Custody evaluations (and Guardian Ad Litems) are most often utilized by the local Courts when there is a significant dispute between two parents as to a major custody or parenting time issue. Examples of such issues would include when one or both parents dispute whether a parent should have sole or joint legal custody rights. Another example would be when parties have a significant disagreement on Parenting Time (e.g., the time and schedule a child or children are with a parent). The Court utilize these tools so it can receive an objective, and hopefully unbiased report from a neutral third-party professional that was specifically appointed or assigned to address and research the specific issue being disputed.

What’s The Difference Between A Custody Evaluator And A Guardian Ad Litem?There are a few differences. One difference is when a Court orders a custody evaluation (as opposed to appointing a GAL), the custody evaluation is typically run by either the local court’s Court Services Department (for example, in Johnson County, KS the Domestic Section of Court Services handles a large portion of all child custody evaluations ordered), or a third-party business the Court has found reliable to provide such evaluations. Whether the evaluation is run through Court Services, or a third-party company, custody evaluations are generally conducted by someone with a background, degree, and training in social work. A Licensed Clinical Social Workers is one example of such individuals.

In contrast, when the Court appoints a GAL, the Court is actually appointing a licensed attorney with specialized training to represent the best interest of the child (or children) they were appointed to represent. Thus, in a custody evaluation scenario, the child (or children) do not have an actual attorney appointed for them. The evaluator is assigned strictly to investigate and provide a report back to the Court. A GAL, in contrast, is again appointed to represent the best interest of the minor child(ren) and has the child (or children) as a client.

Another difference is timeliness of any investigation. That is, due to their unique appointment, GAL’s often times can get in, and involved in a case more quickly than a custody evaluator. This is primarily the product of timing and resources, and not per se the fault of a custody evaluator, but if a Court has a time sensitive custody issue it wants to be resolved, and time is indeed of the essence, the Court may, for that reason alone, opt to appoint a GAL over ordering a custody evaluation.

Once the actual investigation is underway, GALs and custody evaluators typically possess the same authority when it comes to things they can look into, and access to records and information. Thus for all intents and purposes, a GAL can investigate and look into the same things a custody evaluator does, and vice versa.

What Is A Child Custody Evaluation?A child custody evaluation is a process whereby a licensed clinical social worker, or other qualified individual, performs an investigation into a specific matter and a specific dispute that has been referenced to the investigator by a Judge from the District Court. The District Court Judge typically will place in the Order directing the evaluation what specifically is to be evaluated. That information typically originates from the attorney(s) working the case who have reported to the Judge what the issues are.

What Does The Child Custody Evaluation Process Look Like?As for what goes into a child custody evaluation, there is no per se set format or procedure a child custody evaluator/investigator must follow. Rather, each investigation or evaluation typically is formatted around the parties and the issues in their case. There are, however, some standard things to anticipate, that generally occurring in most all such evaluations.

These standard practices include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following: the evaluator individually meeting with both parents (typically anywhere from 1 – 3 times) to get each parents perspective on the areas of concern, and their positions; evaluator doing in-home visits to both parents residences while the child (or children) are present to observe the child and parent interact, and to observe the physical residences of the parties; evaluator contacting necessary third-party contacts, which are typically individuals such as teachers or daycare providers for the children, medical or counseling providers, and close family members or friends who may have regular and frequent contact with the children.

Once the evaluator/investigator has concluded their review and contacted any necessary third-parties, the evaluator will then reduce their findings to a written report the summarize everything they observed and learned during the review/evaluation process. The Report also provides general findings on any specific issues that may have been questioned. At the conclusion of this Report is where the evaluator will advise the court, as well as the parties and their attorneys, of what recommendations the evaluator is recommending the Court adopt to help the parties and the Court address the issues and problems before it.