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Council for Children’s Rights (CFCR)  stands up for every child’s right to be safe, healthy, and well-educated. Located in Charlotte, CFCR seeks to improve the lives of children in Mecklenburg County ages 0-18. CFCR was formed in 2006 upon the merger of the Council for Children (founded in 1979) and the Children’s Law Center (founded in 1987). The unified agency offers a comprehensive array of legal and advocacy services.

Conflict within the home is one of the top predictors of a child’s emotional wellbeing. Challenging, contentious custody battles can potentially have a long-term adverse impact for the children who are caught in the middle. CFCR’s Custody Advocacy Program (CAP), supported by a grant from NC IOLTA, seeks to protect the best interests of children in custody disputes.

CAP is appointed by Mecklenburg County Family Court judges to represent children whose parents are engaged in a highly contested custody case. Family Court judges assess and label cases as “high conflict” where parental alienation, substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse, mental health issues, incarcerated parties, improper living conditions, and/or parental neglect are involved.

Each case that CAP handles is assigned to a team that includes a staff attorney, a volunteer attorney, and a lay custody advocate. This team works together to investigate the facts of the case and make recommendations to the court.

Last year the CAP team represented 273 children in high conflict custody cases. 36% of contested cases settled outside of trial. In cases that went to trial, recommendations of the CAP team were either fully or partially accepted by the court in 93% of cases. In addition to custody placement and visitation recommendations, the CAP team may recommend court-ordered assessments and therapy for children, parents, or both, rules pertaining to parental communication and access to records, and instructions related to education.

The Custody Advocacy Program engages both volunteer attorneys and lay advocates in their cases. Lay advocates interview clients and witnesses, conduct home visits, and gather information. Volunteer attorneys conduct settlement conferences, attend depositions, draft motions, and prepare for and take cases to trial if necessary. Last year CAP trained more than 40 new volunteer attorneys and advocates adding to its ranks of more than 300 volunteers. In the same year, the volunteer attorneys contributed 1,960 hours on custody cases, time valued at more than $300,000.

Here are a few stories of the children who have a voice in court as a result of the advocacy of their CAP teams:

• Siblings Ellie and Trey were caught in the middle of a custody dispute. The children lived with their mother from birth, although custody was never formally determined. Last year Ellie alleged abuse by her mother’s husband, resulting in a temporary custody placement with her father. The CAP team was appointed to represent the children. After several months of investigation, the allegations did not add up. Ellie later admitted to her team that their father had encouraged them to tell the court that they wanted to live with him, and she actually wanted to go back to her mother’s home. Ellie and Trey again live primarily with their mother, but their custody order includes generous visitation with their father.

• Allison and Daisy, ages 7 and 5, lived with their mother until a few years ago. Their mother struggles with a mental health issue and poor relationship choices. She called their father to take the children after a series of dangerous incidents in her home. The children moved to live with their father in Texas and were thriving in his care. Their mother later filed for custody in NC and both parents prepared for a court battle. CAP was appointed and learned that, as much as the mother loved her daughters, she left her mental health condition untreated. CAP also learned about the care the children were receiving with their dad in a safer, more stable household. Prior to trial, CAP recommended that the father maintain custody with visitation for the mother and they were able to negotiate a settlement to avoid trial.

• Alex was 11 when his parents divorced. He wanted to be with his mother, but was left with his father who would become angry and hit Alex. The roof of the home leaked, cockroaches were everywhere, and the trash piled up. CAP got involved and emergency custody was granted to Alex’s mother. His father fought to get visitation. The CAP team sought an evaluation for the father who was determined to have ADHD. After months of continued monitoring, the father decided to move home with his family and start over. The court saw a difference in him and he was awarded visitation.