Nobody wants to be a bit player in their own life story. You expect to be center stage; your needs, your opinions, even your whims should be your first consideration. Until you become a parent. Then everything you are subsumes to the needs of your child. As educator and author Elizabeth Stone says1, “Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” Yet in what instances do you, as the parent, retain primacy — outranking others?
When Do Parents Come First?
In Virginia’s Code, in the “best interests of the child” is the overarching theme of the Code’s many child-centered laws. Choosing between parents in custody? What will be in the best interests of the child, asks §20-124.3. Terminating residual parental rights? Fine, if in the best interests of the child, says §16.1-283. Adopting a kid? Is it in (repeat it with us) the best interests of the child, as pointed out in §63.2-1205?
So where do parents come first? They outrank strangers, fortunately, and most relatives. The primacy of the parent-child relationship is to be overturned only if the court has a compelling reason to consider someone else “with a legitimate interest.”
Asserting Parental Primacy
Virginia Code does not automatically confer primacy to one parent or the other. The court’s decision to grant custody to Mom or Dad does not depend on a legal mandate to favor mothers over fathers, according to §20-124.2:
“As between the parents, there shall be no presumption or inference of law in favor of either.”
If you are straining to gain sole physical custody of your child, Virginia’s courts must give you a chance to demonstrate that vital “primacy of the parent-child relationship.” You simply have to show how you outrank the child’s mother, in meeting the standards stipulated in § 20-124.3:
“1. The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child’s changing developmental needs;
2. The age and physical and mental condition of each parent;
3. The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child’s life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child;
4. The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members;
5. The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child;
6. The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;
7. The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child”
The law outlines more (what law can you think of that chooses one word when ten will do?) but these seven paragraphs capture the essence of parental primacy. You and your wife can tussle over who is primary caregiver, but the court acknowledges that you both are center stage compared to the supporting characters of grandparents, well-meaning strangers, and state agencies.
Prime, but Flawed
Because parental primacy is the core of child custody and adoption laws, you as a parent have to seriously screw up to forfeit your parental rights, and even then the courts do not take away those rights easily.
So you can enjoy pride of place as the prime parent in your child’s life and still have your foibles:
- An arrest record
- Limited education
- Limited income
- Below-average intelligence
- A willingness to overlook the five-second rule
- Questionable hygiene
Termination of Parental Rights
Parental primacy places more value on the strong emotional bond you have with your kids than on material objects. A clean, cozy yet inexpensive house is, to the courts, more appealing than an impersonal mansion, if you actually spend time with your children.
The one way to lose parental primacy is to neglect or abuse your child. Then you face the (relatively) swift response of Virginia agencies. Even then, though, Child Protective Services will first attempt to rebuild the bond between you and your child, rather than immediately seek termination of parental rights.
Protect Your Parental Rights
Whenever the primacy of your role as father is assailed, you need to have a good Virginia attorney in your corner. Simply because the law says something does not mean you automatically get your way; you need a strong attorney to reclaim your rights, be your voice, and assert your primacy as the child’s first protector.
With a call to The Firm For Men at 757-383-9184, or with contact online, you can be put in touch with a Virginia attorney experienced in protecting Virginia fathers’ rights. We are highly trained in family law. Your rights as a parent, your rights as a man, and your rights as a Virginian are worth protecting.