Courts no longer automatically favor mothers when it comes to custody. See how to navigate your case for the best outcome for you and your family. 

LaShieka Hunter
Apr, 17, 2015

You fell in love. Had a kid or two. Then the relationship crumbled. You want child support and full custody. And these days, so does he. It can be devastating when the relationship you thought would last forever ends and the children you created together are now the rope in a tough tug-of-war.

Unfortunately, because the African-American community has high rates of divorce and children born outside of marriage, we are greatly impacted by custody drama.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, teacher Tonya Meyers*,41, became all too familiar with the Broward County court system after she and her ex-husband divorced. She asked him to pay for their young daughter’s day care and school clothes. But he never did. Meyers took him to court in 2004 and the case took a year to be heard by a judge. By then her ex-husband’s child support was $25,000 in arrears, with $600 in monthly payments.

Last January Meyers was back in family court for custody of and child support for her other daughter,whose father is an ex-boyfriend.The court told her that he didn’t have to pay child support since he was taking care of their daughter39 percent of the time, an agreement the two made at mediation.“This wasn’t about him wanting to be with his kid. It was about not wanting to pay,” Meyers says. Her ex-boyfriend still pays $300 a  month in retroactive arrears, which helps with the expenses.

Study Your State and Mediate

Florida family lawyer Winsor Daniel,Jr., says if you’re planning to petition for custody or child support, research your state’s laws. Each state has its own guidelines for child support.“Determine whether your state typically leans 50/50 for parents or prioritizes the mother,” he says. “Find out the factors weighed by the court in determining who has the majority of time with the child and be prepared to prove that in court.”Daniel says mediation up front works for some families.“Some states will require you to go to mediation during the proceedings. If both parents can agree to work together, it’s a viable option,” he says. “Many cases settle but if you don’t, you should be able to narrow down the issues that need to be litigated.This will save you time, money and additional heartache.”Even if you have a good coparenting relationship, get everything in writing, and signed, to minimize future issues.

In 2008 Denise Anderson*, 35, separated from her husband of ten years and went through an amicable mediation in Virginia, determining child support and visitation for their three sons. But a few years later, she found herself in a nasty court battle with another man after she had two children with him. After a fight, the man filed papers for custody of the kids. The judge granted him full custody and ordered that Anderson pay child support. Now she pays him 20 percent of her monthly earnings and has her kids, 4 and 5, every other weekend and holidays. “Since we’ve been to court, my children cry when they have to go back to their father’s house,” she says. Unfortunately Anderson couldn’t afford a lawyer during her case. Daniel recommends getting a lawyer or researching local resources, especially if your ex is being unfair. “An experienced lawyer should know the regulations, and oftentimes is familiar with the judge,” he says. “Although there are no guarantees in court, you want to put yourself in the best position possible.”

Keep the Kids First

Whether going through a simple mediation or a bitter court battle, keep emotions out of the mix. “It helps to look at the relationship with an ex as a business relationship rather than a personal one,” sharesJulie A. Ross, coauthor of Joint Custody With a Jerk:Raising a Child With an Uncooperative Ex and executive director of Parenting Horizons. “If your business partner was bitter and manipulative, yet you had a$1 million account riding on cooperating with her, you would be as cordial as possible to save the account. Ina divorce, the children are the million-dollar account.”If you’re the girlfriend and about to marry a man going through child support issues with his ex, you shouldn’t have any legal obligation. “The responsibility of paying support is his,” says Daniel. Just because you aren’t on the hook financially doesn’t mean you can’t get caught up in drama. Proceed with caution when disciplining your stepchildren. Breaking up and fighting for your children is tough. “While it feels as though the storm will last forever, it won’t,” Ross says. “One day it will no longer hurt so much. You and your ex will move on, and eventually your children will grow up. Start creating a new normal now—where you take care of yourself so you can take care of your children.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.