If you’ve ever found yourself in a highly contentious situation with your current spouse or ex about parenting time or perhaps a modification of your former divorce agreement, you’ve likely heard or experienced first-hand that court battles over children are not easy. Often times, attorneys will recommend the use of experts in order to strengthen your case. One such tool is the use of a professional evaluator who is a clinical psychologist and trained to make specific recommendations to the Court about “parental allocation” and parenting time.
What Is Parental Allocation?
The term “Parental allocation” is the new descriptor for what was formally known as “custody” in the State of Illinois, beginning in January 2016. This new language is part of a significant rewrite to family law statutes in the State, and it deals specifically with the Court’s allocation of parental responsibilities regarding decision-making and parenting time, formerly known as “visitation.” Although the terminology of custody and visitation has changed, many of the same tools for evaluating a child’s best interests, such as the use of experts, remain available to parties in a divorce.
For example, professional evaluations have become common in more complex and/or contentious custody battles. In brief, professional evaluations, also known more commonly as “custody evaluations”, are processes facilitated and completed by a mental health professional and/or psychologist that are designed to evaluate your family’s relationships, parental skills, and other information about your family. This information is then used to help with the “best interest” recommendations for the child or children, when being placed in a parent’s home or when the Court is determining parental allocation of decision-making responsibilities and parenting time. This professional ultimately serves to make a recommendation to a court regarding a parenting plan that is in your child’s best interests. He or she can be appointed by the Court or retained as a private expert upon a motion by the Court, the Guardian Ad Litem or a party to the case. Costs for a professional evaluator are paid for by the parties themselves, and the fees are allocated by the Court according to the specific circumstances of the parties, such as their finances. Depending on the applicable statute, the evaluator’s report may be admitted as evidence, placed under seal, or subject to motions by either party to exclude it from trial.
Professional Evaluation Structure
Although every evaluator may have a different routine for how they prefer to conduct evaluations, an example of a possible evaluation structure for a case involving parental allocation may be as follows:
- Several interviews with each parent
- Individual interviews with each child
- Observations of children with each parent
- A review of court documentation or other pertinent written information
- Contact with reference sources – these could be teachers, school personnel, doctors
- A specific written recommendation about parental allocation and anything else which addresses the concerns of each parent
Evaluation Report Should Include:
As part of the recent rewrite to the IMDMA, the legislature has now set out very specific criteria that must be included in an evaluator’s report, which includes:
- A description of the procedures employed
- A report of the data collected
- All test results
- Any conclusions of the professional relating to the allocation of parental responsibilities
- Any recommendations concerning allocation of parental responsibilities and/or the child’s relocation
- An explanation of any limitations in the evaluation/investigation or any reservations of the author regarding the recommendations
In addition to interviews of the family, psychological testing of the parents may be ordered by the Court as part of the evaluation, which may be helpful to the evaluation of a parent’s emotional functions and parenting style could be performed. These techniques are often used by psychologists in complicated evaluations, and are designed to provide further information that will help with the best recommendation for the children. An evaluator may request a home visit at the home of each parent, which is designed as an observation of your family in a less clinical environment. There is a requirement for the professional to testify as Court’s witness and be subject to cross-examination.
To better help children understand an evaluation process, it is best to explain that the professional is there to help the parents to work together when raising them. The professional is someone who is there to learn about the family and then be able to help parents to agree on the best parenting skills to use to raise the children. Encourage children to be open and speak honestly to the evaluator.
There are several topics that can be included in an evaluation recommendation.
- Parental Allocation recommendations
- Includes recommendations on the parents’ abilities to make major decisions about the child’s medical, religious, educational, and extracurricular decisions together. This would also touch on what kind of schedule the parents should share with the children, and how this would work toward the children’s best interests.
- Parenting time and conflict-resolution
- The evaluator will make recommendations about how parents can work together to solve future problems regarding parenting time and work with parents on an ongoing basis to teach them to resolve issues
- Therapy recommendations
- Specific recommendations for treatment of either parents or children will be included
- Specific recommendations that focus on special issues such as domestic violence and substance abuse, including but not limited to recommendations for treatment
- Parenting classes that are designed to help parents recognize a child’s needs
- A re-evaluation may be recommended as the child grows and his needs significantly change
Generally, it may be best for evaluators to deliver recommendations directly to parents, because there is a tendency to focus on result of the case instead of the best interests of the children. Also, parents tend to stay focused on the children’s needs and remain focused in this manner at all stages of the divorce process which is the best approach to establish in a recommendation situation.
For expert guidance through a Professional Evaluation during Parental Allocation processes, particularly in light of the new changes to the IMDMA beginning in January 2016, contact Sherer Law Offices. Our attorneys will provide you with the guidance and advice you need for the best resolution for you and your family.