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Court-Ordered Visitation and Child Safety

Child Protective Services (CPS)

This article addresses court-ordered visitation when there is a child safety concern.

In determining whether a child must be sent for a visit—and what the consequences could be if you do not send them—first ask if there is a court order for custody and visitation. Some parents will clearly remember going to court and getting an order signed by a judge. Other parents may remember working with the Child Support Division of the Attorney General’s Office, but they never saw a judge. Other parents may remember being served with court papers but never going to a meeting or to court.

How do I find out if I have a court order for custody, visitation, and child support?

If you are not sure whether you have a court order for a child, start by asking yourself these questions: 

  • Have I ever been served with court paperwork regarding this child?   

  • Have I ever talked to a judge or been to court about this child? 

  • Has anyone been put on child support for this child?   

  • Have I ever gone to a meeting about this child with the Child Support people at the Texas Attorney General’s Office?  

  • Did I get divorced from the other parent after the child was born?   

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there might be a court order for custody, visitation, and child support for your child.   

To find out for sure, you can check with the District Clerk’s Office in the county where the child was living when you got the order. If the child has always lived in one county, it will be easy to determine which county this is. If the child has moved around, you may have to check with several different district clerks’ offices.   

When you call the clerk’s office, tell them that you are trying to locate an order in a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (or SAPCR, for short). If you know the case number, you can give that to them; otherwise, give them your name and your child’s name. Some offices may ask you to fill out a form to request a search formally. Some offices may have all their family court records online, and you may be able to search for them yourself. It is a good idea to get a copy of the order for your records and keep it in a safe place. 

Tip: If you dealt with the Texas Attorney General Child Support Division, the paperwork you received at the end of a meeting might have been called something else. For example, it might have been called an “agreement.” But this agreement should later have been made into a court order. If you never received a copy of the order, you can ask the Attorney General’s Office to give you a copy. If you lost your order, you could get a copy from the court file at the District Clerk’s office in the county where it was issued. You may have to pay copy fees for the order.  

Just because you went to a meeting at the Child Support Office does not necessarily mean there is a final order. Sometimes the process cannot be completed. This could be because the other parent was not located and served because it has not been set for court yet, or another reason. 

Why is a court order so important for understanding visitation rights?

The court order lays out the rules for possession and access (often called “visitation”). It is written in a lot of detail to prevent disagreements about what days and times a child should be with each parent. The court order should list the specific starting day and time and ending day and time for each period of possession. It should also include the home or other exact location where the child is to be picked up and dropped off. 

If the child lives with you, the location mentioned in the court order is where you should meet the other parent or conservator. The time stated in the order is the correct time to be there. If you do not make the child available for each visit, the other parent can file an enforcement action against you for violating a court order.   

If the child does not live with you, show up at the time and place listed in the court order to pick up your child for visitation. If the other parent does not show up or is not there and has not made another arrangement with you (especially if this has happened more than once), it may be possible to enforce the court order against that parent.

What does it mean to enforce an order?

An enforcement case can be filed if the other parent or conservator is violating the order in some way. This is most commonly used to enforce visitation, but it can be used for any violation. For example, if the other parent refuses to give you their address and the order clearly states that they must share that information, this may be enforceable. If the other parent is supposed to be paying child support and is not, this may be enforceable. The Attorney General’s Office Child Support Division will often help with child support enforcement.

When you file an enforcement, you can ask the judge to punish the person who did not follow the order. Punishment can include make-up visitation, fines, fees, and even time in jail.   

An order is only enforceable if it is “clear, specific, and unambiguous as to the duties and responsibilities of the alleged violator.” Ex Parte Slavin (Texas 1967). This is why the order's language is so important and why an order must be read closely to determine what the other person must do.   

See How to Enforce a Visitation Order.

The schedule in the court order does not work for our family. Can we do something else? 

Most court orders allow for agreement with some language like “Possession and Access shall be as agreed or as follows…” and then describe the visitation schedule. If parents wish to agree to something different than the visitation schedule, they can use any schedule they want. But if one of them is not in agreement, both parents are expected to follow the court order. Failure to follow the court order could result in an enforcement action being filed against the parent who violates the order. 

If the parents cannot agree on a different schedule, it may also be possible to modify—or change – the court order so that the schedule is more workable. Generally, a parent will have to show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the last court order was signed before a parent can ask to modify it. A judge does not have time, and the courts do not have the resources to address every disagreement between parents. Parents should try to work together and be understanding of each others’ schedules and the child’s needs and best interests. 

How strict can I be about holding the other parent to the court order?

In most cases, the expectation is that parents will act reasonably. For example, if a special event or bad traffic causes a parent to run late, it is reasonable to allow it. If an occasional family celebration causes one parent to get a shorter visit than usual, it is reasonable to give that parent extra time the following weekend to make up for it. It is also reasonable to agree to trade weekends in this situation.  

Prioritize communication. It is reasonable to expect the other parent to tell you if they are running late or will miss a visit. No parent should be forced to wait without knowing what is happening with their child. Being late or missing visits is not only inconsiderate; it is also difficult for the children. It is in their best interest to know what to expect and to be able to rely on both parents.

If you believe that the other parent has violated the court order without a reasonable explanation, read How to Enforce a Visitation Order.

What if I do not understand my court-ordered visitation?

Once you have determined whether there is a court order, read it carefully. These orders tend to be long and can be confusing. To read more about conservatorship court order basics, read Child Visitation and Possession Orders.

If you need help understanding the order, talk to an attorney. Many law libraries have lawyers who can help read a court order. To find a law library, visit Law Libraries of Texas.

Noncustodial parents with access and visitation questions can find resources at See TexasLawHelp's Legal Help Directory to find legal help near you. You may be able to meet with a lawyer in a clinic. To find a clinic, see TexasLawHelp's Legal Events and Clinics Calendar.

Your Options When There IS a Court Order

When there is a court order for conservatorship, visitation, and child support, the parents or other parties to the order generally have two options when it comes to the visitation schedule: 

  1. Follow the visitation schedule in the order or, 

  2. Agree and do something else. Many orders say, “Possession and Access shall be as agreed or as follows.” This means that agreements can be made between the parties. But not all orders say this, so read your order carefully. 

The parties must agree. This does not mean you can coerce or threaten the other parent to do what you want. It is usually a good idea to get all agreements in writing (in text, email, or on paper) so that you have proof of the agreement. However, either parent can change their mind about the agreement at any time. If, for example, the parents agree to meet at 8 PM instead of 6 PM for the exchange, either parent can change their mind and require the exchange to happen at 6 PM again.   

Children will often prefer one household. Young children may want to stay with their primary caregiver. Teens may prefer a parent who has fewer rules. Any child might prefer to be in a neighborhood where they have more friends. There are a lot of reasons a child may wish not to go to visit or not to return to the custodial parent. But the law in Texas is that each parent should get some time to bond with the child unless there is a good reason for the court to eliminate visitation. Unless the order says so, there is no opting out of visitation unless the parents agree to it. 

The other parent has court-ordered visitation rights, but what if the child is unsafe with them? Can I decline to allow the visit?

There will not always be a clear answer for whether to send a child to a visit if you suspect the other parent is unsafe. Every situation will be different; some safety concerns are more severe than others, and some children are more vulnerable to harm than others. In this situation, a parent has to balance two possibly conflicting duties:  

  • The duty to follow the court order, and the possibility that in an enforcement action, the parent could be held in contempt if they do not. The penalties for contempt could include fines, fees, or jail time. In some circumstances, there may also be criminal charges—such as Interference with Child Custody, which is a state jail felony, and

  • The duty to protect their child, which is a legal duty that every parent has. If a parent does not protect their child, the child could be harmed, CPS could get involved, and the parent’s failure to protect the child could be used against them in court. 

Communication with the other parent can sometimes resolve these issues.  For example, a parent may be failing to give a child medication during a visit, but this may just be because the parent does not understand the importance of the medication or how to give it to the child. This issue could be resolved by explaining to the other parent, showing them, providing written instructions, or setting up a time for the other parent to speak with the child’s doctor. 

If you would like legal advice on how to handle your situation, you can speak with an attorney. Call the Family Helpline.

If I decide not to send the child for a visit, how can I protect myself from an enforcement action?

There may be several things you can do to protect the child and protect yourself if the other parent files an enforcement action: 

  • Report to CPS.  If you believe that a child is being abused or neglected by the other parent or by any other caregiver, you can make a report to CPS.  Making the report is one way you can show that you are a protective parent.  A CPS investigation may include talking with the child at home or school, going to visit either parent’s home, asking for drug tests, interviewing relatives and collecting other relevant information.  In some cases,  a parent could be asked to sign a safety plan or participate in services.  Keep in mind that not all reports result in an investigation, and not all investigations result in interventions by CPS.  More information on Child Protective Investigations and CPS can be found here.   

  • Call the police.  If the unsafe parent is demanding the child or trying to take the child and you believe the child will be in immediate harm if the child is taken, you can call your local law enforcement by dialing 9-1-1.  If no crime is being committed and a child is not in immediate danger, it is not law enforcement’s job to make decisions about who a child should live with or go with.  If a child seems to be in danger, it is very common for the police to make a report to CPS.   

  • Modify your court order.  If your current court order is not protective enough, it is possible to request that the court modify – or change – it.   Some examples could be an order that requires the other parent’s visits to be supervised or be in a public place, an order that allows you to ask for drug tests from the other parent before a visit is allowed, or an order that the other parent cannot drive with the child in the car.   You must have evidence to convince a judge that these orders would be in the child’s best interest.   A judge will not likely grant supervised visitation or no visitation for a parent unless there is clear evidence of a danger to the child.   

It is possible to file a Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship on your own or with the help of an attorney.   

The Modification kit can be found here. 

  • Request a TRO.  A Temporary Restraining Order (or TRO) can be used to protect a child in an emergency when there is a risk of immediate and irreparable harm to the child.  A Motion for TRO must be filed along with a Petition to Modify.  It can be granted by a judge the same day it is filed and is meant to keep the child safe for a short time while the safe parent prepares for a hearing on temporary conservatorship and visitation orders.  

The Temporary Restraining Order kit can be found here.  

  • Request a Protective Order.  A protective order is meant to be used in very dangerous situations where a child has been a victim of domestic violence, physical abuse, or sexual abuse.    It can be filed by itself (unlike a TRO).  A protective order can also be used to protect an adult - including the other parent – who has been a victim of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault. 

Information on protective orders can be found here.

Can a child make the decision not to go for a visit with the other parent? 

The custodial parent generally must make the child available for the visit.  It is important for a child to spend quality time with both parents, and the parents should try to work together to ensure that these visits happen.    

Only rarely does a court order give a minor child the right to opt out of court-ordered visitation. If the order includes some language that says a child may choose not to visit, then the child may make that choice. It is courteous to give notice to the other parent in those cases, and not allow the child to make last-minute decisions that will inconvenience everyone and hurt the other parent’s feelings. This could be done by regularly giving 24-hour or 48-hour notice and then having the child follow through with visits as planned. 

Of course, if there is a safety concern and the child does not want to go on the visit because they are afraid they will be abused, or neglected, the custodial parent should take steps to protect the child.  This could include reporting to CPS, filing to modify the court order (with a Temporary Restraining Order in an emergency), or notifying the police, depending on the situation.   

Do I have to allow other kinds of contact with the parent, such as phone or video chat? 

If the court order clearly states that a parent should have certain types of contact with the child (such as a daily phone call or a weekly video visit), then that order should be followed and is enforceable.   

If the order does not have any mention of this type of contact, then the parent who has current possession of the child gets to make that decision. It is important to consider what is in the child’s best interest.  

It is also important to be respectful of the other parent’s time with the child.  Checking in with the child once or twice during a long weekend visit may be reasonable, but texting or calling constantly is likely unnecessary and inappropriate.  Each parent should consider how best to help the child feel secure and maintain a healthy relationship with the other parent. 

Can parents with a court order agree on a different visitation schedule? 

Possibly. Read your order carefully, looking for something like “…Possession and Access shall be as agreed or as follows…” If this language is in the order and if parents wish to agree, they may co-parent according to any plan they like. But if one of them is not in agreement with a change, then it is either parent’s right to stick to the specific schedule listed in the order.  

Some court orders do not allow agreement. For example, some parents with a history of putting children at risk may be ordered to have supervised visits only, with no option for a different agreement. If the parents want to change the rule, the order must be modified—or changed—to allow unsupervised visits. 

Although agreements should never be forced or coerced, agreements also do not need to be what both parents are completely happy with.  Sometimes a compromise may need to be made to keep a child safe.  For example, if one parent is going through a difficult time and does not have a stable, safe home, the parents may come to an agreement that the visits should be put on hold until a stable living situation is in place.  Or that parent could do shorter visits, taking the child out and returning the child to sleep in the other parent’s home. 

This type of agreement may come into play if there is a CPS Investigation.  A caseworker or parent may insist on supervised visitation until the investigation can be completed.  As long as the other parent is willing to agree (even if they are not necessarily pleased about it), it is still an agreement. Following the agreement is not a violation of the court order; however, a parent may change their mind about the agreement at any time.  It is usually a good idea to get an agreement in writing.   

Learn more about the CPS investigation process.

What if the other parent does not return the child when they are supposed to? 

Sometimes a noncustodial parent has a weekend visit or summer visit and does not return the child to the custodial parent at the time written in the court order.  The custodial parent can try communicating with the noncustodial parent about the rules of the court order and why it is important for both parents to follow it.  This could be done through conversation or something more formal such as sending a demand letter, which explains the enforcement process and penalties for contempt.   

If this is not successful, a custodial parent may decide to take legal action to bring the child home: 

  • Writ of Habeas Corpus: If someone refuses to return the child to the person who is legally entitled to possession, then the court can issue a writ, ordering the child returned to the proper caregiver. A writ could also be requested by a parent to take possession of a child when it is that parent’s time for visitation, if the custodial parent (or whomever has the child at the time) refuses to allow the child to go.

  • Enforcement: If the other party is violating the terms of the order, a party may bring an Enforcement action, asking the court to enforce the exact terms of the order. A party may ask that the court hold the other person in contempt of court, issue a fine, or make specific orders, such as ordering makeup time with the child. The court may choose to address a violation however the judge deems appropriate. 

Sometimes a parent will call the police to help enforce the court order when the other parent keeps the child past the ordered day of return. Law enforcement agencies have many different possible responses to these types of calls – they may do nothing, they may threaten criminal charges, or they may take steps to enforce the order. If law enforcement is considering getting involved, they will likely want to see a court order, so it could be helpful to have a certified copy available. 

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