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 The U.S. Constitution and DC law gives every parent the right to make important decisions for their children – where they should live, what school they should attend and what medical care they should receive, for example. In some circumstances, however, a judge can take these rights away from a parent. Sometimes judges get involved when two parents get divorced or when one parent seeks a protective order in a domestic violence case. Judges also get involved when parents cannot agree on how to raise a child or when a parent has left a child with a family member for a substantial period of time. Custody involves the allocation of rights between adults regarding a child.

There are two types of custody:

  • Physical custody refers to the child’s living arrangements and visitation schedules,
  • Legal custody refers to the right to make both day to day decisions about a child as well as important decisions about medical care, education and religion.

How does a judge get involved when there is a dispute between two parents?
Any parent can go to court to file legal papers called “a complaint” for custody. The judge will hold a hearing to determine what custodial arrangement is in the best interest of the child.

The court may give sole or joint physical and/or legal custody based on its determination of what is in the child’s best interest. In determining what is in the child’s best interest, the court must consider all relevant information, including: what the child and parents want; the child’s relationship with each parent; the parent’s mental and physical health; the parent’s employment and financial situation; the capacity of the parents to share custody.

When can a non-parent seek custody of a child?
Under DC law, a third party – a person other than the child’s biological parents – can seek custody of a child in one of four situations:

  • The parent agrees;
  • The third party has lived with the child for a certain period of time and has taken on important parental responsibilities;
  • The third party is a “de facto parent,”
  • The third party lives with the child and custody is necessary to prevent harm to the child.

Are custody orders final?
A parent can go to court to modify a custody order at any time. The parent must show, among other things, that there is a change in circumstances from the time the custody order was issued.

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