Best Interest Custody Evaluations in High-Conflict Divorces
The most challenging cases attorneys handle involve disputes over custody. No attorney I know wants to make this part of a divorce any more difficult on a family than it needs to be, but we can never know what the day-to-day experience is like for the child or children at the center of the custody issue. I rarely speak directly to any child (nor should I), so I hear only what my client tells me. My adversary hears only what his client is telling him. Often the details do not match up. So, how do attorneys, and ultimately, a Judge, make decisions on questions of Custody and Parenting Time when there is continuing conflict?
More and more, we see courts relying on the investigation and a report from a forensic mental health professional often referred to as a Best Interest Custody Evaluation. The psychologist or psychiatrist selected is not in a therapeutic relationship with the child or either parent, so there is no confidentiality and it is known to all parties up front that what is discussed and discovered will be revealed to the other party, to both attorneys, and, if there is a hearing, to the Judge.
This expert can interview each parent, the child (if age appropriate), the individual therapist or counselor for the child, school personnel, or any other person with valuable information. The goal is to provide the attorneys with information from all relevant sources to help encourage a resolution. Some experts will make a recommendation as to what they believe is in the child’s best interest and, even more valuable, the forensic expert can make recommendations of services, steps, or other support that is needed to improve effective co-parenting.
A party may hire his or her own expert to prepare such a report, but that can create an appearance or a perception of bias in favor of the party who paid for the expert. The parties can agree to a joint expert and share the payment for this professional. The Court can appoint a neutral expert to eliminate this concern of influence and to avoid what can become a costly “battle of the experts”. While there are some unfortunate situations that require such intense litigation, in the majority of cases this expense, stress, and intrusion are not truly warranted. It is in everyone’s best interest for the parents to focus on what their child needs: stability, peace, and the support of both parents.
If you or someone you know anticipates a difficult road to resolving parenting time and custody, know that there are tools available and we can help you through this emotional process. To talk further, please call us at 908.237.3098 or use this contact form.