By Randall D. Fuller
What are parents’ options when they cannot agree about how to share parenting responsibilities when they separate or divorce?
The Delaware County Domestic Relations Court hears many cases when parents cannot agree to custody and parenting issues. The good news is in Delaware County there are many resources available to parents. I will highlight a few options and then discuss in more detail Custody Evaluations.
To start, the court can appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL). The job of a GAL is to get to know the family and determine the best way for the children’s needs to be met. The GAL conducts an investigation and makes written recommendations to the court about what custody and parenting time plan is in the best interest of the minor children.
The court can also order the parents to participate in Co-Parent Coaching, which is a dispute resolution program that facilitates communication between the parents and encourages them to envision a successful co-parent plan. The co-parent coach works with the parents to improve communication, experiment with creative ideas for addressing any issues, and develop an agreed plan for the children’s best interest.
The court can also order the parties to mediation. In mediation, the mediator facilitates conversations about how the parents can come to an agreement about custody and parenting time issues.
Parents can also be ordered to Neutral Evaluation. A Neutral Evaluation allows both parents to tell a two-person panel what they each think is in the best interest of the minor children. After the panel hears all of the information and asks the parents questions, they give an assessment of each parents’ case. The panel may also provide a non-binding recommendation of the possible outcome if the case goes to trial.
Sometimes, when these resources are not successful, the court can order a Custody Evaluation, although a Custody Evaluation can be ordered at any time regardless of other services. A Custody Evaluation can provide greater insight into the issues going on within the family dynamic.
What does the custody evaluator do? The evaluator interviews the parents, the children, and other relevant persons with knowledge and experience with the family to determine the best ways to ensure the children’s needs are being met.
So, what is a Custody Evaluation and who conducts the evaluation? A trained, licensed professional in the field of psychiatry, psychology or mental health conducts an investigation and evaluation of the children’s needs and development.
After completing the investigation, the evaluator writes a report for the court that includes an analysis of important factors specific to the family and children. The report recommends the allocation of custody and parenting time that represent the best possible way to meet the children’s needs.
The Ohio Supreme Court recently adopted rules about Custody Evaluations to make sure that the evaluations are conducted in a thorough, ethical, and neutral manner to best serve the children. The rules include that the custody evaluation report is submitted 30 or more days before a final hearing so that the parents and their attorneys can prepare to use the report at trial.
Also, the new Ohio Supreme Court rules make sure custody evaluators are the court’s expert. This is a very important improvement to the Custody Evaluation process. Prior to the new rule, a custody evaluator could be hired by either parent.
Now that the custody evaluator is the court’s expert, the evaluator is not working for either parent. As such, the evaluator is a neutral third party working for the court.
Finally, the new rule requires evaluators to complete an initial training program of 40 hours and, thereafter, 6 hours of continuing education every year. The Ohio Judicial College has done an outstanding job creating the initial training program for custody evaluators.
Custody Evaluations offer a comprehensive approach to the family, the child’s needs, and to parenting issues. I am thankful that the court and families have many options for resolving parenting disputes and that Custody Evaluations are a resource for those that need this level of assistance in determining the parental responsibilities.