All states have laws in place to protect children from trouble. That trouble might come in many forms, including parental neglect or abuse, parental kidnapping of a child, or even the sudden death or incapacity of both parents. Under any one of these (or other) emergency situations, courts can step in, issue custody orders, and make sure someone will care for the child.
State and Local Laws Apply to Emergency Custody Orders
The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) sets forth the laws governing child custody enforcement and jurisdiction (meaning which court has authority to issue an order). It has been adopted by almost every state, except for Massachusetts. The UCCJEA was designed to discourage interstate kidnapping by non-custodial parents. Before the UCCJEA, it was common for non-custodial parents to (without permission or consent) take their children across state lines and ask out-of-state courts to grant custody orders.
Under the UCCJEA, parents can only file for custody in the state where their child has lived for the past six months. But there are specific provisions that deal with emergency custody issues. For example, if you're forced to flee your home state because your child's welfare is threatened by the other parent, such as by severe abuse or neglect, the new state may use it's emergency jurisdictional authority to issue a temporary custody order until it (or the home state court) can determine a more permanent solution.
If you aren't forced to flee your home state, you can seek emergency custody orders from your local court. The court in the county where a child lives typically has local jurisdiction in most emergency custody matters. If your child is in danger from the other parent, you can go to your county courthouse and request emergency temporary custody. Depending on the laws in your county, you may or may not have to appear before a judge. The court may place your child with you on a short-term basis and may not require the other parent's appearance when it issues a temporary emergency order. However, judges usually schedule full court hearings to determine permanent custody orders, and these take place relatively quickly after granting temporary orders, so both parents will have an opportunity to present their side of the story to a judge.
Any Adult Can Get Involved
Emergency custody doesn't just apply to parents. If you know that an adult is neglecting or abusing a child, you can report the situation to your local child welfare or social services department; The official department name will vary from state to state, but is typically called the Department of Social Services, Department of Children and Family Services, or Child Protective Services. You can also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 (1-800-4-A-CHILD).
If you want to have the child placed with you on a temporary basis, you'll need to file a motion for temporary custody with the local family court. Removing children from their parents or caregivers is a complicated matter, so you would likely need to consult with a custody expert about this. When children are placed in temporary protective custody, courts typically work toward fixing the problems in the family home in order to reunify children with their parents. This may include sending parents to alcohol or substance abuse rehabilitation, ordering ongoing screenings and drug testing, anger management, and parenting courses.
Occasionally, an emergency custody situation occurs when a child's parents are killed in an accident or hurt so badly that they're unable to provide care, and no guardian has been appointed. Some states allow parents to plan ahead for such emergencies by naming a standby guardian. In the event of a tragedy that renders parents incapacitated, the child's guardian receives immediate custody until the court can appoint a permanent guardian or until the parents are able to care for their child again.
A Custody Lawyer Can Help
Custody laws are complicated, and this article provides only a brief, general introduction to the topic. For specific information, you should contact a local custody lawyer.