Any person with a legitimate interest can file a petition for child custody. Most often, the petitioner is a parent. Sometimes grandparents or other relatives will petition for custody. We have had cases where the parent has died and a stepparent who has raised the child petitioned for custody.
Virginia has a two-level court system. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court can decide cases of custody and visitation. The Circuit Court, which is higher than the Juvenile Court, can also rule on such cases.
The Juvenile Court is much easier for people who don’t have a lawyer. The Juvenile Court judges often decide cases where both parties appear without a lawyer. They are used to people who don’t know the rules of evidence and are not familiar with the Virginia Code Section that tells judges what to consider in ruling on child custody cases.
The Circuit Court is a much different environment. It is more formal and getting by without a lawyer is harder. Child custody issues most often come before the Circuit Court as part of a divorce or where one party has appealed a Juvenile Court decision.
In the Juvenile Court, the petition is a one-page form. You also have to file an affidavit that gives the child’s address history for the past five years. Intake personnel will complete the form based on information you give them.
The way intake is handled varies from place to place. So it is a good idea to call the court and find out when they do intake before taking the time to go there. When you call, ask what you need to bring with you.