Access Assessments Help Courts Decide Who Should Parent the Kids

November 6th, 2011 by

Judges sometimes feel that they do not have the proper training to determine what is in a child’s best interests, because a judge’s training is in the law and not in child welfare. In difficult cases, they may want to have a child-focused mental health professional provide advice as to what the custody/access or parenting plan should look like. Often, parents agree that the court needs help from a professional to determine who should parent the children. However, a judge who feels that there are clinic issues that are outside the scope of the judge’s legal training can order such an assessment to investigate those issues.
Custody/access assessors are social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists who are familiar with how to conduct custody/access assessments and regularly do that type of work. They meet with the lawyers, and then with the parties, usually several times, sometimes together and sometimes apart. The custody/access assessor usually meets with the children as well. Often the assessor will speak to other professionals and other people who are important in the children’s lives.
One or both of the parties pay for the custody/access assessments. It is rare for such assessments to costs less than $10,000.00. If the parents cannot afford that amount, the court can ask the Office of the Children’s Lawyer to become involved in the case. That publically funded agency can decide whether to accept the referral and what type of assistance it will provide. It may decide to provide a “clinical investigation”, which is a similar to a custody/access assessment. If the Office of the Children’s Lawyer refuses to assist, then a judge can still order a custody/access assessment even if it will cause financial hardship for the parents.
At the end of this process, the assessor forms an opinion as to which parent should make which decisions regarding the children and what time the children should spend with each parent. The assessor then communicates his or her opinion to the parties. If the parents do not agree with that opinion, the custody/access assessor’s role is limited to being a witness at trial. The Trial Judge can accept or reject the assessor’s opinion. However, the opinion of a custody/access assessor is usually very persuasive to a judge.

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