Emergency situations often require protecting the vulnerable, and in many cases that means children. Every state has its own laws dictating how to shield children from harm during stressful or dangerous situations like domestic violence, abuse or neglect, kidnapping, or even the sudden death or incapacity of parents. 

Under one of these (or many other) situations, a judge can step in to issue a court order directing the temporary custody and care of the child or children. Here is a brief overview to emergency child custody orders and how the process works.

When is it Necessary to Place a Child in Emergency Custody?

As stated above, there are many different situations where a court may intervene to place a child in someone else’s custody temporarily. Common factors for this usually involve urgency and time-sensitivity.  If the court thinks that the child or children is in immediate risk of harm, they can use their position to legally place them with someone else until they think it is safe to life the order. 

Some more specific examples of these situations include: 

  • Allegations or reasonable suspicions of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse;
  • Abandonment or neglect of the child to the point where their basic needs are not being met; and 
  • Suspicions that a parent or other person in primary care is using illegal substances that could put the child in harm’s way.

Emergency custody can also be ordered if the court thinks there is a possibility of parental kidnap, which sadly is sometimes the case with complicated family situations. Another tragic event that might precipitate this situation is the sudden incapacity or death of the child’s parents.

What does the Legal Process Involve?

So, if you believe a child is in harm’s way and wish to file for emergency custody, how does it work? Any adult who worries for the child’s safety can call Child Protective Services to report suspected abuse. However, if you want to apply for custody yourself, you will need to file a motion for temporary custody with the proper local court to set up a hearing. In this hearing, the court will hear the evidence and address emergency situations only. 

Procedure in these matters can vary widely by jurisdiction. Sometimes the hearing is in front of a judge, but in other places, it is in front of a judicial officer, so check the laws in your state. 

Once the court has heard all the relevant evidence, they will make their decision whether or not to award temporary custody, and to whom. Temporary custody can be granted to relatives, legally appointed foster parents, designated guardians, and others legally qualified to have custody rights. If the circumstances warrant it, the custodian and the child may be directed to a doctor or other necessary physical/mental healthcare professional for evaluation.

How are Interstate Issues and Emergency Provisions Resolved?

While every state has its own laws that stop at the borders, emergencies involving children and custody issues don’t. Because of this, all states except Massachusetts have adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), a set of laws that governs child custody enforcement and jurisdiction issues. The uniformity discourages non-custodial parents from taking children across state lines and attempting to get new custody orders in another state. The UCCJEA prevents this by dictating that parents can only file for custody in the state where the children have resided for at least six months.

There are, of course, special provisions for emergency situations. If one parent is forced to flee their home state due to threats of violence or other dangerous situations, the new state can still order temporary custody until a more permanent solution is found.

What Happens After?

Emergency custody orders, by their nature, are immediate but also temporary. The next step is usually for either one parent, the state, or a possible guardian to file a motion for a permanent custody judgment. The case then goes through the more traditional legal process of gathering and presenting evidence in a trial setting, which takes longer to give both sides the opportunity to have their arguments heard. 

The emergency custody order and any evidence presented during the emergency hearing is usually not used as evidence during these trials. This evidence can be presented again at the trial. The standard for making decisions concerning custody issues is always what is “in the best interest of the child.”

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Me File for Emergency Child Custody?

Emergency custody situations require swift action. When dealing with the health and safety of a child, the legal steps it takes to remove them from danger might seem overwhelming. Contacting an experienced child custody lawyer versed in such issues can not only help guide you through a stressful situation, it can also make a big impact on the hearing’s outcome.