Custody disputes are often hardest on children, the very people for whom the disputing parties claim to advocate on behalf of. Unlike many states, Arizona does not set out a specific age at which a child may determine the parent with whom she lives. Instead, the desires of the child are considered with numerous other factors. All children, however, have a right to competent, non-abusive caregivers. There are several steps a child can take to ensure her rights are protected and wishes honored.
A Child's Best Interests
Arizona, like all other states, uses a "best interests of the child" standard in determining custody and visitation. Arizona sets forth 11 specific factors that a judge must consider when determining the best interests of the children. These factors include the relative parenting competence of each parent, a parent's ability to foster the child's relationship with the noncustodial parent, relationship between the child and her parents, and a child's adjustment to her community and school life. In addition to the factors outlined in Arizona's statutes, there are unwritten factors a judge may consider, such as the mental health of all parties involved.
A Child's Wishes
A child's wishes are included in the 11 Arizona statutes regarding custody determination. The wishes of older children are more likely to be honored, so a 14-year-old child is at an advantage over younger children who can't express themselves well. State law allows judges to interview children in their chambers. Children who meet with judges should explain why they want a specific custody arrangement and provide concrete information and evidence to support their wishes. For example, a child could explain, "I feel more comfortable at my mom's house because she helps me with my homework and knows all my friends." Children who want more visitation with the noncustodial parent might say, "I really miss seeing my dad every day, so I'd like to have more visitation with him."
Because judges aren't always able to judge a child's best interests solely on the testimony of the parents and child, they have the option to appoint various child experts to deliver testimony. Guardians ad litem are people -- most often attorneys -- who can investigate, interview parties and file motions on the child's behalf. They are not required to represent what the child wants, but instead must advocate for the child's best interests. Judges may also appoint court-appointed special advocates, who fill similar roles to guardians ad litem, but deliver testimony instead of filing pleadings. These advocates are often volunteers and may have a background in social work or psychology. Psychologists and other child experts may give testimony on behalf of a parent or after being appointed by the judge. Each of these advocates -- with the exception of experts paid by parents -- must meet with and interview the child. Children should be clear about what they want and why they want it when meeting with these experts.
Arizona defines child abuse as the deliberate infliction of physical injury upon a child, unreasonable confinement of a child, neglecting to provide basic care to a child -- including medical care, or sexually abusing a child. Forcing a child to witness domestic violence or abusing the child's parent or sibling in front of her may also constitute abuse. Mandatory reporters include professionals, such as teachers, therapists, doctors and clergy members, who often work with children. These parties must report abuse if someone reports it to them, or if they suspect it is occurring. Children who are being abused by a parent should report this abuse to a trusted adult who is a mandatory reporter. They should also report the abuse to any people appointed to represent their best interests at their parents' custody hearing.