As a family law professional with over 27 years of experience, one of my main objectives has always been to leave my clients and their children in a better position at the end of a case than they were in at the beginning. This objective has become increasingly more challenging to achieve as a growing number of families enter an already overburdened court system to dissolve relationships and settle conflict. I support the passage of Louisiana House Bill 272 as a first step in creating much-needed oversight and implementing more effective strategies that will reduce the impact of high conflict divorce and custody on both the parents and children trapped in a destructive cycle.
Our courts are overwhelmed by the huge number of families separating, divorcing, and disputing custody. Family courts have essentially become an emergency room for family problems when parents feel as if they have no other viable options to address issues with one another and their children. While high conflict custody disputes only represent a small percentage of cases, the magnitude and long-lasting effects on the children involved are a societal concern. Children caught in the crossfire of parental conflict are at risk for a myriad of emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems.
Mental health professionals are becoming increasingly involved in the child custody arena in a variety of ways, including acting within the capacity of court-ordered custody evaluators in high conflict situations. The role of the evaluator is to provide the court with impartial, objective information and informed opinions through a series of methods such as clinical interviews, observations, review of court records and other documents, collateral interviews, and use of formal assessment instruments, when applicable. The report and recommendations of the evaluator aid the court in making custody and access decisions.
Custody evaluators hold an enormous amount of power and influence in the court’s decision-making process. While the state currently has a set of guidelines that recommend that custody evaluators should be appropriately trained and licensed to navigate the complexities of separation and/or divorce upon a dissolving family, there has been no specificity regarding the language of licensing. Imagine what would happen if guidelines such as these were applicable to other professions where life and death situations were at stake!
HB 272 provides that the custody evaluator be “a licensed mental health professional who possesses at least a master’s degree with a license in counseling, social work, psychology, marriage and family counseling, or exempt from licensing requirements in accordance with Revised Statutes 37:1113 and 37:1121.
Our current state guidelines also have recommendations regarding impartiality and bias that could be categorized as a “self-check” system. HB 272 integrates specific language regarding ex parte communications and the requirement that both parties or their respective legal counsel to be equally included in all evaluator communications. This change creates a more balanced environment for communication. However, there are many other areas where implicit bias is possible, including the current provision that requires one parent to directly pay the evaluator for his or her services.
I suggest that we enact a provision that requires the evaluation fees be paid to the court, and the court would distribute the funding to the appointed evaluator. This would reduce the possibility of bias and would also curtail certain aspects of conflict for the involved parents.
It is imperative that we continue to strive to better ourselves as family court professionals and to be relentlessly dedicated to the improvement of the process within our family court system. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard of professional accountability and continue to finetune the necessary measures for oversight measures which ensure that the best interests of the children are at the center of our focus. HB 272 has the potential to be the first step of many in the cultivation of more stringent standards that will improve processes and fix the flaws within the family court system to achieve better outcomes for everyone involved. As this bill makes its way to the Senate, I encourage our committee members and senators to continue its passage.
Christine DeSue is an attorney who specializes in family law and personal injury cases as well as business and corporate litigation.
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