In contested, high conflict cases involving children, sometimes professionals are designated to work with the parents and children. Child custody experts may be appointed at the request of a parent, or the judge can appoint one or more experts even if the parents do not request an expert. Child custody professionals are supposed to be neutral, meaning they work for the interests of the children or the court, and not for either parent. This is a brief overview of different types of professionals who work on child custody cases and are treated as experts:
Guardian Ad Litem
A guardian ad litem is a licensed attorney who acts as an investigator for the court and as an advocate for the child or children. The scope of the guardian ad litem’s work is usually defined by an order appointing the guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem’s work typically includes reviewing all child-related records and information, meeting with each parent and each child, participating in the case by attending hearings and even testifying, and advocating for services for each child when necessary. The guardian ad litem generally writes a report summarizing the investigation.
A guardian ad litem will interview each child and note each child’s preferences as to custody and visitation, but a child’s preferences are not completely binding or conclusive on either the guardian ad litem or on the judge as to those issues.
A custody evaluation is an assessment of each child’s needs and each parent’s ability to meet the needs of each child. A custody evaluator typically has a counseling and mental health background. Most custody evaluators are psychologists. Many custody evaluators employ psychological tests in the evaluation process. Both parents must be involved in the process for the evaluation to have value. The custody evaluator will interview and observe each child. The custody evaluator generally writes a report summarizing the evaluation.
A parenting coordinator is an impartial third party appointed by the court to assist parents in resolving issues related to parenting and other family issues. To be a parenting coordinator, the person must either be a family law attorney or a licensed mental health professional. In cases involving a parenting coordinator, the parents can bring their parenting issues and disputes to the parenting coordinator. The parenting coordinator typically hears each parent’s side of each issue, and the parenting coordinator may interview each child if necessary. After hearing each side, the parenting coordinator issues a written report with a recommendation for resolution of the disputed issue.
Cases involving child custody and visitation sometimes involve other experts. High conflict cases may involve several experts, each of whom may or may not communicate or work with one another. Professionals who work with families and children in custody matters include counselors, forensic interviewers, DHS investigators, and professional supervisors.
Each of these experts, with limited exceptions, are private individuals and charge for their time. The judge has broad discretion to allocate the expense of each professional between the parents. Sometimes the judge will order one parent to bear the entire expense of a professional’s involvement, and other times the judge will order the parents to share the expense equally.
The opinion of a qualified expert may have a great deal of influence on the judge’s decision. Although the judge has the final say, each expert should be treated as a decision-maker for the case. It is important to timely pay the expert and timely provide the expert with the most important information necessary for the expert to make a good assessment of the case. When you have an expert involved in your case, you should keep your attorney informed and involved in the process. Your attorney can help make sure that the expert is informed about the expert’s role and the scope of the expert’s work in your case, as well as provide the expert with key information and context for the issues in your case and the needs of your children.