Child Representatives and Custody/Parenting Evaluators
Family courts focus on the protection of the child when families dissolve. Because judges and magistrates are not experts in psychology and child development, they often look to outside experts to provide their opinions about what the children’s best interests are.
One type of expert that has been used in parts of the U.S and a few other countries is a child representative, such as a guardian ad litem (GAL), or an attorney for the child. This individual will present their opinion to the court of what they believe is in the child’s best interest at various points in the case, such as when final orders are being made. The use of these representatives has been highly controversial and criticized, with critics arguing that these representatives are given far too much power and authority by the court. For example, parents are required to cooperate with GALs whether they think they are operating in their child’s best interest or not. If they have concerns, they can file complaints, but parents have reported that their complaints make matters worse because the GAL can become biased against them. These appointments are also expensive, as parents are required to pay for their child’s legal representation as well as their own.
Courts will also seek input from custody or parenting evaluators as to what they recommend for how parenting time and/or decision-making is allocated, and any other issue the court asks of them to investigate. Each country or state within a country may have their own requirements and guidelines for what types of training parent evaluators must have, but most generally require a graduate degree in psychology, social work, or marriage and family therapy. Evaluators are expected to be impartial, as they are to work for the court in the best interest of the child, not one parent or another, regardless who pays for the evaluation.
The types of evaluations conducted will vary based on what the court wants to know. In cases where the court wants to know only specific answers, such as whether one parent is promoting a positive relationship with another, the evaluator will be asked to only investigate the family for that information and report their findings back to the court. Parents may want to have the evaluator look at other things, but if the court does not ask for that information, the evaluator will not necessarily include it in the report.
How do they do these evaluations? The evaluation consists of interviews with the children and parents, as well as an observation of parents with their children. The evaluator will observe parenting skills and assess the bond each parent has with your child. Evaluators will also need to gather information from other sources, such as collateral contacts that parents list as references (e.g., friends, neighbors), school and medical records, and even psychological testing if a more thorough evaluation of parenting ability is ordered.
There is great variability in the guidelines (e.g., expected deadlines) provided for evaluators across different localities. They must write a report for the court to use, which should present a clear picture to the judge about the family and the children’s needs. Recommendations can be made in this report, but not unless both parents have been interviewed. Unfortunately, judges and legal professionals have noted that there is great variability in the quality of reports, making their reliability subject to scrutiny. For example, one evaluator may collect information differently than another, and two evaluators may see the same evidence and come to very different conclusions. There have been recent attempts to make evaluation of parents and families more standardized and empirically based, such as the use of validated and reliable assessment tools in making recommendations, but these scientifically based approaches have been slow to take hold in family courts.
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