Thursday, April 15, 2004

Enter the Custody Evaluator

For those of you going through a divorce, it is likely that you have seen a custody evaluator in one form or another. They might be titled as a G.A.L, Children's Advocate, (more directly) Custody Evaluator or any other conglomeration of words made to sound impartial and inherently good.

In my personal experience I have been "lucky" enough to be involved with two custody evaluators. Luckily for us, the results from both were positive for our side. However, that in no way eliminates the emotional and mental stress (i.e. - anguish, dread, debilitating fear) that came while the evaluations were being rendered. Further, both of the evaluators that I had experience with truly did seem to place great importance on their position, attempt in every way to be as thorough and impartial as possible, and be smart enough to see through some of the bull-shit that inevitably comes with this process.

All of this aside, many people do not feel as though they had a positive experience with their evaluator - even those who were on the favorable end of the recommendation. There is no universal standard for custody evaluators. Varying from county to county they can have vastly different backgrounds and levels of education. In my county, not all of the evaluators have children, not all have college degrees, not all are married (or have even been married)... And all are women. This is not to point fingers at any of them in particular; I believe they all do the best they can. But the question remains - how does one render an opinion when there are so many differences within the decision maker population. How does a never married woman with no children effectively assess the breakdown of a marriage - particularly in terms of child placement?

As problematic as those questions are to me they do not even begin to touch the real problem that I have with these evaluators. I suppose it could be summed up this way - Is there really a need for this position?

Granted, in cases where both parents have been accused of physical, mental, or emotional abuse, substance abuse, abandonment or something of that ilk - an impartial third party is probably absolutely necessary. The judge obviously cannot dedicate the investigative time needed to slog through these types of accusations. In this respect, a custody evaluator is an invaluable resource and may be able to recommend help for the parents as well as best case scenarios for the children. (Here then we come back to the question of qualifications - For some reference here is a study printed in Professional Psychology - Custody Evaluation Practices:
A Survey of Experienced Professionals (Revisited)
. Caveat, this study only includes licensed psychologists - meaning more often than not, it would not include branches of the court dedicated to custody evaluations.) In terms of how often this would be necessary I found this article from the Daily Herald, but I'll summarize some of the points here:
"The one research project on the issue that experts cite most often was conducted 13 years ago by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Denver.

After studying 9,000 contested custody cases, the organization flagged 169 - about 2 percent - in which one parent levied sexual abuse allegations during the proceedings. Of those, the study found, about half were substantiated. The rest were classified as either false or unsubstantiated."

Now this quote only deals with sexual abuse - but what it effectively (if the numbers hold up) says, it that in roughly 2% of cases a custody evaluator would be needed. For arguments sake let?s add another 13% to account for physical, emotional or substance abuse claims as well. Also, this article says that half of that 2% turn out to be either false or at least improvable. To me this means that these evaluators needed to be highly trained in tactics that allow them to identify false accusations as well as identifying when a child has been prompted to make untrue claims. So using very rough numbers, I would from here see a need for an evaluator in 15-20% of custody cases. (If you would like more information on abuse charges and the problems faced by children who have been involved in false allegations try SPARC) Admittedly, this is all very rudimentary math and based on statistics that I have not seen follow-up support for... but even bumping the numbers up substantially to 50% is still only half of the contested cases.

Custody evaluators can take several forms. There may be a branch of government that handles evaluations- and these will be the most lacking in professional qualification but most often will be free or substantially cheaper than an independent alternative. There are licensed psychologists or psychiatrists who can be obtained either through an order of the court or as an "expert" by one of the parents. More recently, some attorneys seem to be turning to this field and advertising themselves as custody evaluators. Generally, while they have legal experience, their experience with custody evaluations will be strictly practical and not based in any type of schooling or preparatory methods. (One such attorney is the catalyst for this post and I will link to her article later on...)

Effectively - two of the three groups mentioned above will make money on your case. The branch of the court evaluators will be paid by the government and their payment will not be dependent on how much time, resources, etc... they devote to your case. The other two will receive payment directly contingent upon the time they dedicate to your case. You will have to decide for yourself if that presents a conflict. It seems to me these two groups have a vested interest in performing these evaluations and would likely see no reason to limit the cases in which they are used. From the study I cited above: "The average fee for a custody evaluation is $2,646; almost triple what it was 10 years ago." (Keep in mind that study was published in 1997 so I feel it is a safe assumption to say they cost even more today, 7 years later)

The most inherent question here (to me anyway) is if you have two parents who are both willing and able to take care of their children - why do we send them to a custody evaluator instead of simply giving them joint custody. If I were such an evaluator the first question I would ask both parties would be why on earth do you not want joint custody? Or more succinctly, what do expect to gain by having primary custody? And in what way will that be beneficial to your child?

This argument simply goes back to my bigger thoughts on presumptive joint custody. If we had presumptive joint custody, evaluators would only be needed in the most extreme cases. Granted, presumptive joint may lead to more abuse allegations initially as one parent hopes to trump the system. Yet, by effectively training evaluators to identify false allegations and having some form of punishment (be it monetary, community service, parenting classes or all of the above) for parents who levy false claims I would think these claims would subside to virtually just those that are warranted.

The public can no longer deny that the government (all while it promotes the Healthy Marriage Initiative, the Fatherhood Initiative, ...) has a vested financial interest in the destruction of marriage, particularly those where children are involved. The Federal Government provides the states extra funding in correlation with the amount of child support each state collects. This is why in many states you now see even when there is agreement on support, the state will still mandate the checks first go through their system. For more info try: Limit Federal Child Support Enforcement to Welfare Cases. Or the White House: Enhance Child Support Enforcement. Finally, this article is lengthy but the most thorough: Child Support Enforcement Program.

The government is now in the business of creating and staffing "visitation centers" for those parents ordered to have supervised visitation. Two articles: Mothers, Interrupted and A State Agency With the Power to 'Kidnap With Impunity'. Now, I am not going to say these have no benefit. But again I go back to the relatively low percentage of abuse claims and even lower rate of those substantiated and I wonder - how many of these centers do we actually need?

Family court caseloads are constantly growing. For example: Fight over last name helps jam isle courts, Fathers push for equal custody and Children, Courts and Custody - the last article is a PDF so you will need Adobe Reader. There are plenty more where these came from... While it does seem obvious from many of these articles that many of the people staffing these courtrooms would like to see their workload reduced to a manageable level, one could hardly presume they would like to see divorce/custody cases cease all together. The destruction of marriage and the subsequent allocation of children is their very livelihood.

Here we come back to the idea of presumptive joint custody. Do our current custody laws and practices encourage contentious divorce and custody proceedings? There is evidence that in states that have a presumption of joint custody both divorce rates and custody proceedings go down in number. Relevant studies (courtesy of
Kuhn and Guidubaldi (1997) showed a significant correlation between joint physical custody awards and reduced divorce. They conjectured that a parent who expects to receive sole custody is more likely to file for divorce than one who may be awarded shared custody. Sole custody allows one parent to hurt the other by taking away the children, and usually involves higher child support transfers than shared physical custody. Sanford Braver discusses the implications of their findings in his book Divorced Dads.

Brinig and Buckley (1998) independently found the same correlation between joint physical custody awards and reduced divorce. They conjectured that fathers are more likely to form strong bonds with children if they know that their relationship would be protected through joint physical custody in the even of a divorce. This would reduce the likelihood that fathers would initiate divorce.

Brinig and Allen (1998) showed that the parent who receives custody is more likely to be the one who files for divorce. That is, among cases where the mother received custody, the mother usually filed for divorce, and where the father received custody, the father was more likely to be the one who filed. They concluded that filing behavior is largely driven by attempts to "exploit the other partner through divorce." Significantly, they found that custody had a stronger relationship with filing than financial factors, although these factors are of course comingled through child support.

Also Child Custody Policies and Divorce Rates in the United States, The Determination of Child Custody in the USA and Benefits of Joint Custody.

A quote from the Washington Post Article Joint Custody Discourages Divorce (1/25/98): Divorce rates have dropped dramatically in the states that promote joint custody, says the January 25th issue of the Washington Post. Richard Morin's article cites research in nineteen states, by Richard Kuhn of the Childrens' Rights Council and John Guidubaldi of Kent State University.

Overall, divorce rates declined nearly four times faster in high-joint custody states, compared with states where joint custody is relatively rare. One big reason is that joint custody "removes the capacity for one spouse to hurt the other by denying participation in raising the children."

Okay, so let's get back to what started this in the first place. I ran across this article: Lawyer works for children in tough spots. I'll copy my favorite parts for you: No more adversarial family law practice for Bader. No longer will the attorney represent one parent or the other in a child custody dispute.

Instead, she will perform, on behalf of Manitowoc County, home studies and present her findings to the court about the condition of a child's home, the parenting abilities of the parties involved and any other relevant factors.

This allows me to still work with the families and be in a neutral position. There is a lengthy questionnaire that is filled out, (which) asks the parents how they have been involved in different areas of the child's life, Bader said.

What are the child's favorite activities? What do they do together as parent and child? What do they believe is their greatest strength as a parent the other parent's strengths?

Bader said it makes the warring parents stop and recognize there are positives about their ex.

I?ll meet with the kids, observe interaction at home. I'll see how they are doing in school, get copies of report cards to look for trends, Bader said.

Grades clue to stress

She noted one of the quickest ways to see if a child is affected negatively by parental squabbling is a sudden drop in grades.

Bader tends to see neat houses, neat bedrooms, no dirty dishes and polite children, with everyone on their best behavior so she might make a favorable report to the judge.

She said it can be a challenge to get past the coaching of mother or father telling little Susie or Johnnie to only say nice things about them to the legal system visitor.

You learn to read between the lines, detect influences that maybe shouldn't be there, Bader said.

You really encounter a whole spectrum of different types of individuals and environments and children. Some of it is truly heartbreaking, said Bader, who has been involved in domestic violence issues and causes.

There are those parents who may seek additional custody or overnights because of financial reimbursement linked to time spent with the child.

What I am getting at is this - if you have two parents who are splitting up for no other reason except that THEY no longer get along what right does the state have to not promote joint custody and to send this type of evaluator into their respective homes!? What on earth gives this woman the qualifications, but more importantly the right, to determine and dictate the future of a child based upon her "feelings" of a mandated parenting survey! This woman has virtually unchecked powers - she can summons school records, medical records and decide if she feels if one parent is lying or encouraging the children to lie. Her experience for this insurmountably important job: She came from a divorced family, is divorced herself and is a lawyer. Yippee! She has spent the past several years helping the courts destroy families and now she is going into private practice (read: this is how she will support herself) to make judgments about other parents. Most telling, no where in the interview did this woman ever discuss how important it is to encourage both parents to be involved and cooperative. Oops, if parents did that, she might be out of a job.

I shouldn't be so hard on this woman, I am sure her intentions are good. And just like every other mother on the verge of a divorce, we cannot fault them for taking advantage of a government that works in their favor. For women divorcing, they know (generally) they have an advantage in family court. You can't expect them to go in front of the judge and request the bias for mothers be thrown out in their particular case. Women have largely inoculated the idea that they are owed the children, the assets and financial support. We are not going to change these assumptions by discussing their fallacies with the women; we will have to change the system that perpetuates these assumptions. The government is ultimately the decision maker and if your ex-wife exercises every available option she has to screw you - you can call her evil but you also have to call her smart enough to capitalize on all the available avenues at her disposal. The government is truly the one who should answer for this lack of justice.

And just like divorcing mothers, this attorney turned custody evaluator is likewise capitalizing on a government system that advocates completely unqualified people to render some of the most important decisions in the lives of the children affected by divorce. The saddest part is that children of divorce are already at a disadvantage regarding emotional, educational and physical well being - then we turn their fate to the arbitrary decision making process of an "evaluator." While the article would like you to believe that there is no money in this line of work, I would refer you to the statistic above concerning the cost of these evaluations. They do not come cheap from a private party. Let's just say she won't be hitting the welfare doles any time in the foreseeable future.

There are very big problems in our system and they are extremely detrimental to the well being of all children. With 50-60% of marriages resulting in divorce these days it seems a safe assumption that if you didn't come from one, you will have one or someone very close to you will. Only through watching this completely horrendous process and the aftermath for the children can you ever get a formidable idea of how bad this really is. But I assure you, once it becomes personal - it is something you will never understand fully and something you will never forget.



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