At Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. we believe custody evaluations sometimes play a vital role in the preparation of a client’s case to facilitate it settling, typically in mediation, or to make it the best it can be for trial. The lynchpin of a custody evaluation is the evaluator’s consideration of collateral material.
In basic terms, collateral information is what allows the evaluator to ascertain the weight to assign to each parent’s position. Consciously, sub-consciously, and/or unconsciously everyone presents his or her best side to a custody evaluator. This is human nature in matters of the heart, particularly child custody and related matters.
Most successful evaluators are busy professionals and have a finite amount of time to spend on any one give case. For this reason, and because it shows the parent’s recognition of the serious nature of the matter, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. attorneys believe it is generally important for clients to understand what constitutes the most critical collateral information to gather and present to the evaluator.
Collateral information or materials that can help a custody evaluator are generally best thought of as five checklist items. Each is listed and briefly discussed in this blog post:
1. Complete Contact Information.
Although it may seem basic, and perhaps self-apparent, a custody evaluator may not determine and understand the viable information if it is not clearly identified and made available; for instance, a teacher may possess critical information about the children subject to the evaluation and this is how the teacher may be reached.
For this reason, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates try to help their clients avoid risk by removing this variable. We believe it prudent to provide the who, what, when, where, why and how for every person a client desires the custody evaluator to contact.
This includes at a minimum the person’s name and complete contact information. The better practice is to also set forth what this person’s connection is with the case and what type of observations he or she may have about this family.
Finally, where necessary, times for making contact by an evaluator are beneficial. A potential collateral contact may not understand who the evaluator is or why he or she is calling if both are not keyed into this situation. In other words, the most beneficial collateral source is of no importance if the evaluator cannot make contact.
There is an old adage that “a photograph is worth a thousand words.” In many regards this is true in a custody evaluation. On the other hand, photo upon photo upon photo are nothing more than white noise –poundage will not carry the day.
Where photos are particularly useful is in those cases where they show this or that (an allegation of one parent) simply is not accurate. Take for example, the mother who says the father takes the infant or toddler in places that are not age appropriate. A father who has an infant or toddler in a boat with other partying adults and without a life jacket or direct supervision may well make the point.
These cut both ways. A common example is where a father alleges a mother is so neglectful a child is always being injured. Many injuries are common-place with certain age development. Others are not. Where and how this line is breeched may make any certain set of photos more or less important to the issues at hand.
At Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., we believe presenting photos just for the sake of doing so is not particularly useful. However, a key photograph or two to demonstrate (or negate) neglect or abuse or other issues of contention are very helpful. As with all other aspects of law, a careful, reasoned approach should be taken in every step of a case to maximize reaching some or all of the legal objectives at hand.
3. Personal Statement.
Some type of timeline or personal statement should be a staple of most, if not all custody evaluations. The facts and circumstances of life are complex. Most evaluators are helped by some type of more or less formal autobiography.
There is no right or wrong way to assemble a personal statement; many times these start with one’s own childhood, to teen years, college, marriage, children, and custody matters. It is important the evaluator understand who you are and your view of life.
In addition, at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. we observe many times this helps our clients pull together and distill critical connections between past and present custody matters. That may be of crucial importance in that it will refine what help to ask of a custody evaluator, which may range from a change in physical or legal custody to the appointment of a parenting coordinator to minimize disputes over routine parenting time.
4. Recorded Conversations.
Recorded conversations, text messages, e-mails and other types of recorded messages between parents may provide a custody evaluator with vital clues as to what the true dynamic is with any given set of parents. A common example is found where one parent coaches the child to contact the other parent to ask to stay longer or participate in an activity during the other parent’s time.
This places the other parent in an impossible situation and causes the child distress. Agree to avoid disappointing the child or saying “no” and make the parent a bad-guy. An audio or written trail of the communications may prove invaluable in demonstrating where the problem lies with the parents and the interactions with each other as it relates to their child.
Nevertheless, all parents must understand there are state and federal laws that relate to these communications. Taping a conversation in one state may be illegal in another or under state law. The greatest of caution is necessary, and this should be a discussion point with your counsel in any given case.
5. Explanatory Letters.
The final thing to provide a custody evaluator are with letters demonstrating the dynamic. Of less weight are typically those prepared by relatives. Evaluators typically understand that blood is thicker than water and assign less weight to a letter written by a relative, such as an adult’s parents (the grandparents).
However, letters from third parties who do not have a vested interest, other than the child’s well being, are sometimes of great importance. These letters may be provided by a child’s pediatrician to school teacher. Thus, letters should be considered to augment the contact list the parent undergoing the custody evaluation provides to the evaluator.
This outlines some of the vital information a parent undergoing a custody, parenting time, or relocation legal matter should consider providing or making available to the custody evaluation. A mass of material is not necessary. However, a few key pieces of information may carry a great deal of sway.
The point of this is not to unduly influence the evaluator. Instead, it is important to make sure through the emotion and apprehension of an evaluation, the evaluator gets what he or she needs to make an accurate and informed recommendation to the court on the issue in dispute.