Child Custody Assessment
During marital separation and divorce, there is sometimes great hostility between the parents. This hostility is easily picked up by the children and it can be very upsetting and even harmful. It is hoped that this hostility can be lessened through the assessment process, when the parents will be asked to focus their attention on their children's needs, rather than their own.
All parents are required by the Court to complete an orientation session prior to their hearing date for custody issues. The orientation session is offered online. The online orientation has information that is important. Topics include information on the effects of divorce upon children, child sharing, communication, confidentiality and parenting plans. This can be accessed 24 hours per day 7 days per week from the link on the court's homepage. In county and out of county residents must complete the orientation.
The Assessment Meeting
If custody or visitation is an issue, the parents will be assigned a hearing date to appear in Court. On that date, the judge will call the case and order the parents to meet with a counselor that morning. This meeting, which is called the "Assessment", will take place in the courthouse and will include both parents, their attorneys and the counselor. The meeting will last between 30 minutes or 1 and 1/2 hours, depending upon the circumstances.
During the Assessment process, the counselor will ask certain questions about the parents and their children. This is done in order to help the counselor gain an understanding of the children's current living situation and their relationships with both parents before and after the marital separation.
Since the goal of this process is to encourage communication between the parents and assist them in developing a reasonable plan for their children's futures, it is hoped that the parents will be able to reach an agreement during the Assessment. Following the Assessment meeting, all parties will return to the courtroom and the recommending counselor will report the results of the meeting to the judge. If the parents are able to agree after the Assessment, a Court order will be issued by the judge concerning child sharing.
Family Court Services Evaluation
If the parents cannot reach an agreement regarding the children at the Assessment, the Court may order them to participate in a Family Court Services Evaluation. This will involve one or more meetings at a time and place designated by the counselor. Attorneys do not attend these meetings.
Assessment and evaluation will provide a neutral atmosphere for both parents to discuss their children's needs for the present and future. It is an opportunity to develop a mutually agreeable plan which will suit individual needs. Another court date will be assigned to hear the results of the Family Court Services Evaluation about one month after the Assessment. If an agreement is reached prior to the next court date, the evaluator will report the terms of the agreement to the Court in writing. If an agreement is not reached, the evaluator will make recommendations in writing to the Court regarding a parenting plan for the children.
The child custody recommending counselor or evaluator may recommend that a parenting plan be reviewed at a later time to determine if it is working for the best interests of the children. This review will normally occur within six months of the assessment or evaluation and will involve another meeting with the counselor or evaluator.
In cases in which the children's welfare or well-being is seriously in question, the counselor or evaluator has the option of recommending to the Court that an investigation of either parent be conducted. Investigations are conducted at the parents' expense in accordance with their ability to pay.
Many cases involving custody disputes benefit greatly from personal and family counseling. Referrals are made by the counselors to mental health professionals in the community.
In some cases, the counselor may suggest that a parent could benefit from attending a parenting class. A class on parenting issues is offered through Family Court Services at no cost to the parties. Issues covered include discipline, child development, communication and co-parenting. See Parenting Classes.
Confidentiality & Recommendations
While all information concerning child custody issues is considered confidential within the Court system, counselors and evaluators in Stanislaus County do make recommendations to the Court when parents are unable to reach an agreement.
In cases in which there is a history of domestic violence, the counselor or evaluator may initiate special procedures. These may include permitting a support person into the assessment process and/or conducting a separate assessment. Parents should inform their attorney and or counselor of any history of domestic violence