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Child Custody | Family

What Happens if the Custodial Parent Doesn’t Pick Up a Child?

9 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

If the custodial parent refuses to pick up a child or fails to do so in a timely manner, then the other parent can take legal action. Depending on the circumstances, options may include filing a contempt of court motion or requesting an emergency hearing.

When one parent is awarded primary physical custody of a child, they are expected to honor their custodial rights and pick up the child when it’s time. However, this doesn’t always happen. In some cases, the custodial parent will refuse to pick up the child when it’s their turn or may be late in doing so.

As the noncustodial parent, it’s important to understand what options are available if your custodial ex-spouse fails to pick up the child as agreed. Family law attorneys can help you understand your rights and take action to ensure that the other parent is honoring their custodial duties.

What are the Typical Arrangements for Child Pick Up and Drop Off?

Shared Custody

In shared custody situations, both parents have physical custody rights, meaning the child spends significant time living with each parent. These arrangements stem from a legal decision and are typically outlined in a parenting plan.

A parenting plan is a detailed document that outlines the child’s schedule, including specific drop-off and pickup times and locations. Both parents often negotiate this schedule, aiming to minimize disruption to the child’s life and provide a consistent routine.

For instance, you might have a plan where the non-custodial parent picks up the child from school on Fridays and returns them to the custodial parent’s home on Sunday evenings. The specifics of these plans can vary widely based on the child’s age, school schedule, the parents’ work obligations, and other factors unique to the family’s situation.

Sole Custody

In sole custody situations, one parent is designated as the custodial parent and has primary physical custody rights. The other parent typically has visitation or parenting time rights, meaning they can spend some time with their child during certain days or hours.

The custodial parent is responsible for picking up the child when it’s their turn to have them for the weekend or other agreed-upon times. The noncustodial parent is generally only responsible for dropping off the child at the custodial parent’s home when it’s time to exchange custody.

When one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent is typically given visitation rights. This means that they can still spend time with their child but don’t have a significant role in day-to-day parenting decisions and responsibilities. Typically, this arrangement results in the non-custodial parent picking up the child from the custodial parent’s home at specific times, usually on weekends or during school holidays.

The custodial parent is expected to enforce visitation rights and ensure the child is available for pickup when it’s their turn. This means they must make the necessary arrangements for drop-off and pickup if need be, like providing transportation or taking the child to an agreed-upon place.

What Are the Legal Implications if a Custodial Parent Doesn’t Pick up the Child on Time?

When a custodial parent doesn’t pick up the child on time, it can disrupt the routine outlined in the visitation schedules within the parenting plan. Depending on the circumstances, there could be legal implications. If one parent consistently fails to adhere to the parenting plan, it might be viewed as a violation of a court order. This situation could potentially lead to severe consequences, including changes to the custody arrangement.

If a custodial parent repeatedly fails to pick up the child as scheduled, the non-custodial parent has the option to document these incidents and approach the court for a possible modification of the custody order. Note that any modifications typically require proof that the current arrangement isn’t being honored and that the change would serve the child’s best interest.

An “emergency hearing” is a special procedure in family law that can be requested when immediate and irreparable harm or change of status is likely to occur to the child before a regular hearing can be held. 

If the custodial parent’s refusal or delay in picking up the child creates an immediate crisis or threat to the child’s welfare, the non-custodial parent could request an emergency hearing. During such a hearing, the court will quickly review the case and decide on interim measures to ensure the child’s safety until a formal hearing can be scheduled.

It’s also worth noting that refusing or failing to adhere to the visitation order does not typically affect child support. Child support and visitation rights are separate issues in the eyes of the court. A parent cannot withhold visitation due to missed child support payments, and conversely, one cannot stop paying child support if a parent refuses visitation rights.

How Should the Non-custodial Parent Respond?

In situations where the custodial parent does not pick up the child as scheduled, the non-custodial parent might feel confused about how to react. In these moments, it’s crucial to remember the primary goal: to maintain stability and security in the child’s life.

First, reach out to the custodial parent. There could be a reasonable explanation for the delay, such as traffic or an unexpected work commitment. If possible, it’s often most beneficial for the child if parents can be flexible and work together to navigate unforeseen circumstances.

However, if the custodial parent is unreachable or this behavior becomes a pattern, you need to take greater steps. When the behavior becomes a pattern, document each incident, including times, dates, and any attempts to contact the custodial parent. These records may serve as evidence if you need to request a custody order modification.

Additionally, you may need to make alternative arrangements for the care of your child, especially if you have work or other commitments. Involve trustworthy adults from your child’s life, like close relatives or friends, to provide a sense of continuity and reassurance.

When Should Authorities Be Alerted?

Knowing when to involve the authorities can be challenging. If you’re genuinely concerned for your child’s safety due to the custodial parent’s failure to pick up the child, it may be necessary to contact the local police or child protective services.

If the custodial parent’s absence is out of character, and there’s reason to believe they may be in danger or need assistance, calling the police can also be the right step. In any case, it’s essential to err on the side of caution and prioritize the child’s safety.

In a scenario where the custodial parent consistently neglects their responsibilities, involving the court rather than local law enforcement might be more appropriate. Consistent failure to adhere to a visitation order may warrant legal intervention. In this case, you should consult with a family law attorney who can guide you through the process of court proceedings to adjust the parenting plan or custody order.

How Can Such Incidents Impact the Child Custody Agreement?

Repeated instances where the custodial parent fails to pick up the child can indeed influence the existing child custody agreement. A custody order is a legally binding document. If one parent fails to uphold their obligations, it can be grounds for the other parent to seek a modification of the custody arrangements.

Judges place a high premium on stability for children, but a pattern of unreliability from the custodial parent disrupts this stability. This pattern could be deemed as not serving the child’s best interests. A court could interpret repeated neglect of custody terms as an inability to fulfill parental duties, leading to potential changes in custody.

Changes can range from adjusting the schedule to swapping custodial and non-custodial roles, depending on the severity of the situation and what the court deems to be in the child’s best interest.

How Does the Court Assess the Impact on the Child’s Welfare?

When considering the impact on the child’s welfare, the court evaluates various factors. Above all, the child’s safety and well-being are paramount. The court looks at the child’s physical health and safety, emotional well-being, and the consistency of their environment.

An unstable environment can negatively affect a child’s emotional health and development. A parent who is consistently late or fails to attend pickups could contribute to such instability.

Judges will also assess the willingness and ability of each parent to maintain a positive and constructive relationship with the child. If the court believes the custodial parent’s actions interfere with the child’s life or the other parent’s relationship with the child, the judge may adjust the custody order accordingly.

However, before any changes are made, the court will give the custodial parent a chance to explain their actions. The court understands that anyone can have an emergency or an occasional problem that prevents timely pickup. Therefore, the emphasis is on patterns of behavior rather than isolated incidents.

When Is a Contempt of Court Order Applicable?

Filing for contempt of court becomes an option when one parent disobeys a court order, including a visitation order or custody order. It’s a serious allegation, as it implies that the parent has willingly violated the court’s instructions.

To file a motion for contempt, you should provide evidence that the custodial parent has failed to abide by the visitation schedule stipulated in the custody order. This is where keeping detailed records of each incident, including dates, times, and communications, becomes valuable.

The judge will review the motion, and if the evidence supports your claims, they may find the custodial parent in contempt. This ruling can lead to various consequences, including fines, make-up visitation time, or even jail time for the offending parent in severe cases.

Before embarking on this path, consult with a family law attorney. They can help you evaluate whether the situation merits a motion for contempt or if other solutions would be more appropriate. Before taking any legal action, consider the potential impact on your child and the parent-child relationship.


The paramount concern should always be the child’s well-being. In these circumstances, your role as a non-custodial parent is to provide as much stability and reassurance as possible. Consistently putting the child’s needs first will support their emotional health, and stand in your favor should you need to engage in legal proceedings.

If you are facing a situation where a custodial parent isn’t picking up their child, let us connect you with an affordable lawyer who can offer valuable insights and assistance.

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