Child Custody Evaluation Guidelines

Louisiana State Board of Social Work Examiners
Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations
Originally published July, 1998

Table of Contents

Preface Preparation Guidelines for Process and Structure of Report
Purpose Procedure Acknowledgement


PREFACE

The information in this publication is intended as a guide for the performance of child custody evaluations by social workers. With direction and support from the Louisiana State Board of Board Certified Social Work Examiners, the material was developed by an appointed Committee made up of professional social workers with the expertise and interest in the area of child custody evaluations in the State of Louisiana.

The intent of this document is to provide guidance and direction in the area of performing child custody evaluations in accordance with the mandates of the Louisiana Social Work Practice Act and the Board's Rules, Regulations and Procedures.

The Committee consisted of the following members:

* Gay Lynn Bond, BCSW

Carmencita C. Edward, BCSW

Sherril A. Rudd, BCSW

Diana Carroll, JD, BCSW

Jeanne A. Ewing, BCSW Karen van Beyer, Ph.D., BCSW

F. Noel Cieutat, JD, BCSW

Dianne D. Huber, BCSW Alan Walker, BCSW
Joseph G. Delatte, Ph.D., BCSW Deanna R. Miles, BCSW George M. Papale, Legal Counsel

* denotes Committee Chair

Purpose

The primary purpose and main focus of the custody and/or visitation evaluation is to determine what is in the best interests of the child. Social workers understand the inherent conflict of this process for parents and reaffirm that their role as an evaluator is to keep children's concerns paramount. See Louisiana Civil Code Article 131, Court to Determine Custody; Article 132 Award of Custody to Parents; Article 133 Award of Custody to Person other than Parent; Order of Preference; and Article 134 Factors in Determining Child's Best Interest; and Revised Statute Article 9, part III, Child Custody Subpart A. Evaluation and Mediation and Subpart B. Joint Custody.

Social Workers performing evaluations should be mindful that the court shall consider all relevant factors in determining the best interests of the child. Under Civil Code Article 134, such factors may include the items listed below. This list is non-exclusive and the determination as to the weight to be given each factor is within the discretion of the trial court:

  1. The love, affection, and other emotional ties between each party and the child.

  2. The capacity and disposition of each party to give the child love, affection, and spiritual guidance and to continue the education and rearing of the child.

  3. The capacity and disposition of each party to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, shelter and other material needs.

  4. The length of time the child has lived in a stable, adequate environment, and the desirability of maintaining the continuity of that environment.

  5. The permanence, as a family unit, of the existing or proposed custodial home or homes.

  6. The moral fitness of each party, insofar as it affects the welfare of the child.

  7. The mental, emotional and physical health of each party.

  8. The home, school, and community history of the child.

  9. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient age and maturity to express a preference.

  10. The willingness and ability of each party to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other party.

  11. The distance between the respective residences of the parties.

  12. The responsibility for the care and rearing of the child previously exercised by each party.

From a social work perspective a family systems approach is utilized to assess the best interests of the child in custody evaluations. Where deemed appropriate a family systems approach includes assessment of social and community support available to the family or guardians.

Preparation

The role of a social worker in custody and visitation evaluations is that of a mental health professional, who can assist the parties, their children, and the court by maintaining a posture that is both critical and impartial. Social workers performing such evaluation services are required to provide written reports to the parties and to the court, and to testify under oath as to factual issues or their expert opinions. Social workers should be aware of a legal preference for joint custody since it will be considered by the court in making its determination. However, operating in the best interests of the child is the social worker's primary focus throughout the evaluation process, and that focus should be maintained throughout any court proceedings as well.

The request for the evaluation may originate with the court, one of the parties, or an attorney representing a party in the proceedings. The social worker should be impartial in performing the evaluation regardless by whom he or she is retained. If either the social worker or the client cannot accept this neutral role, the social worker should withdraw from the case. If a court appointed social worker has had a past therapeutic relationship with any of the participants or for any other reason cannot maintain impartiality, the social worker should immediately notify the court and request to be relieved of the order. If not permitted to withdraw by the court, the social worker should disclose in the evaluation the past roles or any other factors which could affect impartiality.

The social worker should enhance his or her competency through specialized continuing education, training, experience and/or supervision in the following areas:

  1. Child and Family Development

  2. Child and Family Psychopathology

  3. Family System Analysis

  4. Impact of Divorce and/or Re-marriage on Children

  5. Family Law

  6. Legal Standards and Procedures as represented in the Louisiana Children's Code

  7. Ethical Standards as defined by the Louisiana Social Work Practice Act and professional organizations

  8. Formal and Informal Community Resources that may be available to the family.

  9. Child Abuse/Neglect

  10. Family/Domestic Violence.

  11. Substance Abuse

  12. Cultural Diversity

Social workers should not use or review previous custody evaluations in making custody recommendations unless instructed to do so by the court or by consent of all parties' attorneys.

The social worker must avoid multiple relationships because they may constitute a conflict of interest. The social worker may not conduct a child custody evaluation in a case in which the social worker previously served in a therapeutic role for the child or his or her immediate family or has had other involvement that may compromise the social worker's objectivity. This does not, however, preclude the social worker from testifying in the case as a fact witness concerning treatment of the child.

During the course of a child custody evaluation, a social worker should not accept any of the involved participants in the evaluation as a therapy client. Therapeutic contact with the child or involved participants following a child custody evaluation is only undertaken with extreme caution

A social worker asked to testify regarding a therapy client involved in a child custody case is aware of the limitations and possible biases inherent in such a role as well as the possible impact on the ongoing therapeutic relationship. The court may require the social worker to testify as a fact witness regarding factual information he or she became aware of in a professional relationship with the involved client. The social worker should decline to give a professional opinion regarding the custody and visitation issues in this situation unless ordered to do so by the court.

Procedure

The scope of the custody evaluation is determined by the nature of the question or issues raised. Comprehensive child custody evaluations generally require an evaluation of all parents/guardians and children, as well as observations of interactions between them. The scope of the assessment should include, at a minimum, an individual interview with both parents/guardians, an individual interview with the child or children and a family interview with the child or children and parents/guardians present.

The social worker does not give any opinion regarding the psychological functioning of any individual whom he or she has not personally evaluated. This guideline, however, does not preclude the social worker from reporting what an evaluated individual (such as the parent or child) has stated. The social worker may address theoretical issues or hypothetical questions, so long as the limited basis of the information is noted.

The social worker must obtain informed consent from all adult participants and, as appropriate, inform child participants. In undertaking child custody evaluations, the social worker ensures that each adult participant is aware of the purpose, nature, and method of the evaluation; who has requested the social worker's services; and who will be paying the fee.

The social worker informs adult participants about the nature of the assessment and the possible disposition of the data collected. The social worker also provides this information to the children, considering the limitations of their ability to understand.

The social worker informs all participants (including children, to the extent feasible) that traditional expectations of privacy and confidentiality cannot be met in the evaluation process because the social worker will be required to disclose his or her findings in the context of the forthcoming litigation and in such other proceedings deemed necessary by the court. A social worker should obtain from all adult participants (or from their authorized legal representative(s)) a written acknowledgment of their awareness of these conditions including a waiver of confidentiality.

A social worker should inform the participants that the social worker is required by mandatory reporting laws of the State of Louisiana to report child abuse, neglect or suspected abuse.

For evaluation purposes, the social worker uses multiple methods of data gathering. The social worker strives to use the most appropriate methods available for addressing the questions raised in a specific child custody evaluation including, but not limited to, clinical interviews, observation, social histories and/or psychosocial assessment tools. Important facts and opinions are documented from at least two sources whenever the reliability is questionable.

The social worker, for example, should review potentially relevant reports (e.g., from schools, health care providers, child care providers, agencies, and institutions). Social workers may also interview extended family members, friends, and other individuals when the information is likely to be useful to the evaluation. If information is gathered from third parties that is significant and may be used as a basis for conclusions, social workers should corroborate it with at least one other source, whenever possible and appropriate, and document this in the report.

Social Workers should be aware of the arguments on both sides of the issue and be able to explain the logic of their position. When the social worker makes custody/visitation recommendations, these recommendations should be derived from sound clinical data and must be based on the best interests of the child.

It is recommended that a letter be sent to all parties and that financial arrangements be clarified and agreed upon in writing prior to commencing a child custody evaluation. A fee schedule should be included that covers depositions, court appearances, etc.

The social worker should maintain records to include:

  1. A telephone log of all contacts with all parties involved in the custody evaluation

  2. All notes and interview information

  3. Copies of informed consent forms

  4. Correspondence relative to the evaluation

  5. Billing records

  6. All other records or documents utilized in making evaluation recommendations.

Guidelines for the Process and Structure of the Report

Interviews should be conducted with both parents/guardians whenever possible. The social worker should:

  1. Explain the process to both parents/guardians

  2. Explain the fee for services

  3. Explain and obtain a written consent which contains a waiver of confidentiality.

  4. Obtain a summary of issues which are of concern to each parent/guardian.

  5. Assess the relationship between parents/guardians

Interviews and format should be developed according to specific needs of the case (e.g., substance abuse evaluation, family/domestic violence evaluation, sexual abuse evaluation, psychiatric evaluation, and/or psychological testing.)

Data collected:

  1. Family history of each parent/guardian

  2. Marital history of parents/guardians

  3. Social history of child

  4. School records

  5. Medical/mental health records

  6. Legal records

  7. Previous evaluations (where appropriate)

  8. Parent and child questionnaires

  9. Child Behavior Check List (if required)

Persons interviewed:

  1. Parents, guardians, step-parents, "significant others", older siblings, extended family members, friends, etc.

  2. Corroborating interviews

  3. Child or children

Analysis of family patterns, genogram

Conclusions

Recommendations

Copies of this Guide may be obtained from:
Louisiana State Board of
Board Certified Social Work Examiners
11930 Perkins Road, Suite B
Baton Rouge, LA 70810
Phone: 225-763-5470 In LA 800-521-1941
Fax: 225-763-5400 Web site: www.labswe.org
Email: social work@labswe.org

Acknowledgement:

Appreciation is extended to the American Psychological Association, Incorporated, who published their Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings. Their Guidelines were used as a model for the Louisiana State Board of Board Certified Social Work Examiners Guidelines for Child Custody
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