School shooting raises child custody questions in Washington

Family details are emerging about the life of a 9-year-old boy who allegedly accidentally shot a classmate in school in Port Orchard, Washington, last week. The classmate, an 8-year-old girl, was in critical condition after the shooting.

The boy’s family story, one of guardianship, visitation, child support and custody has unfolded in the Washington state family court system over the course of his life. Both of the boy’s parents have criminal records, and his legal guardian is his uncle. It appears that the boy obtained the gun when he was visiting his mother last weekend.

As we recently discussed in our Spokane Family Law Blog, child custody procedures are under increasing scrutiny in Washington state. Another recent tragedy involved two boys who were killed in a murder-suicide by their father, who had supervised visitation rights. The grandparents of those boys are now pushing for changes to the system, such as restricted private home visitations, increased rights for grandparents in family court and prohibiting murder suspects from having custody of their children.

In Washington state, judges are generally given discretion in custody decisions. Often, a judge’s determination of whether a child is in danger is the threshold for whether a troubled parent is allowed visitation with his or her child.

The threshold for denying custody completely is very high. But, parenting plans can also be modified, particularly if the safety of the child is in question. Drug or alcohol addiction, a dangerous environment or child abuse all warrant reevaluating a parenting plan as soon as possible.

Though most still agree judges are effective in custody and visitation decisions, as these tragedies happen some are requesting that states consider legislation to reshape custody laws.

Source: Seattle Times, “Father: ‘My kid made a mistake’ in school shooting,” Manuel Valdes and Gene Johnson, Feb. 23, 2012