CUSTODY EVALUATIONS

Custody Evaluations

Custody evaluations occur in high conflict child custody matters. A highly structured and regulated process, the court appoints a psychologist to evaluate the family and make recommendations to the court regarding custody assignment, visitation, and a parenting plan. Custody evaluations are different from parenting evaluations in that the evaluator is asked to conduct a comparative study of parental strength and weaknesses to determine the best sharing-time arrangements between each parent and a particular child. The guiding principle in child custody evaluations is what constitutes “the child’s best interest.”

 

Brief Focused Assessment

At times in disputed custody matters there is a need for an assessment that addresses discrete issues, limited in scope, that do not require a comprehensive child custody evaluation to assist the court in decision-making. Such issues can include domestic violence, reintegration of a parent, substance abuse. A Brief Focused Assessment, as described in guidelines proposed by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, addresses specific, narrowly defined referral questions, identified by a judicial officer in a court order. The Brief Focused Assessment can be an efficient and effective tool to assist judicial decision-making in cases where a full child custody evaluation is not needed. These evaluations can be completed in less time than a full child custody evaluation, so the information is available to the court more quickly, avoiding some of the delays in the resolution of issues than can exacerbate tension in families. They also generally cost about half the price of a full evaluation, depending upon the issues being examined.

 

In a Brief Focused Assessment, an evaluator conducts interviews with parents and children, as well as observing parent-child interactions. The evaluator typically reviews relevant records and conducts telephone interviews with collateral contacts, such as therapists, teachers, or other professionals who have worked with the family. In some instances, psychological testing may be used.

 

The Brief Focused Assessment involves more circumscribed inquiry into family issues and are therefore likely to be less intrusive to the family than comprehensive child custody evaluations. The BFA can provide quick and timely feedback regarding acute questions about the following: parenting time arrangements; assessing a child or teenager's request to change a custody arrangement;child safety issues; evaluation of only one parent to examine psychological instability or substance abuse which may compromise parental functioning; assessing allegations of abuse;assessing potential child alienation issues; or disagreements regarding school placement of a child.

 

The Brief Focused Assessment should not be substituted as an inexpensive alternative where a comprehensive child custody evaluation is necessary to address the concerns of the court and the family. BFAs differ from comprehensive child custody evaluations in their narrower scope and abbreviated assessment procedures, with a much shorter report and more descriptive reporting of data. Comprehensive evaluations, by contrast, are designed to provide data on more broadly based questions about general family functioning and parenting capacity that are not appropriate to the BFA model, while also producing more comprehensive report and parenting plan recommendations.

 

A request for a BFA must come from the Court or from a judicial officer such as a GAL, specifically naming the proposed evaluator in the court order or stipulated agreement. The request must include the specific issue to be addressed

Overnight Visits With Very Young Children In Disputed Custody Matters

A parent's legal rights with a newborn are usually the same as with an older child. In matters involving newborn babies, both parents should have equal access, including overnight visits.  Although unique circumstances may apply, there are no hard and fast rules about overnight visits. Courts apply the best interests doctrine to determine what is in the best interests of the child. The well-being of the baby should be the paramount consideration, and courts consider the best interests of the child over the desires or requests of either parent.

Relocations (Re-Los) and Move Aways

Relocations (Re-Los) or Move Aways complicate the already fraught custody and time sharing landscape. This circumstance sets in when a custodial parent relocates with a child, or when the stable visitation arrangement disrupts when the non-custodial parent moves away.  The result is that kids are forced into a long distance relationship with their own parent.

Laws governing these circumstances vary state to state; fortunately – from the legal side - many guidelines have already been developed and tested. Sometimes, a relocation dispute arises if the noncustodial parent objects to the intended move based on its potential effect on custody and visitation.  Even more complicated is when 1 or both parties are in the military, and a deployment or transfer coincides with the breakup of the marriage.  When disputes like this come up, courts are often left to decide whether child custody relocation is in the best interests of the child.  In such cases, the custody evaluator is asked to contribute to the discussion.