Custody and Parenting Time Issues
New Jersey Custody and Parenting Time Mediation Program
When custody or parenting time are an issue the court has several options. Generally, the court will first order mediation through the New Jersey Custody and Parenting Time Mediation Program. If the parties are unable to resolve their issues, the court may order a child custody evaluation. A child custody evaluation is the process in which a mental health expert will evaluate your family and make recommendations to the court for custody and visitation that is in your child’s best interests. The child custody evaluator is a mental health expert such as a psychologist and usually the expert witness. Each party may have his or her own evaluator or the Court may order a neutral evaluator. The parties will pay the fees for the expert.
Even if the parties have reached an agreement, the Court has the power to order an evaluation if the agreement is not in the best interests of the child. For example, if there have been allegations of domestic violence or child abuse, the Court may order an independent assessment.
Prior to ordering the child custody evaluation, the Court may order a Custody Neutral Assessment which is less expensive. There are significant differences between a child custody evaluation and the Custody Neutral Assessment. The Custody Neutral Assessment should discover issues that may need to be followed up with a child custody evaluation. The Custody Neutral Assessment usually costs the parties about $1,000.00. To read more on Custody Neutral Assessment.
A child custody evaluation may involve several experts such as a forensic psychologists, psychiatrists and or social workers. The psychologist may provide a medically based opinion through a series of tests and interviews of each party and their children. On average, the cost of the expert is about $5,000.00.
The court has yet another tool in making custody and parenting time decisions by ordering a “risk assessment.” If your case involves domestic violence or any allegation that the child is in an unsafe environment, the judge may order a risk assessment. The risk assessment is carried out by the county probation department. The risk assessment may include interviews with the parents, grandparents, teacher or with any person that is important to the child. The risk assessment may also include child records such as medical, school, or psychological. Usually the person conducting the assessment will make home visits.
Courts have also utilized Parent Coordinators, Law Guardians, Guardian ad litem to help the court and the parties resolve their custody and parenting time disputes. Parent Coordinator help effectuate communication between parents regarding their children. A Parent coordinator may be a psychologists, attorney or even licensed social worker. A law guardian is an attorney appointed to represent the interests of the child and is the child’s independent legal advocate for their best interests. A guardian ad litem, not necessarily an attorney, has the role of an independent fact-finder as to the best interests of the child.
Pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 5:8-1, custody of children or parenting time issues, shall be decided upon an investigation. The court will utilize anyone or more tools to determine custody and parenting time issues after a plenary hearing or trial.