Child custody disputes can often be contentious, and especially so when substance abuse, questionable parenting or children with special needs are involved. Depending on the circumstances, an evaluator or advocate may be requested by one of the parents or by the judge. Although their roles are different, these experts both assist the court in rendering decisions designed to ensure the children’s best interests are met.
A parenting evaluator may be called upon as a neutral expert witness to conduct an investigation and make recommendations to the court. An evaluator is usually a psychologist or social worker specifically trained in child development. During the investigation, an evaluator may:
- Review court pleadings
- Interview the parties and the children
- Observe parent-child interactions
- Assess school, counseling, or child protective service records
- Review substance abuse evaluations or prior criminal convictions
- Conduct interviews with other parties involved in the children’s lives
- Allow the parties to have an opportunity to express their issues in writing
- Consider psychological evaluations of the parties or their children
Once the investigation is complete, the evaluator submits an assessment to the court, with a recommendation as to custody. The assessment may report evidence of abuse, neglect or domestic violence and other factors bearing on parental fitness.
The parents are generally required to pay the evaluator’s fees. They can range from a few thousand dollars and upward, depending on whether the evaluator is called to testify at trial.
A children’s advocate — also referred to as a guardian ad litem — may also be an important part of a child custody case. Similar to an evaluator, an advocate investigates the facts and circumstances concerning the custody situation and provide a report to the court. In contrast to evaluators, however, advocates are not neutral parties. Rather, they serve as a child’s legal counsel during the proceeding and safeguard their best interests. Further, advocates do not necessarily require specialized training in psychology or mental health issues.
Depending on the child’s age and ability to understand the issues in the case, the advocate’s role may also include conveying to the court the child’s preferences concerning custody.
The parents are usually responsible for the fees paid to the advocate. Either one or both parents may be ordered to pay the costs, based on financial ability.
Child custody matters are often stressful and difficult to resolve. It’s important to have a knowledgeable attorney at your side to protect your parental rights. Bottimore & Associates, P.L.L.C. has been representing parents in family law cases throughout Washington for two decades. Call 253-272-5653 or contact us online to schedule a consultation at our Tacoma office.