Lives change and obligations change; child custody orders can change, too.

Yet, if your ex-spouse takes matters — and your kids — into his or her own hands without a court modification, a judge’s say-so may not be enough to ensure the immediate safety of your children. Here are actions recommended by the Judicial Branch of California that you can take now to protect your kids’ best interests and the time you have with them:

1. Inform the police

For immediate custody violations, it generally makes the most sense to call your local police precinct. Show them the details of your custody order and request intervention. For example, law enforcement officers can drive to your ex-spouse’s home to return your children to your care if he or she refuses to bring them back on schedule.

2. File for contempt

If your ex-spouse habitually ignores the custody order, you can have your attorney file for contempt of court. To help build your case, keep a journal with details of every violation, including dates, times and hardships caused by the interference.

3. Contact the district attorney

If your ex-spouse kidnaps your children and takes them out of state or to another country in defiance of the custody order, your county district attorney’s office is usually the best place to start; you can move up the chain as necessary. Your region likely has a Child Abduction and Recovery Unity that might help you find your kids, and the U.S. State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues can coordinate international efforts.

4. Keep helpful records

During the custody negotiations, push for as many specific details as possible: how much time the children will spend with you, which school they will go to and where they will spend vacations and holidays, to name a few. Store a written (and perhaps an electronic) copy of the most recent custody agreement somewhere safe and share the details with family and friends involved in the visitation process. Keep a file with contact and identification information, such as:

       A physical description of your children, including photos no older than six months

       Vital document details for your ex-spouse, including driver’s license and vehicle information, Social Security number, passport and physical attributes

       Contact information for your ex-spouse and his or her family, friends and professional acquaintances

Preparing for the worst eventuality might feel pessimistic, especially if you and your ex are currently on good terms. Should that ever change, though, having detailed records and information on hand could drastically increase your chances of resolving the dispute quickly and thus lessen the potentially traumatic impact on your child.