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. When a court expert is appointed in a family law case, the expert is required to make a disclosure to each side that includes information to check for a conflict of interest, the expert's resume, and the expert's professional disciplinary history, if any. 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. Parents and their attorneys can agree to choose and pay for a guardian ad litem if they feel it would benefit their legal situation, or the judge can appoint a guardian ad litem and determine how the guardian ad litem's fee will be paid by each parent, even if neither parent nor their attorneys believe that a guardian ad litem is necessary. 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.
Guardians ad litem are good resources for certain types of cases. Most guardians ad litem are simply licensed attorneys and do not necessarily have special training for recognizing domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health issues. Not every attorney is a good guardian ad litem, but there are some excellent guardians ad litem. As the quality of a guardian ad litem varies widely depending on the individual serving as guardian ad litem, it is important to know as much about the background and training of the guardian ad litem before selecting one.
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. Parents may agree to the appointment of a parenting coordinator, or the judge may appoint a parenting coordinator even if the parents don't want one, if the judge finds that the situation between the parents is "high conflict." 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. The written report becomes a court order within 10 days unless one of the parents file an objection to the report. Unless the parenting coordinator made a serious, obvious mistake, an objection to a parenting coordinator report has a low chance of success, as parenting coordinators are a great asset to judges. The written reports can result in mini-adjustments and additions to the court orders, but they cannot make long-term changes to parenting time.
Parenting coordinators can be excellent resources when communication between parents is difficult, when one parent is unreasonable or a bully, when time-sensitive matters come up that need prompt attention, or when other issues come up that are important but would not be enough to initiate litigation. The best results from parenting coordinators happen when the parent who needs assistance treats the parenting coordinator like a judge. This means identifying the issues, trying to resolve them before taking them to the parenting coordinator, and making the issues as simple as possible. Generally, the fewer issues that the parenting coordinator has to deal with in any particular session, the better the parenting coordinator's decision and report will be.
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. Whether you are working with a guardian ad litem, psychologist, parenting coordinator or another type of professional, you should create a packet of important information that will help the professional see and understand your evidence, much like you would for a judge. 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.