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Custody Enforcement Through Sanctions

Where a person has been awarded the custody of a child and another person or agency has failed to return the child to that person, the person with legal custody can file a motion for contempt of court and request that some penalty or sanctions be imposed on the one who unlawfully failed to return the child.

Contempt of Court

When a person or agency disobeys a court order, the way to seek punishment is through a motion for contempt of court. If, after a hearing, the person or agency is found to have disobeyed the order, and there was no valid reason for doing so, such as an emergency that had to be dealt with immediately, the court can impose sanctions or a penalty. When a parent has lawful custody of a child and the other parent does not return the child either after a period of visitation or for a period of visitation, the parent who has the right to be with the child can file for a motion for contempt.

The person or agency which has wrongfully kept the child must be given notice that the motion has been filed and an opportunity to be heard. At the hearing on the motion, the person with lawful custody need only present proof that he or she had the right to physical custody of the child at the time in question. The person who retained the child must give a reasonable explanation why. Perhaps the child was with a father who took the child on a vacation and they were bumped from the plane flying home. If the child was returned home as quickly as possible, the court may find that there was no intention to wrongfully keep the child and would impose no sanctions. On the other hand, if the father had taken the child on vacation and decided to stay an extra week without the knowledge or consent of the mother, the court could find the father in contempt and impose sanctions.

The court has a variety of sanctions that can be used from imposing fines, modifying future periods of visitation, or even incarcerating the person who unlawfully retained the child. Most often, a court will provide new visitation opportunities for those missed or deny time with the child where the time with the child has been abused. In addition to modifying periods of visitation, the court may also require that the person who failed to obey the court order pay the legal fees of the other parent. Incarceration is rarely used, except where a parent has refused to provide any access to the child.

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