Getting Help From the Court in Your Custody Case
Getting Help From the Court in Your Custody Case
Mental Health (Custody) Evaluation
If there is good cause for it, the court may order a party or the child to submit to a mental health evaluation, as provided by La. R.S. 9:331. This kind of mental health evaluation is commonly called a "custody evaluation". If the court orders a custody evaluation:
- the evaluation will be made by a mental health professional chosen by the parties or the court;
- the mental health professional will provide the court and both parties with a written report;
- the mental health professional will serve as a "witness of the court," and can be questioned by both parties.
The court can order one party to pay the costs of the evaluation or may divide the costs between both parties. The court can do this based on what the court considers to be fair.
Good Cause for an Evaluation
"Good cause" must be shown by specific facts that are proven at a hearing before the court. Some facts that might be good cause could include:
- detailed allegations of a person's behavior consistent with mental distress, like threats of self-harm or attempts to self-harm;
- specific details of a person's past mental health diagnoses or treatment;
- information relating to a person's treatment for mental health diagnoses, like whether they have stopped taking medicine or refused to see a mental health services provider.
The court may also appoint a mental health expert in a contested relocation case, to assist the court in determining the best interest of the child.
Mental Health / Custody Evaluation Process
The custody evaluation process often includes the following elements:
- one or more interviews with each parent;
- one or more interviews with the child, alone;
- one or more observations with the child and each parent;
- psychological testing of both parents;
- interviews with one or more "collateral" witnesses, whose names would be provided by the parents to the custody evaluator. This could be family members, friends, medical professionals, other mental health professionals, teachers, coaches, or clergy; any person who is familiar with the parents, the child, or the family could be interviewed by the custody evaluator.
Once the process is complete, the custody evaluator will prepare a written report. The custody evaluator's written report will include the facts the mental health professional learned during the course of the evaluation, whether from interviews, observations, or psychological testing. The custody evaluator's report should present the facts as they apply to the "best interest of the child" factors in Louisiana Civil Code article 134.
Good Cause Required: For "good cause shown," the court may order a party in a custody or visitation proceeding to submit to specified drug tests.
"Good cause" must be shown by specific facts that are provable, and proven, at a hearing before the court. Some facts that might establish good cause could include:
personal knowledge of the party's use of drugs within a specific time frame;
a party's history of drug use or drug abuse;
detailed and proven allegations of a person's behavior consistent with drug use, such as their possession of drug paraphernalia.
The court can order testing using: hair, urine, tissue, or blood.
The court can can set a time within which the party must submit to the drug test. If a person ordered to submit to such a drug test refuses to do so, the court can consider the refusal in its decisions relating to child custody.
Costs of Drug Testing: The court can order one party to pay the costs of the drug testing or may divide the costs between both parties. The court can do this based on what the court considers to be fair. Some courts order the requesting party to pay the costs of the test if the results are negative and order the other party to pay them if the results are positive.
Either parent can request that the court order the parties in a custody or visitation case to attend and complete a parenting education course. The court can also make this order own its own or the parents can agree to it. The course will focus on educating the parties on the developmental needs of children, with emphasis on fostering the child's emotional health. The program should be informative and supportive. It should direct people desiring additional information or help to appropriate resources.
Subjects Covered in Parenting Education Course
The course content will contain but not be limited to the following subjects:
The developmental stages of childhood, the needs of children at different ages, and age appropriate expectations of children.
- Stress indicators in children adjusting to divorce, the grief process, and avoiding delinquency.
- The possible enduring emotional effects of divorce on the child.
- Changing parental and marital roles.
- Recommendations with respect to visitation designed to enhance the child's relationship with both parents.
- Financial obligations of child rearing.
- Conflict management and dispute resolution.
Limitations on Parenting Education Instructor as Witness
The instructor of a parenting education course shall not be called as a witness in the custody or visitation proceeding without prior court approval. Nonviolent acts or communications made during the program, which are otherwise relevant to the subject matter of a divorce, custody, or visitation proceeding, are confidential, not subject to disclosure, and may not be used as evidence in favor of or against a participant in the pending proceeding.
In some cases, a parent may be able to ask the court to appoint a parenting coordinator. A parenting coordinator has the duty to help parents resolve disputes and reach agreements, but does not have the authority to make decisions or change legal custody. A parenting coordinator can prepare a report and recommendation to the court for the resolution of the parents' dispute.
To be appointed a parenting coordinator, a person must have a specific set of qualifications. The cost of the parenting coordinator will be allocated between both parents. A parenting coordinator cannot be appointed in cases where there is a history of family violence or where either party has been granted pauper status.
Issues a Parenting Coordinator Can Help Resolve
A parenting coordinator can help parents resolve any of the following issues:
- Minor changes or clarifications of access schedules from the existing custody plan.
- Exchanges of the children including date, time, place, means of transportation, and the transporter.
- Health care management including medical, dental, orthodontic, and vision care.
- Child-rearing issues.
- Psychotherapy or other mental health care including substance abuse or mental health assessment or counseling for the children.
- Psychological testing or other assessments of the children.
- Education or daycare including school choice, tutoring, summer school, participation in special education testing and programs, or other educational decisions.
- Enrichment and extracurricular activities including camps and jobs.
- Religious observances and education.
- Children's travel and passport arrangements.
- Clothing, equipment, and personal possessions of the children.
- Communication between the parties about the children.
- Means of communication by a party with the children when they are not in that party's care.
- Alteration of appearance of the children including hairstyle and ear and body piercing.
- Role of and contact with significant others and extended families.
- Substance abuse assessment or testing of either or both parties or the child, including access to results.
- Parenting classes or referral for other services of either or both parties.
The court can appoint a mediator, as long as there is no history of family violence. The mediator must meet certain qualifications and must be impartial, or not take sides, during the mediation process. The mediator has no power to decide on a solution for the parties, but can only help the parties come to an agreement.
If the court orders mediation:
- the court can stay, or temporarily pause, the proceeding before the court for no more than thirty (30) days;
- the mediator will first help the parties develop a written, signed, and dated agreement that:
- lists the disputes between the parties
- states the parties' intent to resolve the disputes with mediation, and
- specifies the circumstances under which the mediation will terminate or end.
- then, the mediator must advise each of the parties participating in the mediation to obtain review by an attorney of any agreement reached as a result of the mediation prior to signing such an agreement.
- If an agreement is reached by the parties, the mediator shall prepare a written, signed, and dated agreement. A consent judgment incorporating the agreement shall be submitted to the court for its approval.
The mediator shall be impartial and has no power to impose a solution on the parties.
Paying for a Mediator
- The court may order the costs of mediation to be paid in advance by either party or both parties jointly.
- The court may apportion the costs of the mediation between the parties if agreement is reached on custody or visitation.
- If mediation concludes without agreement between the parties, the costs of mediation shall be taxed as costs of court.
- The costs of mediation shall be subject to approval by the court.