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March Madness: Custody Battles – Meet the Players

Child custody battles are among the most stressful and contentious types of family law cases. They often get ugly and can get very expensive.  The reality is that property divided can be replaced, however, you cannot regain the time you lose with your kids.   

Faced with a high conflict case and decisions about conservatorship, possession, and access having highly emotional consequences on both sides, a judge will often involve unbiased professionals to help aid her in making those decisions.  

Let’s Meet The Players!

Guardian Ad Litem

The first type of professional is the Guardian Ad Litem, GAL, whose job is to represent the best interest of the child.  A GAL can conduct investigations as she deems necessary and obtain and review copies of the child’s relevant medical, psychological, and school records.  

The GAL must interview the child if the child is 4 years or older, each person who has significant knowledge of the child’s history, and the parties to the lawsuit. Most importantly the GAL is to consider the child’s expressed objectives and perform any task the court directs her to. Often, if necessary, the GAL can order psychological evaluations of the parties to the suit. 

The GAL must be served with any pleadings or filings to the court, file written reports with the court, and testify to the court as to the best interests of the child and the basis for her recommendations. The GAL may or may not be able to make custody recommendations based upon the Order Appointing the GAL.  

Attorney Ad Litem

An Attorney ad litem (AAL) is an attorney who provides legal services to a person, including a child. An Amicus attorney is an attorney appointed by the court whose role is to provide legal services necessary to assist the court in protecting the child’s best interest rather than to provide legal services to the child.  

Both types have mandatory duties like a GAL but have the legal obligation of zealous advocacy for their client’s best interest and will participate as an attorney in a trial or hearing. An AAL or Amicus attorney appointed by the Court must complete certain legal training in child protection cases.  

Child Custody Evaluator

 A Child Custody Evaluator is a person who conducts an evaluation ordered by a court whereby the court can obtain information, opinions, recommendations, and answers to specific questions regarding the conservatorship of a child including the conditions of possession of or access to a child or any other issue affecting the best interest of the child.  

A Mental Exam may be ordered by the court, of the parties, or the child. A mental examination is conducted by a licensed mental health professional, usually a psychiatrist. If a mental report is significant to the child custody evaluation determination, it may be included in the custody evaluation report and relied on by the evaluator. 

To be qualified to conduct a child custody evaluation, generally, an evaluator must have at least a master’s degree in a human services field of study, and a license to practice in Texas as a social worker, professional counselor, marriage and family therapist, or psychologist, or have a license to practice in Texas and a board certification in psychiatry and with the additional requirements of having reached a certain level of experience in the field and complete at least eight hours of family violence training. 

To protect the impartiality of child custody evaluations, evaluators have the additional burden of disclosing to the court and to each attorney involved if they have any conflict of interest with any party or the child; any previous knowledge they have of a party or the child; any monetary interest with any attorney in the suit; any relationship of confidence or trust the person believes they have with an attorney in the suit; and any other information relating to the person’s knowledge with an attorney in the suit that a reasonable, prudent person would believe would affect the person’s ability to act impartially in conducting a child custody evaluation.   

Some of the things a child custody evaluation will include are: 

1. Personal interview of each party seeking conservatorship, possession, or access to the child; 

2. Developmentally appropriate interviews of the child or children during a period of possession of each party but outside the presence of that party; 

3. Observations of each child regardless of age in the presence of each party to the suit; 4. Observations and interviews of each child who is not a subject to the suit but lives on a full-time basis in a residence that is the subject of the evaluation; 

5. Collateral Sources – obtaining information from relevant school records, physical and mental health records of each party and each child, relevant records of the Department of Protective Family Services, the criminal history of the child and each person who lives with the child, and the parties; and  

6. An assessment of the relationship between each child and party seeking possession of or access to the child.  

Parenting Coordinator 

A judge may also appoint a Parenting Coordinator or a Parenting Facilitator. Parenting coordinators (PC) are impartial third parties who the court appoints to assist the parties in resolving issues through confidential procedures. The duties of a PC are limited to matters that will help the parties in identifying disputes, reducing misunderstandings, clarifying priorities, exploring areas for problem-solving, developing methods of collaboration in parenting, understanding, and reaching agreements to parenting plans, compliance with court orders concerning parenting, implementing parenting plans, obtaining training regarding conflict management and parenting skills, and settling disputes regarding parenting issues.  

The difference between a Parenting Facilitator (PF) is that this person assists the parties in resolving parenting issues in the same manner however, the process is not confidential.  A PF must submit a written report to the court and to the parties as ordered by the court, except that the report may not include recommendations regarding conservatorship of or access to the child.  

If you find yourself in a high-conflict custody battle, you may encounter one or more of these professionals. We handle high-conflict custody battles all the time. 

Modern Family Law

Modern Family Law’s team of experienced law attorneys takes a compassionate approach to the practice of family law. Using innovative technology to create an effective and efficient process for our clientele, our attorneys approach each case as a collective effort to find the best long-term solutions for each family. Click the following link to learn more about our compassionate approach to Texas family law. For more information please give us a call or fill out a short form online to sign up for a free consultation today! Let us make a positive difference in your life.

By: MFL Team

Posted March 11, 2024

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