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Rights for Noncustodial Parents
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Tuesday March 01, 2005
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Justina, who lives with her mother, has a history of conflicts with her mother and is often in your office distraught over their latest verbal bout. A teacher comes to you worried about Justina who “isn’t herself.” When you talk to Justina, you too become worried; she appears withdrawn, distracted and depressed. You suggest to Justina that you need to talk to her mother so Justina can get some help, but she begs you to call her father instead. After consulting your supervisor and discussing the issue with Justina, you honor her wishes and call her father, the noncustodial parent. He immediately responds by coming to the school to discuss Justina and picking up copies of her educational records to take to a psychologist whose help he will seek. He says he will contact Justina’s mother and the two of them will set up an appointment for Justina. Justina’s mother calls you furious that you contacted Justina’s father and says she is refusing to allow you or any other school representative to ever again contact the father or give him information about Justina.

Can you call a noncustodial parent about a social-emotional issue involving his or her child? Does Justina’s father have the right to be included in parent-teacher conferences and to receive education records? Is the school obligated to notify the custodial parent before contacting the noncustodial parent?

“Custodial parent” is a term used for the parent who has primary physical custody of a child. Typically the child resides with the custodial parent. “Noncustodial parent” is used for the parent who has the child for a lesser amount of time. Typically the child does doesn’t reside with the noncustodial parent except during the time the noncustodial parent exercises his/her visitation rights with the child.

Unless there is a court order expressly stating otherwise, noncustodial parents enjoy all the same rights as custodial parents. Noncustodial parents can participate in parent-teacher conferences, receive report cards and progress reports and get copies of educational records.

You may contact noncustodial parents and involve them in an academic or emotional issue. In an effort to preserve your relationship with custodial parents, however, you may decide to inform them any time you’ve called a noncustodial parent. This is a judgment call that would depend on the context, history and the student who is experiencing the problem.

Consider the court case Page, Petitioner, vs. Rotterdam-Mohonasen Central School District. Eric Page, a first-grader, lived with his mother who was legally separated from his father, Mr. Page tried to meet with the educators in Eric’s school and to review his son’s education records so he could stay involved in his son’s academic progress. The school followed Mrs. Page’s direction and denied all requests by Mr. Page. Mrs. Page’s contention was that as a result of their separation and having been awarded custody of Eric, Mr. Page had “abandoned” any interest he may have had in Eric’s education.

A lawsuit against the Rotterdam-Mohonasen Central School District resulted in Mr. Page being given full access to Eric’s teachers and also to his records in accordance with the federal statute Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows for inspection of school records by either parent regardless of which one has custody. The court held, “Educators and school districts are charged with the duty to act in the best educational interests of the children committed to their care, and although it may cause some inconvenience, those interests dictate that educational information be made available to both parents of every school child fortunate enough to have two parents interested in his welfare.”

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act in an effort to support both parents involvement in their children’s lives. When deciding custody, many states follow the Uniform Marriage Act, which encourages custodial decisions in part to favor the parent determined to be most likely to keep the other parent involved in the child’s life (Commissioners of Uniform State Laws, 1997).

Stepparents also have rights under FERPA, which defines parent as “a natural parent, a guardian or an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or a guardian.” Additionally, the Department of Education has stated, “that a parent is absent if he or she is not present in the day-to-day home environment of the child. Accordingly, a stepparent has rights under FERPA where the stepparent is present on a day-to-day basis with the natural parent and child and the other parent is absent from that home. In such cases, stepparents have the same rights to education records under FERPA as do natural parents. Conversely, a stepparent who is not present on a day-to-day basis in the home of the child does not have rights under FERPA with respect to such child’s education records.”

In the end, regardless of whether you’re dealing with custodial parents or noncustodial parents, they still have the right to be involved in their children’s education. 

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is an associate professor and school counseling program leader, University of North Florida, and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu.