A common source of friction between divorced or separated parents is the issue of telephone calls to and from the children. Learn how to manage telephone calls fairly and equitably.
Telephone contact may be denied or restricted by one parent (usually the custodial parent), and the loose wording regarding telephone access in most parenting plans only contributes to the problem.
Many parenting plans state that telephone access to the children shall be "reasonable" or "liberal", but these terms are inexact and are subject to broad interpretation. Although the court may have used these terms in an attempt to impart some flexibility to the parenting plan, this same flexibility allows for abuse if the custodial parent isn't cooperative. Furthermore, many Family courts exacerbate the problem by not insisting that the custodial parent allow telephone access, and by not punishing them when they don't.
Because one parent may interfere with (or completely deny) telephone contact, it's best to have the court spell out the telephone access in excruciating detail, such as "Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 7:00pm to 7:30pm" etc. (Some sample wording is included at the end of this page.) Unfortunately, this problem is frequently not anticipated when the parenting plan is being drawn up- these disputes normally arise after custody and parenting time issues have been decided. Because of this, you may find it necessary to return to court and seek a modification of the parenting plan to include clearly defined telephone access.
How Much Time, And How Often?
Obviously, what's "reasonable" for one situation may not be reasonable for someone else's situation. Both parents should work to be flexible and accommodating regarding telephone contact. Two to four times a week for 15 to 30 minutes at a time is pretty typical, although you need to take into account the child's age- younger children often lose interest quickly and may not want to talk on the phone as long as older children do (again, this varies widely with the child). Work with your ex to establish agreed-upon times that you or they can call the children. A balance must be struck in terms of access that both parties can live with.
Due to each parent's differing work schedule and outside activities, regular telephone contact may be difficult to arrange. Cell phones are an ideal way to ensure that calls to and from children don't get lost in the shuffle. Answering machines and voice mail factor into the equation as well- if one parent leaves a message on the other parent's answering machine, the parent getting the message has the responsibility and the obligation to allow the child or children to hear the message.
Some non-custodial parents will misuse telephone access in the form of a control issue or 'power-play'. They may insist on calling every single night, or 3 or 4 times a day- an excessive amount in most instances. (Custodial parents may do this as well.) On the other hand, it is a common occurrence for custodial parents to interfere with the non-custodial parent's phone contact with the child. These kinds of issues occasionally find their way into court, oftentimes to little or no effect. Judges dislike dealing with these kinds of low-level disputes, and many consider it a waste of their time. In short, it is rarely worth the cost in time and money to engage in formal litigation over telephone contact issues.
If your ex is unreasonable or interferes with your telephone access, you will need to be a little more creative and find ways of ensuring telephone contact.
Ensuring Telephone Contact
If the other parent is denying you telephone contact with your children, there are some things you can do to facilitate contact with your children.
Consider getting an 800-number for your children to call you on. An 800-number is not very expensive to have installed, and it allows your children to call you from any phone at any time, night or day. 800-numbers almost always provide detailed billing records of the call history, which may prove valuable later in court. If your ex claims (for example) that you "never speak with the children", you can use the billing records to disprove this.
Find out if you can arrange to call your child at school or at a friend's home. This may take some planing to arrange, but is often well worth the trouble to be able to speak to your children without your ex present. Many children are understandably reluctant to speak to the non-custodial parent when the custodial parent is hovering nearby or perhaps even listening in. A sympathetic school counselor or teacher can be a big help in getting calls through to your child at school.
If the child is old enough (and responsible enough), consider getting them a cell phone. Cell phone calling-plans are available that limit the number of minutes used so that you don't get stuck with an enormous bill. There are also calling-plans that allow unlimited minutes between family members. Even without a custom calling-plan, you can control usage through the phone itself- most of the newer phones can be 'locked' so that they will only accept incoming calls, or only dial out to a specific number. Contact a local wireless provider for more information.
Make sure your child knows your phone number- make a game of memorizing and dialing it with him or her until the they know the number. Make sure your child understands that he or she can call you any time and that you'll be there for them. Just having your number memorized could let them to get help in an emergency, and that's reason enough for them to memorize your phone number.
Regardless of the reason(s) for denied contact, you should always keep a written log of telephone contacts (and attempted contacts). Your log can be supplemented with billing records from the phone company to help establish its credibility.
Finally, if you 'ground' your children from using the phone, this should not include calls to and from the other parent. There is rarely a legitimate reason to prevent a child from being able to talk with his or her parents.
Sample wording to include in the Parenting Plan (modify as necessary):
The party in possession of the child shall provide telephone access at the telephone number listed in this Parenting Plan/Order of the Court on the following schedule, without interruption:
8:00pm to 8:30pm on every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Failure to provide access to the parties minor child will be construed as being in contempt of this Order.