Child custody refers to where a child resides and who makes parental decisions for that child. At its most basic, custody disputes concern the health and welfare of an unemancipated minor child. When a child would be safer and healthier under the care of a different guardian, that would-be guardian may file for child custody and seek guardianship over the child. While guardianship and custody may be decided through negotiations and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, most guardianship and custody actions are resolved by the court.
Custody is typically awarded to the child’s primary caregiver, so long as that primary caregiver is a fit and proper parent. A primary caregiver is one who is responsible for providing the child with food, clothing, shelter, and day-to-day care. There are instances where a primary caregiver becomes unfit to maintain custody, such as in cases of abuse, neglect, or drug use.
In some instances, the court may request the child’s opinion as to who should be his or her primary caregiver. The court may also hire independent, third party experts to assess the needs and interests of the child, such as a child representative or a guardian ad litem. These experts may conduct investigations into the child’s present domestic circumstances and the living arrangements of any would-be guardian. The independent expert will then report his or her findings to the court and assist the court in making its final determination.