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When immersed in family drama, the kids should always come first
Denise Etheridge

When I awoke last Friday with sunlight streaming in through the window and the sound of my dog and husband snoring in harmony, I thought it was Saturday. I was ready for a break from the week.

Nope. Still a work day and an opportunity for excitement and challenge at the Courier. Please understand, I do love my job most days. But last week was rough. Our breaking news correspondent, Lewis Levine, sent much hard news our way, a good bit of it truly sad. Stories – like the mother and daughter killed in a five-car wreck on I-95 - can take an emotional toll on staff. We are not heartless. 

Reporter Kayla Gamble and I also recently sat in on a contentious civil hearing. It related to a child custody case – not something we would ordinarily cover. We sat in to listen, only because an allegation had been made about a person of prominence. From what we heard, that allegation did not resurface during the hearing and no evidence was presented in court to support the accusation. Therefore, we determined this particular case did not warrant a news story. Still, the case was difficult to witness as it centered on the safety and well-being of a child. Relatives – a parent and former in-laws – attempted to spar in a way reminiscent of a tawdry daytime talk show where guests hurl nasty accusations at one another. Kudos to the judge who was firm, fair and maintained the decorum of the courtroom. He also expected both parties to show proper documentation; hearsay would not be permitted to support their arguments. The judge ruled the case would be referred to family court in order to get a recommendation and certified documentation.

I did form a personal opinion about this family’s ordeal, based on the public records I collected. I think the child should be removed from the custodial parent and placed with other relatives. I’m not a social worker, not an attorney and not a psychiatrist. I am a mother and grandmother. I have a family member who is going through a similar process. It’s enormously stressful – emotionally, mentally and financially. What matters most is that a child should be raised in a safe, stable, healthy and loving environment.

The best case would be for parents who are going through divorce or separation to have an amicable break and work with one another on a parenting plan, to ensure their child’s best interests. Too often, it seems, children are treated like pawns, used as leverage to wound the ex-spouse or partner.

According to, with Georgia’s official code as a source, the following should be considered when seeking child custody:

During the initial custody proceedings, the judge will act with their child’s best interests in mind, listening to the points made by both partners and considering carefully their child’s health, safety, and comfort. After the judge awards custody, this decision cannot be amended unless there’s a significant change in family circumstance.

The judge may opt to grant either sole custody or joint custody. In sole custody, the judge may approve visitation rights for the noncustodial parent, but otherwise, the noncustodial parent cannot exercise legal authority on the child’s behalf. In joint custody, the parents may share in their child’s legal and physical custody, making decisions together about their child’s education, medical care, and religious upbringing, while enjoying roughly equal parenting time.

Upon reaching age 14, a child may choose who to live with and may request a change in custody once every two years thereafter.

At least 30 days before a move, a custodial parent must write a letter to inform a noncustodial parent or other family member with visitation rights of a new address.

Once every two years the family law court may review and modify parent visitation rights, although custody rights may only be reviewed and modified if there’s a significant change in family circumstance.

If a non-custodial parent wants custody, they must first visit the Superior Court in the custodial parent’s county of residence and fill out a petition for change of custody. At the hearing they’ll need to offer proof that they’ve recently noticed a material change in family circumstance that directly affects their child’s interest and well-being. Minor changes only in living condition will not persuade a judge to approve a new custody decision.

Although judges may award grandparents custody or visitation, family law courts consider the rights of natural parents first. When either or both the mother and father are competent and willing to care for the child, the judge will grant custody preferentially to that natural parent.

When a military service member has joint custody of their child, they should do the following before leaving for deployment:  Within two weeks of learning of their deployment, they’ll need to send a written notice to their former partner explaining how their service will affect their parenting time. If they have received notice in less than two weeks before deployment, they must send that written notice immediately. Because state law permits temporary changes to parenting plans for military children, they should consult a lawyer to understand how they may modify their plan and who they can designate to care for their child.

Etheridge is the editor of the Coastal Courier. She and her husband have two grown children, the most beautiful granddaughter in the world, a teddy bear of a rescue dog, a grumpy old cat that guards the house, and a young agile cat that pesters the grumpy one.

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