child aware of when they see the other parent next and how frequently.
  • Have your child ready with anything they will need during the visits.
  • Arrive on time to drop off and pick up your child.
  • Reassure your child that you support them in having a pleasant visit. Encourage your child to look forward to the visits, even if either you or your child have negative feelings about the visits. Always support your child in their efforts to build a relationship with the other parent.
  • Avoid making your child messengers to the other parent.
  • Avoid quizzing your child about the visit. Do not question or interview them about the visit or the other parent. Instead, allow your child to share as much information as they want.

What needs to take place for a visiting parent to have unsupervised visitation?

Although supervised visitation can be a very difficult situation for both parents and the child, fortunately, supervised visitation is usually only temporary and allows parents to maintain contact with their children despite the challenging circumstances. Once the judge orders supervised visitation, the order remains in place until a parent can demonstrate that there has been a change in circumstances. A change in circumstances can include one parent’s decision to move, a parent’s successful completion of rehabilitation or counseling, or other positive changes that impact a parent’s suitability. The parent who wishes to change the supervised visitation order must return to court and request that the order is modified to reflect the change in circumstances.

The family courts will continue to monitor your case to determine if supervised visitation is still necessary. Keep in mind that if you are the parent whose visitation is supervised, consider how you can demonstrate your fitness to a judge and specific instances that validate a change in circumstances in order to transition from supervised to unsupervised visitation.