COVID Court closures are expected to create a significant backlog of family cases and delays getting to trial and resolution. This is especially difficult for families whose complex situation calls for Court intervention, but access to the Court has been quite limited. What options do these families have while they await rescheduled hearing and trial dates & their day in Court?
This series of articles explores options to help stabilize families in crisis through:
· Parent Coordination
· Early Neutral Case Evaluation
· Custody Evaluation
· Child Counsel Representation (especially Best Interest or Child Advocate Attorney)
· Custody Evaluations, including Specific Issue Evaluations
What is a Custody Evaluation?
A Custody Evaluation is a “study and analysis of the needs and development of a child…and of the abilities of the parties to care of the child and meet the child’s needs” (Maryland Rule 9-205.3(b)(3)). A Custody Evaluation looks at the family history, the family’s current functioning, the parents’/participants’ fitness, the child’s needs, and makes recommendations about a parenting time schedule/physical custody and legal decision making/legal custody, as well as any services for the parents or child.
A Custody Evaluation may include psychological testing of the parents or a child. A Custody Evaluation may be general (as described above) or focus on a specific issue or a parent’s home.
A Specific Issue Evaluation “means a targeted investigation into a specific issue…affective the safety, health, or welfare of the child” (Maryland Rule 9-205.3(b)(7)). “An example…is an evaluation of a party as to whom the issue of a problem with alcohol consumption has been raised, performed by an individual with expertise in alcoholism” (Committee Note). This is also referred to as a Brief Focused Assessment (for example, by the AFCC).
A Home Study means “an inspection of a party’s home that focuses upon the safety and suitability of the physical surroundings and living environment for the child” (Maryland Rule 9-205.3(b)(5)).
What Do Custody Evaluations Look Like?
Maryland Rule 9-205.3 sets out the following Mandatory & Optional Elements of a custody evaluation:
o a review of the relevant court records pertaining to the litigation
o an interview of each party
o an interview of the child, unless the custody evaluator determines and explains that by reason of age, disability, or lack of maturity, the child lacks capacity to be interviewed
o a review of any relevant educational, medical, and legal records pertaining to the child
o if feasible, observations of the child with each party, whenever possible in that party's household
o factual findings about the needs of the child and the capacity of each party to meet the child's needs
o a custody and visitation recommendation based upon an analysis of the facts found or, if such a recommendation cannot be made, an explanation of why
o contact with collateral sources of information
o a review of additional records
o employment verification
o an interview of any other individual residing in the household
o a mental health evaluation
o consultation with other experts to develop information that is beyond the scope of the evaluator's practice or area of expertise
o an investigation into any other relevant information about the child's needs
All evaluations culminate in a report, whether oral on the record and transcribed or written, unless the report requirement is waived for a Specific Issue Evaluation or Home Study. The report contains the evaluator’s findings and recommendations.
How Can Custody Evaluations Help During Court Backlog?
A custody evaluation need not depend upon the court’s timing. Willing parents could use a Custody Evaluation’s results to help them settle their case in full or make temporary, child-focused changes until their trial.
Specific Issue Evaluations and Home Studies may provide parents targeted information about pressing concerns. If addressed, this may either resolve the issue or provide a plan for moving the family forward while their case makes its way through the court process.
While only a court can make a final, binding decision, in contested matters, a Custody Evaluation is an option for parents to receive and implement child-focused input and recommendations.
Since 2002, Lindsay Parvis has represented clients in Maryland custody, divorce, and marital matters. She negotiates, litigates, and advocates for the best interests of her clients, whether in contested litigation, uncontested settlement, or premarital and other agreements. Her clients are not only spouses and parents, but also children whose interests she is appointed by the court to represent in contested custody litigation. Lindsay strives to improve Maryland law in the General Assembly, volunteering her time to monitor, advocate, and educate about legislative developments in family law.