Child Custody and Visitation Evaluations and Assessments
In contested physical custody cases or visitation disputes, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland, may refer the case to the Court Evaluators Office to conduct a custody or visitation evaluation or assessment. This referral is usually made at the Scheduling Hearing, and the parties are directed to the Court Evaluators Office at Family Division Services for a brief intake following the Scheduling Hearing. Custody evaluations and assessments are to assist the Court and the parties to reach an appropriate resolution regarding the physical care, custody, and/or visitation schedule for a child. All evaluations and/or assessments are undertaken solely by order of the Court. Evaluations and assessments are tailored to the requirements of each case. In most cases interviews will be conducted with clients either in their home or in the Office of the Court Evaluator, or both. Children will be interviewed or observed, as is age appropriate. In evaluations, schools, mental health professionals, other county agencies and references are contacted. An oral presentation will be made by the evaluator in open court at a Settlement/Status Hearing, and a written report is then provided to the Court five days before trial if the case does not settle. More limited evaluations in child custody matters are termed assessments. In assessments, the Evaluator will not interview third party collateral references, but the Evaluator may obtain a school report. An oral report of assessment is made in open court at a Settlement/Status Hearing and the parties may order a transcript of the oral report for use at trial. A description of the general protocol and procedures of the evaluation or assessment performed by court custody evaluators is provided below, and even more fully described in Custody Evaluations and Custody Assessments. If the parties have been referred to Child Custody Mediation, the Evaluators typically wait until the mediation process has been completed before actively pursuing the evaluation. This approach preserves court resources in the event the parties have resolved their issues through mediation.
OUTLINE OF THE PROCEDURES IN A COURT-ORDERED CUSTODY/VISITATION EVALUATION CIRCUIT COURT FOR MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MARYLAND
PURPOSE: To assist the Court (and the parties) in arriving at an appropriate resolution regarding the physical care, custody, and/or visitation schedule for a child. It may also entail assessing the need for treatment of the child, a parent, or the family as a whole. The focus is the best interest of the child.
(1)Following the Scheduling Conference, the parties are directed to the Family Division where they undergo a brief intake interview. At that time the parties will be asked to sign any releases necessary to obtain information from health care providers, schools, parole and probation, social services, etc. (2)An Evaluator is assigned to the case. The Evaluator contacts each attorney (or pro se party) in order to obtain an overview of the case and learn of the current status. (In rare situations this phone call has revealed that the parties have reached a settlement.) (3)The Evaluator then contacts each party and schedules an individual office appointment. At that appointment, the purpose of the evaluation is explained to the party, and a psychosocial assessment is compiled. The latter involves obtaining a detailed social, educational, employment, medical, mental health, criminal, and marital/relationship history.
Next each party is asked about his or her objectives, parenting plans, and any proposed care-taking, educational, and medical plans for the child. Each is asked to explain why he/she should be granted custody, NOT why the other party should not be granted custody. Each is asked what compromise might be acceptable. Each is asked to list positive characteristics of the other parent, and each is invited to share his/her concerns about the other parent and to proffer written documents, reports, and lists of collateral contacts for the Evaluator to interview. (That does not mean that the Evaluator will contact every collateral person listed by each party, particularly if the Evaluator concludes that some of the collaterals will provide duplicative or irrelevant information.)
Each parent is asked to describe each child in terms of health, education, personality, and relationship with each parent and with siblings, if any. Each parent is asked to describe' any changes observed in the child since the separation, the child's ability to cope emotionally, the parents' efforts to assist the child, and the parents' conclusions as to what helps or hinders the child emotionally.
At the conclusion of the office interview, the Evaluator schedules a home visit that must include the child's presence as well as the presence of anyone else residing in that home. The Evaluator explains emphatically that the home visit is not an interview but rather an opportunity to observe the child's comfort level in the home and the interaction between the parent and the child.
An office interview with the child may also be scheduled at this time, but should occur after the child has been seen in each home with each parent, unless a home visit is not practical. (Evaluators do not conduct home visits outside of Montgomery County.)
(4)The Evaluator then conducts a home visit in order to see the child in each parent's home. During this visit the child is introduced to the Evaluator and encouraged to give the Evaluator a tour of the home (including the child's room) so as to prepare the child for a future visit in the Evaluator's office. This is a brief visit. The Evaluators strive for consistency (example, same approximate amount of time at each parent's home), but that objective is not always possible or practical.
(5)The final interview is with the child(ren) at the Evaluator's office conducted out of the presence of parents and counsel. The Evaluator both imparts information to the child and gathers information from the child. Some of the information imparted to the child includes an assurance that the ultimate decision-making lies with the judge, not the child, and that the Evaluator's role is gathering information in order to help the Judge determine what is best for the child and his or her family. (6)Throughout the above process, the Evaluator is conducting telephone interviews with collateral witnesses such as character references, therapists, doctors, teachers, probation officers, etc. The Evaluator may also be reviewing medical, psychiatric, and/or psychological reports. (In some cases the Evaluator must review the Montgomery County HHS Child Protective Services' records, after obtaining releases and a Court Order to conduct such a review.) (7)The Evaluator then compiles a report to the Court based on all the information obtained during the evaluation process. At the conclusion of the report the Evaluator makes recommendations pertaining to custody, visitation, and (in some cases) treatment. The Evaluator usually does not micro-manage or develop a visitation schedule, but, rather, addresses general issues such as the extent and frequency of visitation and whether or not it needs to be supervised.
CONCLUSION: The evaluation report is filed under seal in the Court jacket. Copies are made available to the attorneys and to pro se parties. Extremely sensitive information may be released in any other manner deemed appropriate by the Administrative Judge. The process is time-consuming and complex. Interviews with the parties may take two to four hours depending on the circumstances, and sometimes there is more than one interview. Depending on the number of professionals involved with the family, the length of the report and the time involved can be extensive. Thus a Court evaluation cannot be conducted in every case, and there are times when the evaluation may be terminated by the Evaluator. For example, given the scarce resources of money and time available to the Court's Evaluators' Office, the Evaluator may determine that a Court evaluation is not appropriate in a case where the parties have already obtained professional evaluations privately; or, if one or both parties does not cooperate, the evaluation may be terminated, or the evaluation may proceed with the cooperating party. When an evaluation is terminated by the Evaluator, a memorandum to that effect and the reason for termination will be placed in the Court's file and the parties/attorneys will be notified.
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