Custody Evaluations

Custody disputes are often the most emotional part of any divorce litigation.  Determining what the physical and legal custodial arrangement will be is a fact-specific analysis that puts at the forefront the best interests of the child.  While both parents start out with a presumpton of equal rights in a custody proceeding, fostering a child’s relationship with both parents is of utmost importance, as is encouraging both parents’ involvement in raising the child. 

N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) provides for several factors that a trial court must consider in determining whether to award joint custody, sole custody or an alternative that works in the child’s best interests.  These factors include, but are not limited to, the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child; the parents’ willingness to accept custody; and the needs of the child.  The Appellate Division recently addressed these factors in the context of a physical and legal custodial dispute in Elliott v. Prisock-Elliott, decided June 2, 2009. 

For a joint physical and legal custodial arrangement, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that the children must recognize both parents as sources of "security and love," with a desire to continue both relationships; both parents must be fit and willing to accept custody; and the parents must demonstrate a "potential" for cooperation analyzed outside of the divorce context.  A parent involved in such a dispute should understand, though, that he or she need not have been as involved as the other parent in the child rearing process for joint custody to be appropriate. Continue Reading Physical and Legal Custody Determinations – Look at the Facts

Last week, I authored and released a Family Law Alert regarding the new Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings issued by the American Psychological Association Issues. To view a PDF version of the alert, click here.  The full text of the alert is as follows:

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that parties resolve child custody issues amongst themselves in 90 percent of the cases. When parties cannot resolve custody and visitation issues (called “parenting time” in New Jersey) amongst themselves or after a court’s early intervention program, the next step is to have a child custody evaluation performed by a forensic psychologist. In some cases, the court will appoint this expert. In others, the parties may agree upon a joint expert. In bitterly contested cases, parties often have their own custody expert – and there may also be a court appointed expert.

In 1994, the APA developed Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings. The APA issued updated guidelines effective February 21, 2009, which are effective for the next 10 years. These Guidelines consist of 14 individual guidelines that are meant to be aspirational in nature, and not mandatory. Rather, the Guidelines are intended to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and a high level of practice by psychologists. The Guidelines were not intended to be exhaustive nor replace the judgment of the psychologist. That said, they provide fodder for cross-examination during a custody trial if the expert is not aware of the Guidelines and/or fails to follow them. A rationale and application is provided for each of the following 14 Guidelines:

1.  The purpose of the evaluation is to assist in determining the psychological best interests of the child. Since the ultimate standard in deciding a custody case is “the best interests of the children,” the Guidelines reinforce that the psychologist should be focusing on the psychological best interests of the children, which is what the Court expects. The Guidelines encourage the expert to weigh and incorporate family dynamics and interactions; cultural and environmental variables; relevant challenges and aptitudes for all examined parties; and the child’s educational, physical and psychological needs.

Litigants going through the process of a custody evaluation should provide the expert with all relevant information regarding these factors. In reviewing the expert report, make sure that the expert has addressed them all. If it is your own expert, you may want to inquire why these issues are not included. If it is a neutral or adverse expert, it is a potential issue to be raised on cross examination. With the neutral expert, you may not want to wait until trial. If any of these factors are important enough to impact the final recommendation, you may want to ask the expert to reconsider his or her recommendation in light of this information.

Continue Reading The American Psychological Association Issues New Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings