Custody (Glossary)

Custody: The care, control, and maintenance of a child, which can be legally awarded by the court to an agency, in abuse and neglect cases, or to parents, in divorce, separation, and adoption proceedings. Child welfare departments retain legal custody and control over the major decisions for a child that is in foster care. Foster parents do not have legal custody of the children that are in their care.

The term "custody" can be used when discussing whether the child lives with the parent and the parent's right to make decisions for the child. There are a number of different circumstances when decisions must be made about custody, such as divorce, abuse/neglect cases, and the termination of parental rights.

When parents are divorcing, custody of the children must be formally arranged. One parent may end up with primary custody - that is, the parent is responsible for the bulk of care and decision-making regarding the child. The other parent (often called the non-custodial parent) usually keeps the right to spend time with the child. Or parents may share joint custody, with each parent spending large amounts of time with the child and sharing the responsibility for decisions.

In most cases, the parents are able to come to their own decisions regarding custody. When left to the court, the decision is based on the best interests of the child, factoring in such items as who has been the primary caregiver and (sometimes) the child's preferences.

Custody arrangements can be altered, either by a return to court or by an informal agreement between the parents. This may be due to factors such as parental employment, the child growing and wishing to spend more time with the other parent, health factors, or one parent wishing to move out of state. If the custodial parent wishes to move, both parents must be prepared to present arguments for their side. As always, the best interests of the child will be the deciding factor in court.

Custody also becomes an issue in cases of child abuse and neglect. If a child protection agency has been called in to work with the family, the first choice is always to find a way to keep the family together. However, if there is reason to believe the child is in danger, the child may be removed from the home and placed in protective custody. Sometimes there is a safe relative willing and able to take the child. When that is not the case, the child will be placed in a government institution or foster home for his own protection. There will then be a court hearing to decide if the child should remain in the custody of the state while the case is being investigated.