Family Court Services (FCS)

For all disputes pertaining to child custody and visitation, Family Code section 3170(a) requires that the parties to appear at Family Court Services (FCS) for a typically one-to-two-hour “recommending conference” with a mental health professional once informally known (incorrectly, I might add)* as a “mediator” (normally a Licensed Clinical Social Worker or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) whose formal title under the Family Code is “recommending counselor.”  FCS is an arm of the Superior Court which assists the judicial officer (whether a judge or commissioner) under Family Code section 3180 by assessing the needs and interests of the child(ren) involved in a parenting dispute.  

At the FCS recommending conference, the parties will talk about a prospective parenting plan with the mediator who, if the parties do not agree to a parenting plan, will provide to the judicial officer a written parenting-plan recommendation, which will include each party’s position in the dispute, relevant facts as each party explained them and usually their reasoning.  Then, the recommending counselor provides his or her own reasoning for the parenting plan being recommended.  It has been my experience that, unless some or all of the FCS recommendation is without a reasonable basis, the judge will simply rubber-stamp the majority of the FCS report as the Court’s order of custody and visitation.
 
Under Family Code section 3181, where there has been a history of domestic violence between the parties, or where there is in effect an emergency no-contact order (e.g., Domestic Violence Temporary Restraining Order), emergency kick-out order (i.e., Order for Removal (from a dwelling place)), or emergency order for the minor child’s temporary custody and visitation, a party either alleging domestic violence in a written declaration or who is protected by one of the emergency orders mentioned above, may request that the parties meet with the recommending counselor separately and at separate times. FCS is mandated to comply with the request and provide separate interviews of each parent (or third party) involved.
 
Obviously, one should not agree to any parenting plan you do not absolutely believe is in the best interests of the child(ren). The recommending counselor will exert pressure on the parties to accept a parenting plan, so it is important to stand one’s ground if the parenting plan being offered is not in the best interest of the minor child(ren).
 
Preparation for FCS is critical to obtaining a favorable FCS report. When a parent sits for the interview, he or she will be sitting across a table from the social worker with the other party at his or her side (unless domestic violence has been alleged in which case each party will be interviewed separately. A party must present well, and one does that by being prepared, i.e., doing one’s homework by knowing what parenting plan would be in the best interest of the minor child(ren), describing it to the recommending counselor, and being able to explain the factual bases supporting it.  Pity the parent who walks into FCS for the recommending conference and hasn’t prepared for it.
 
The recommending counselor may ask that the minor child(ren) be brought in for an additional interview after the parents’ or on another day.  Whether an interview of the children by the recommending counselor takes place is solely at his or her discretion.  By the same token, California law allows the judge to consider the input of the child regarding the parenting plan if the child is mature enough. That determination is solely within the judge’s discretion.
 
One problem seen frequently, unfortunately and for whatever reasons, is the child who refuses to see the non-custodial parent when a parenting plan has been ordered.  The custodial parent’s best recourse is to never fail to encourage the child to see the other parent.
 
Another problem is the hesitancy of many family court judges to allow even an adolescent child some discretion as to whether he or she sees the non-custodial parent.  At least one judge in my experience thinks it the worst order that can be made, although the child psychologist testifying for me recommended the child have sole discretion.  “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst thing you can do, that’s about a 15,” was the judge’s comment, but he was willing to adapt his view and ordered such discretion, which I found particularly selfless of the judge coming after his comment and professional on his part.  The litigant must remember that the judge’s opinion is the only opinion that matters.  I think the trend may be shifting to allow the child, depending on his or her age, flexibility as to whether he or she sees the non-custodial parent, but such an order must be factually warranted.
 
Please be reminded that a party may be sanctioned (monetarily fined) by the Court for failing to appear at a Family Court Service recommending conference.  That said, if a conflict exists, call FCS immediately to reschedule.
 
Finally, a Family Court Services Mediation Data Sheet must be completed for the recommending conference, so it is better to have already filled it out prior to attending and bring it with you to the FCS recommending conference.

_______________

*  Note:  This is not traditional mediation. The recommending counselor is not a traditional mediator because anything you say or do at the recommending conference is not confidential.  It may or may not be included in the written report submitted to the judicial officer, but if it is it very well may be one of the bases of the parenting-plan recommendation. Further, no written, audio, or visual materials may be submitted to the recommending counselor before or during the recommending conference.