In Washington state, if you are involved in a custody dispute, which involves difficult questions related to specific needs for your children or serious parenting deficits (such as mental health, substance abuse, or domestic violence), an evaluation service may be recommended. A report from an expert may allow additional insight into a parenting plan a court may follow and allow for greater ability to reach an out-of-court resolution.
There are many different types of evaluators. Sometimes a full investigation is not needed, and a simple evaluation with an expert may suffice, for example, a drug and alcohol evaluation or a psychological evaluation; these types of tests could be required independently of a full investigation or as part of one.
The parties may agree to appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) or parenting evaluator (PE), or the court may appoint one itself. There are also family court services investigations for parenting or domestic violence evaluations or court-appointed special advocates. The cost of these experts varies, as does the depth of the recommendation or report provided.
A guardian ad litem or parenting evaluator are similar in many ways in that they are both professionals appointed to evaluate the best interests of the children where the parents are unable to reach an agreement, there is high conflict, or other issues are at play, such as special needs for the children.
The function of a guardian ad litem is to investigate the child’s situation and circumstance and interview the parents and those familiar to the parents and child, such as teachers, extended family, and counselors involved with the parents or children. They draft a report of their investigation and factual findings and recommend a residential schedule based on the application of the law. They are to be an advocate for the child and represent the best interests of the child. The GAL becomes a party to the case upon appointment, serving as the child’s voice to the court as to the child’s best interest.
A guardian ad litem’s job is to represent the best interests of a child. The guardian ad litem is appointed by the court and serves the court in a fiduciary capacity. GALs must have initial training and meet guidelines set forth by the courts they serve. A GAL makes recommendations to the court but is not a decision-maker. The judge makes all decisions concerning the best interests of children.
A parenting evaluator, conversely, does not represent the child but rather investigates the parents and child, may perform certain psychological testing or has another certified professional provide such testing.
Like guardians ad litem, parenting evaluators provide recommendations to the court regarding the residential schedule of the children. They are to identify each parent’s relative parenting strengths and weaknesses and the integration of these competencies and deficiencies into the psychological and developmental needs of the child. They are not a party to the court proceeding and serve as more of a neutral expert witness.
Parties may agree to appoint an evaluator, or a motion with the court may be filed requesting that the court appoint an evaluator. In either case, the evaluator must be available and have time in their schedule, and the court must sign an order appointing them before they will begin.
What is the role of an investigator in Washington State?
An investigator will likely review all the materials filed so far in your case. They will also generally request materials in any related cases as well if there are any. They will generally contact the family and schedule an interview with the children.
They will also interview collaterals in your case. This could include teachers, physicians, mental health professionals, police officers, personal references (friends and family), and Child Protective Services (CPS) if they have been involved. You may be required to sign a release so that they are able to access this information.
What happens after the investigation?
After the investigation, the parenting evaluator will draft a report in which they make recommendations to the court. Although the judge is the final decision maker, the investigative report often carries great weight with the court. Recommendations may include:
- Restrictions on residential time
- Designation of who will be the custodial parent.
- Recommended parenting plans
- Specific education, treatment, or activities for parents to complete.
Generally, evaluators come into the parties’ lives at a traumatic time. It can often feel unfair that someone is stepping in to make judgment calls about parenting skills at what can be, for many people, a low point in their lives. You may feel angry, scared, or insecure simply because of the time you are going through. Be sure to get the help you need so that your emotions do not impact your ability to put your best foot forward with the evaluator. Keeping calm, regardless of how you may be feeling, is critical.
Remember that the goal of the evaluator is the best interests of the child. Regardless of how angry you may feel at the other parent, you must remember that that person is still the child’s mother or father. While you will have to discuss potential harm the other party may pose, you must be careful in your approach. Try to discuss the issues with as much factual evidence as possible. Calling the other party names or badmouthing them to the evaluator will backfire. State the facts and provide dates, witnesses, or other evidence if you can.
What has the other parent alleged against you? You may do your best to address the other party’s concerns, even if you feel they are unfounded. Showing the evaluator you are working to be the best parent you can have a great impact. For example, make sure your children are current with their medical and dental care, become involved with your children’s care and schooling, and, of course, carefully follow all court orders currently in place.
You will work with your attorney to gather documents and have likely already done so. This may include police reports, documentation of abuse, letters of admission/apology from the party, and written statements from witnesses.
Your children are just that, your kids. Even as they grow into their teenage years, it is important to remember that the parent will always be their parent. Your child should not be your confidant, your spy, your ally, your messenger, your counselor, or your sounding board. They should not be included in discussions about the court case or have knowledge regarding the court itself. Instead, focus on providing consistency and structure, open communication regarding the child’s emotions, and lots of love and reassurance.
Although the prospect of having a guardian ad litem, an investigator, or an evaluator involved in your case may seem daunting, the presence of these individuals can also do a lot of good for the families they help and the children they protect. At Elise Buie Family Law Group, we know this firsthand.
In addition to having a professional network of guardians ad litem, investigators, and evaluators we call on frequently, some members of our Seattle legal team also have a background working in these roles themselves. To discuss your individual situation, call us today.