MOUNT VERNON — Police officers often find themselves caught between the opposing sides of a custody dispute when one of the parties calls law enforcement looking for assistance.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles examining the different roles the court, mediators, and law enforcement can have in settling child custody disputes. Thursday, the News examines the role of the court in such matters. In Friday’s edition, a court mediator explains the role of her office. Saturday’s edition will look at the role law enforcement can and cannot play in custody issues.
But law enforcement officers say they must limit their involvement in such matters, interfering only when someone’s safety may be threatened.
Most of the time, the officer can only document a disagreement over a custody mater, not settle one.
“We’re unable to enforce civil court orders [such as custody orders] except for civil protection orders,” explained Knox County Sheriff David Barber.
“As far as child custody and visitation, we have been in situations where we would stand by during and exchange, or a dispute, and make a report,” said Barber. “The reason we would be asked to make a report, is that way it’s documented for court.”
Mount Vernon Police Chief Mike Merrilees said when his officers are called because of a breach in a custody agreement, or a dispute over such orders, the officers will take the time to document the situation, but they can’t go in search of a child who has not been returned promptly, unless the child is in danger.
“If it’s just a matter of a late visitation, a report can be made just for documentation, but it’s up to the court to determine if there’s been a violation of the agreement,” Merrilees explained.
“It can be documented that we went to the house, and looked at the papers; the child is supposed to be back at 6 p.m., it’s now 9 p.m. and the child’s not here,” the chief cited as an example.
Both Merrilees and Barber agreed, police officers are limited in what they can do in such cases, unless the child or one of the parties is in danger.
“If the child’s safety is involved, that’s a different story,” Merrilees said.
“If it’s a safety matter where you feel the child is in danger, we can respond,” Barber said.
When parties must meet to exchange custody of a child after a visit and the exchange becomes heated, law enforcement may be called to intervene.
“Most of the time it’s a he said, she said, but our priority is the well-being of the child, and the safety of all parties involved,” Barber said.
Even when the dispute becomes heated and loud, although possibly traumatic for the children involved, the behavior of the arguing parties is not criminal.
“The vast majority of these cases don’t involve an arrestable offense, it’s just something we can document,” Merrilees said.
“We see some that escalate a little bit, but rarely to the point of arrest,” the chief added. “But they could be charged with disorderly conduct, it could be assault, it could be child endangering.”
“We do recommend that if one parent, or the other, has concerns about returning the child that they have a safe, neutral location for the return of a child after visitation. And, we also recommend the parent bring a witness unless there’s a threat of violence or the potential the child could be in danger,” Barber said.
In those instances, law enforcement should be called before the meeting with the other party, to keep everyone safe. However, “we can’t go out each time a parent drops a child off,” Barber said.
Parents may become frustrated that law enforcement officers are limited in how much they can do to solve a dispute involving custody.
“A lot of time parents think if they call we’ll go to the other parent’s house and get the kid, but we don’t do that unless we have a court order and that doesn’t happen very often,” Barber explained.
He said when those orders are issued, typically after one party has violated an order repeatedly or has kept the child much longer than specified in a custody order, the court will issue such a directive.
“The court has issued an order for the child to be picked up, and children’s services would normally also be involved with that,” Barber said.
He said such an event can be frightening and possibly traumatic for the children involved.
Barber said working through custody disputes in the controlled atmosphere of a courtroom is always preferable to calling the police during the heat of an argument.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen, and that’s when we get called to a house or an apartment complex, where things are out of control,” Barber commented.