In child custody matters, the initial appearance, called a preliminary hearing, is the first court date that the parents attend. The hearing is typically brief--on average, less than 10 minutes--and allows the judge to familiarize himself with the parents, the case and determine if there are any pertinent issues that need to be addressed. You can expect very little to happen at your initial appearance, and no final Order for Child Custody will be entered at this time.
Plan to arrive at least 15 to 30 minutes earlier than your scheduled time. The judge may be ahead on cases that day, and if you are not there when your matter is called, the hearing may be rescheduled in your absence. You should not bring your children with you to the initial hearing unless you are explicitly asked to by the court. Dress appropriately in business formal attire. When you arrive, check with the clerk of the court to check in and find where your case has been assigned, then locate the appropriate room and find a seat in the gallery. Sit quietly until your matter is called, at which time you should approach the bench.
Once your case is called, you will be asked to step forward by the bailiff. The judge will verify your identities to ensure both parents are present. Then the judge may give a verbal overview of the case and ask each of you to provide a short initial statement. Answer the judge's questions honestly; your responses become a permanent record of the court.
After hearing statements from both parents, the judge will consider any "loose ends" that need to be tied up before the custody matter can proceed. At the very least, the judge will explain what a child custody hearing is, how it works and what will happen. The judge will also ask the attorney(s) to submit a notice of representation if either parent has retained counsel. Other issues, like paternity, will be established if necessary.
If there are allegations of child abuse, neglect or spousal abuse, the judge may take steps to protect the children until the next hearing. He may enter an Order for Protection to prevent the other parent from visiting with the children until further notice. Visitation may be ordered if the judge feels it is appropriate. If both parents allege the other is abusing or neglecting the children, the judge may also order temporary placement of the children with the other parent, another close relative or with state foster care. The judge also may order emergency mediation to address the situation immediately after the hearing.
Very rarely will the judge make any permanent decisions at the initial hearing, unless there is an emergency. At the most, she may enter a temporary Order for Child Support, called a Pendente lite order, to provide the custodial parent will some financial assistance until the next court date. Other than temporary support, you can expect the judge to make no actual rulings at the hearing.