Writing the Report
You have collected all the information you need to write your report to the court. You have a complete picture of this family—how it was before the breakup and how it is functioning now. You have identified the child’s primary caregiver. You understand which parent can offer the child the most consistency and stability in life. You have discovered how the child’s new family systems work. You also understand the issues between the parents and between the child and his or her parents. You have identified how the child fits into these new systems and what issues they cause the child. And you have a professional opinion about what best serves the child’s interest. You are ready to suggest a custody and visitation schedule, and you have reasons backing up your suggestion.
Before you begin writing the report, take time to think about the case. Allow the facts and issues of the case to percolate in your mind. Writing the report before allowing yourself the opportunity to really contemplate the intricacies of this case is premature. Think before you write. You don’t need to think for weeks, but take at least some time, a day or two or even three. Have the report at least outlined in your head before you sit down to write it.
When writing the report, remember that less is more. The more you write, the more ammunition you give the attorney arguing against your report. You have reasons for all your opinions, but you don’t want to set yourself up for a difficult time testifying in court. You must write a report that is complete and understandable by the attorneys, the court, and the parents. However, the report does not have to include every nuance behind your decisions. It will include some information, but need not include all your thought processes in reaching your conclusions. Some evaluators write lengthy, wordy reports. You may choose to write reports this way, but remember that what everyone really wants to read is the recommendations. When the attorneys and judges get your report, they will inevitably turn first to the page headed Recommendations.
You are the child’s voice in court. Your recommendations are written to ensure that the child’s best interests are protected while he or she maintains appropriate contact with his or her parents. Every family court in each jurisdiction has the child’s best interests as the primary focus. Although laws vary in wording between states, the commonalities between jurisdictions are striking. Generally speaking, family courts look at all relevant factors promoting the child’s best interests, including the wishes of the child’s parent or parents; the wishes of the child; the interaction and interrelationship of the child with his or her parents and siblings; the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community; the mental and physical health and integrity of all adults involved with the child; the need to promote stability and continuity in the child’s life; and the existence, if any, of domestic violence in the presence of the child. In other words, what best promotes the child’s positive emotional, physical, and developmental growth? Now you understand even better why the job of an evaluator is not for the faint of heart. First, you are working with parents who do not, cannot, and will not get along with each other. You are facing attorneys whose job is to advocate for their client regardless of, even in spite of, his or her parenting abilities. Last, you are working for the child and writing recommendations to serve his or her best interests. This generally means that both the parents are going to be angry about your recommendations. Neither parent is going to get everything he or she requested during his or her time with you, nor is he or she going to feel very happy toward you and your work. Nevertheless, you must make your recommendations.
Write the report on your letterhead, which includes your name, the full name of your license, your license number, your address, and your telephone number:
ALABAMA LICENSED PROFESSIONAL COUNSELOR #100 GREAT CITY, AL 83250
NATIONAL CERTIFIED COUNSELOR #100 208-208-9999
On your letterhead, write a letter to the judge to transmit your report. It is copied to both attorneys. The letter is short, stating what is enclosed and giving your contact information in case of any questions:
January 1, 2014
JUDGE ROBERT PETERSON
SIXTH DISTRICT MAGISTRATE COURT
CENTRAL COUNTY COURT HOUSE
GREAT CITY, AL 83250
RE: SMITH VS SMITH
CASE NO.: CV-0021-DR
Dear Judge Peterson:
Enclosed please find my recommendations regarding custody and
visitation of the Smith children.
Please contact me with any additional questions.
Jane Doe, PhD, LPC, NCC
cc: Attorney #1
THE ACTUAL REPORT
The first page of the report begins on letterhead. The report begins with a summary of the data gathering procedures. This could be a list of the dates of the appointments and the participants of the appointments. Generally, the length of time of the appointment is not included. Next is a list of the information sources (collateral contacts) and any documentation used by the evaluator in reaching his or her conclusions:
RECOMMENDATIONS OF CUSTODY AND VISITATION OF THE SMITH CHILDREN
RE: SMITH VS SMITH
CASE NO.: CV-0021-DR
DATE: JAN. 1, 2014
DATES OF SERVICE
BOB SMITH (NO-SHOW—RESCHEDULE)
BOB SMITH and HEATHER ADAMS
BOB and CHILDREN
JANE and CHILDREN
CHILDREN’S COUNSELOR—SUSAN JONES
JANE’S COUNSELOR—ROBERT JONES
CHILD CARE PROVIDER—AMY
REPORT CARDS OF SUZY, JOHN, AND KATHY
ORIGINAL DIVORCE ORDER
MODIFICATION REQUEST—BOB SMITH
MODIFICATION REQUEST—JANE SMITH
PAID IN FULL
You also might include the heading Assessments, under which you provide the name of any assessment as well as when it was administered and who conducted it. If there were other types of data collection, include those under the appropriate headings.
After you have provided all the appropriate data, summarize the interviews, collateral contacts, and assessments (if given). Remember that less is more when it comes to the summaries: It is reasonable to highlight the concerns and positives of the interviews, but do not overelaborate on any point.
SUMMARY OF SUZY SMITH INTERVIEW
Suzy Smith, age 14, was interviewed privately on November 23, 2012, and November 30, 2012. Suzy is in the 8th grade at Jefferson Junior High School, located in Great City, Alabama. Suzy’s recent report card indicates that she is an excellent student. She has all As and Bs on her report card. She has not been excessively tardy, nor has she missed many days of school.
Suzy easily engaged in the task with both her mother and her father. She interacted with both her parents appropriately. She was compliant with both parents’ requests and was not hesitant to give either parent instructions during the task. Suzy also related well with her siblings. She shared equipment with them and offered assistance when asked.
Suzy was developmentally appropriate for her age. She was well groomed and appeared healthy. She was adultlike in many of her interactions with both her siblings and her parents. During the private interview, she acknowledged that she resented having to care for her siblings and stated that she bore a lot of the responsibility for caring for her younger siblings at both her mother’s home and her father’s home. There were times when she resented having to be her siblings’ “mother.” She did feel she had the ability to care for her siblings.
Suzy talked about the conflict between her mother and her father. She thinks that things got worse between them after her father’s girlfriend moved into his house. Suzy likes Heather, but she wishes Heather would not take so much of her father’s time. She said that Heather did not hit her or treat her badly. She also reported that Heather did not treat the other children badly, either. She believes that Heather makes her father happy, although Heather and her father do have arguments. She has never seen either Heather or her father hit each other.
Suzy feels safe and comfortable in both of her parents’ homes. She has her own bedroom in each home and has her personal items at each home. She worries about her father when she is not with him because he seems so sad. She is glad that Heather is with her father when they aren’t there. She also worries about her mother because she seems so alone. Suzy tries to spend as much time as possible with her mother in an attempt to make her happy.
Suzy hates it when her parents talk badly about each other and hates it when they fight in front of the children. She told about when her mother called the police to her father’s home out of fear that they were left there alone. She felt embarrassed and angry when the police showed up, because she was left to care for the other children and considers herself capable of doing so. She was angry that her mother didn’t think she could take care of her siblings and was angry at her father for taking Heather out to dinner instead of staying home with her and her siblings.
Suzy volunteered that the current visitation schedule meets her needs; she wants it to remain the same. She would be willing to change and spend more time at her father’s home if there were a guarantee that her father would spend the extra time with her and the other children. She is looking forward to graduating from high school so that she can go to college and get away from all the drama.
It is apparent that Suzy loves both her parents and that she wants to spend time with both of them. She has a workable relationship with Heather. She wants her parents to stop fighting with each other and try to get along. She is a thoughtful child and mature for her age.
This summary tells the basics of what happened during the two interviews but does not go into the intricate details. What you write here must be reflected in your recommendations for custody and visitation. Be sure everything you write has a reason behind it and that everything ties together. For example, you can’t write that the child is well adjusted and then recommend that he or she be evaluated for severe psychological problems.
After summarizing the interviews, summarize the assessment results, if any. Be sure to note not just a diagnosis, but also what this diagnosis means for the parent’s ability to parent effectively. It does no good to suggest that the parent struggles with depression based on the results of the assessment. What you need to explain is that although the parent may struggle with depression, the depression is not so debilitating that he or she can’t be employed (the parent holds a full-time job) and deal with the children’s academic responsibilities (the parent is a room parent, attends all parent–teacher conferences, transports the children to and from school, and so forth) or is unable to parent the children.
Remember not to rely solely on assessment results when developing your recommendations. In fact, your clinical skills will reap the most—and best—information about all the people involved in a case. Use the assessment results as confirmation of your judgments and observations. Do not use the results of an assessment as better information than the information you gleaned from your time spent with these people. You and your clinical skills—listening to these people, hearing what they say and don’t say—will tell you far more than an assessment will. The assessment may give additional data, but it will not give you the rich information that you will obtain through talking with and listening to each person.
RECOMMENDATIONS—CUSTODY AND VISITATION
Your recommendations are what everyone is interested in. They speak to the child’s best interest now and in the future. Remember: Your recommendations are based on your reasoned professional judgment and studied thought. They are not written to make one parent happy or to make one attorney happy, but rather to help the child progress positively in his or her life. The recommendations are also based in the reality of the case. It may well be that neither parent is particularly outstanding in his or her parenting skills, but these are the child’s parents nonetheless—that is the child’s reality—so your recommendations give the child his or her best shot at a positive future with the parents he or she has.
Before you write your recommendations, reflect on the picture you have of the parents, the children, the family that was, and the family that currently remains. Reflect on the developmental needs of the child. Think about what the child is struggling with and how your recommendations might lessen that struggle. Understand clearly what you are going to recommend and why, then start writing.
Recommendations generally begin with custody. The custody recommendation will reflect whether the parents should have joint custody or one parent have sole custody. Remember: Sole custody generally means that one parent is so incapacitated as a parent as to cause harm to the child by having responsibility for making decisions with the other parent for the child. If in your professional judgment you believe the child would be in danger from one parent, then recommend sole custody. Be prepared, however, to clearly explain your rationale during court testimony.
The second recommendation deals with visitation: which parent the child will generally live with while visiting regularly with the other parent. If you recommend supervised visitation, be sure you can explain why. You also must provide a suitable supervisor in such a case (it is generally not acceptable for the parents to find their own supervisor). Then delineate the structure of the recommended visitation schedule.
Included in the details of the visitation schedule are exchange times and places, days of visitation, sharing of travel costs, and (if necessary) how long a parent should wait for the other parent to appear for the exchange and how many times each parent should try to contact the other parent before leaving the exchange place. Additionally, the recommendation will include a holiday schedule, a summer schedule, a child–parent phone contact schedule, and what should be sent and brought back with the child (e.g., winter clothes, sports equipment). The right of first refusal for child care may also be recommended in this section. Each case is different and stands on its own merits, so sometimes the recommendation schedule is very detailed and complex, and sometimes it is a general guideline for the parents, who can then negotiate the exact terms.
RECOMMENDATIONS OF CUSTODY AND VISITATION OF THE JONES CHILDREN
RE: JONES VS JONES
CASE NO.: CV-000-00-DR
DATE: JANUARY 12, 2014
1. Joint custody of Sam Jones and Ben Jones be awarded to both parents, Mary Jones and Joe Jones.
2. It is recommended that the children live mostly with their mother, Mary, while visiting regularly with their father, Joe:
a) Joe Jones would have visitation with the boys on alternate weekends from Friday evening to Sunday evening. Generally, all long weekends during the school year (e.g., 3-day weekends, teacher in-service) would be awarded to Joe. On a 3-day weekend, Joe’s visitation would be Friday evening to Monday evening. Additionally, Joe would have an evening visit each week. Currently, the boys swim on Tuesday, and Joe coaches the swim team, so Joe’s midweek visit would be Tuesday from after school to 8 p.m.
b) Summer visitation for Joe would include 1 week (7 consecutive overnights) in each of the months of June, July, and August. The week visit would include one of the alternate weekends that Joe has visitation. It is Joe’s responsibility to inform Mary which week he will have for visitation at least 4 weeks prior to the weeklong visitation. It is assumed that Joe will be available for child care during the extended vacation time.
c) Holidays would generally be split or alternated as negotiated by the parents. Spring break would generally be awarded to Joe.
d) Regular phone contact between the children and their parents needs to be established. The parents can negotiate the time each day for the phone contact or they can allow the children to initiate the calls. It is both parents’ responsibility to facilitate the daily phone contact.
e) Travel between City 1 and City 2 would be shared equally by the parents.
Here’s another example:
RECOMMENDATIONS OF CUSTODY AND VISITATION OF THE MING CHILDREN
RE: MING VS MING
CASE NO.: CV-000-000-DR
DATE: MARCH 21, 2014
1. Joint custody of Mindy, Hong, Daniel, Robert, and Mong be awarded to both parents, Chan Ming and Chinn Ming.
2. It is recommended that the children live mostly with their mother, Chinn Ming, while visiting regularly with their father, Chan Ming:
a) Chan would have alternate weekend visitation with the children from Friday evening to Sunday evening. The parents can negotiate the exchange times. Extended weekends would generally be awarded to Chan (e.g., 3-day weekends, teacher in-service) if he is available to provide child care for the children. Extended weekend visitation would be, for example, Friday evening to Monday evening on a 3-day weekend. Additionally, on the nonweekend visitation week Chan would have one evening visit. The parents can negotiate the day and times for the evening visitation.
b) Summer visitation would include alternate weekend visitation from Friday evening to Monday morning. Additionally, Chan would have a 2-week extended vacation time twice during the summer (total of 4 nonconsecutive weeks). It is his responsibility to inform Chinn at least 4 weeks prior to the extended time when he will be using the extended summer visitations. It is assumed that Chan will be available to provide child care during the extended visitation times.
c) Holidays can be split or alternated as negotiated by the parents. Christmas holiday can be split and the weeks alternated between the parents. Spring break would generally be awarded to Chan if he is available to care for the children.
d) Regular phone contact between the children and their parents needs to be established. The parents can negotiate the time each day that the children will have phone contact with the other parent. The children can initiate the call, but it is the responsibility of both parents to facilitate the daily calls.
e) Both parents have the right of first refusal for child care. Additionally, both parents need to agree on any child care providers for the children.
Here’s an example of visitation for 3 weekends each month:
RECOMMENDATIONS OF CUSTODY AND VISITATION OF ROBERTO HERNANDEZ
RE: HERNANDEZ VS HERNANDEZ
CASE NO.: CV-0000-0000-DR
DATE: JULY 12, 2014
1. Joint custody of Roberto Hernandez remains with both his parents, Maria Hernandez and Juan Hernandez.
2. It is recommended that Roberto continue to live mostly with his mother, Maria Hernandez, while visiting regularly with his father, Juan Hernandez:
a) Juan will have visitation 3 weekends each month from Thursday evening (when he gets home from work) to Sunday evening. The parents can negotiate the actual exchange times. On the week without a weekend visitation, Juan will have a midweek visit from when he gets off work until 7 p.m. The parents can negotiate the day for the midweek visit.
b) Summer visitation would remain the same with the addition of extended vacation time of 4 additional overnights (7 consecutive overnights) for each of June, July, and August. It is the responsibility of whichever parent is using the extended time to inform the other parent at least 3 weeks prior to using the extended time.
c) Holidays can be split or alternated as negotiated by the parents. Spring break would generally be awarded to Juan. Christmas vacation could be split and the weeks alternated each year.
d) Regular phone contact between Roberto and his parents needs to be established. The parents can negotiate the time for this daily phone contact. It is the responsibility for both parents to facilitate this phone contact.
e) Both parents need to agree on who can drive for the exchanges. Ideally it would be the parents that do the exchanges, but some circumstances require that other people need to drive for the exchanges.
f) Both parents have the right of first refusal for child care.
RECOMMENDATIONS OF CUSTODY AND VISITATION OF THE WOODS CHILDREN
RE: COOPER VS WOODS
CASE NO.: CV-0000-0000-DR
DATE: OCTOBER 23, 2014
1. Joint custody of Amy Woods, Jenny Woods, and Alex Woods remains with both parents, Susan Cooper and Jason Woods.
2. Currently, the parents have a week/week shared arrangement. There are no compelling reasons at this time to change the week/week shared arrangement. Some modifications of the shared arrangements are recommended, however, in an effort to facilitate the parents’ coparenting effectiveness:
a) The parents will establish a time each week to communicate with each other regarding the children and their activities. This communication will be either face-to-face or on the phone. Effective communication does not happen through texting or e-mailing. During these weekly communication opportunities, the parents will establish who is responsible that week for taking the children to their extracurricular activities, appointments, game schedules, and so forth. If the parent responsible for transportation cannot fulfill that responsibility, he or she will contact the other parent first before making arrangements for someone else to drive the children. Furthermore, the parents will discuss medical concerns about the children, any bills that are outstanding, and any other topics related to the children.
b) Both Jenny and Alex do not have school on Friday. Therefore, the children will spend Fridays with their mother, Susan, until 5 p.m.
c) Both parents will be actively involved in Alex’s medical care. Both parents must be diligent about requiring Alex to take his medicine before eating, watching his weight gain/loss, and facilitating his exercise and daily chest treatments. Both parents should attend his doctor appointments. Both parents also need to keep the other informed about the amount of time he exercises, what he is eating, and so on. Alex’s chronic condition needs the careful attention of both parents. This attention is not enhanced when the parents are more interested in pointing out the other’s flaws in Alex’s treatment than in talking with each other to verify that everything that should be done for his well-being is being done.
d) It is reasonable for either parent to request an evening visit with the children during the other parent’s week. It is expected that both parents will facilitate the other’s relationship with the children. The parents can either negotiate an evening visit or remain flexible and allow the evening visits to happen upon request.
e) Both parents need to regularly give each of the children quality one-on-one time. In light of the number of stepsiblings in Jason’s home, it is important that Jason’s children have quality time to enhance their relationships with their father. Quality time is also a must between Susan and the children.
f) Regular phone contact between the children and their parents needs to be better facilitated by both parents. The parents can negotiate the time for this daily phone contact or can allow the children to initiate the calls each day.
g) Both parents have the right of first refusal for child care. Both parents need to respect this right for the other parent and contact the other parent when the children need care.
h) Both parents have the responsibility to agree upon any child care providers, other than each other, for the children. Susan does not want Bob (the 15-year-old stepson) to be responsible for the children, so he will not be providing child care in the future. It is also important that Amy not be used continually as a child care provider for her siblings or stepsiblings.
All these examples have some similarities. Joint custody is recommended in all four cases. Both parents have access to the children without supervision. In some cases, the children live mostly with their mother while visiting regularly with their father. This does not mean that there will not be some cases when the children live mostly with their father while visiting regularly with their mother. One of the examples recommends a shared arrangement between the parents. The visitation schedules are different, sometimes recommending alternate weekends and evening visits, sometimes 3 weekend visits. Summer visitation schedules vary depending on the case and the availability of the parents to provide child care. The holiday schedules are more detailed in some of the cases and left up to the parent’s negotiations in others. All the examples recommend the right of first refusal for child care—some cases will not include this recommendation. Regardless, all the recommendations reflect the intricacies of each individual case such a way as to provide the attorneys and the court with your professional opinion in this case. The recommendations speak to the child’s best interests now and in the future, based on your reasoned professional judgment and thought.
Now let’s look at recommendations that will facilitate the child’s best interests in other ways besides custody and visitation. These recommendations range from counseling for the child and the parents to divorce education classes for the parents and extracurricular activities for the child. Be sure to include possible referrals for parent counselors, child counselors, and any classes. The parents, attorneys, and the court will not know the appropriate referrals, so you must provide them in your report. Of course, this means that you need to stay abreast of potential service providers in the area and have knowledge of their skills and expertise. The report you write has to delineate the custody and visitation schedule that will be best for the child, but it also has to point out the good qualities of both parents’ skills. If a parent is not able to care for the child or is a danger to the child, you must include that in your recommendations. However, most of the reports you write will recommend that both parents have some type of access to the child. Your report will further expand on the good qualities of the parents and child and enhance them by providing referrals for services to both such as counseling or other activities.
Your report will also provide recommendations for improving the coparenting skills of the parents by recommending communication opportunities between the parents about their child. Depending on the case, this communication opportunity may be face-to-face or over the phone. For other cases, the communication may need to begin with e-mails and then move to the phone. Recommending texting to each other as a means of communication is probably better than nothing, but not by much. Texting does not improve communication between people, and it certainly doesn’t provide for effective and appropriate coparenting.
Here are some examples of these types of recommendations from different cases not previously mentioned:
3. Both parents would benefit from parent education/divorce education classes. Possible referrals for the classes can be obtained from the Department of Children and Family Services.
4. All the children, especially Suzy and Bobby, would benefit from counseling services. Bobby is currently in counseling. Suzy would also benefit from individual counseling. Jeff and Sherry would benefit from being members of a divorce therapy group. The school counselor may provide this service at the school for the students at no cost. Mike would benefit from child therapy with a counselor skilled in play therapy. Possible referrals can also be obtained from the Department of Children and Family Services using its counselor referral list. This list contains appropriate counselors in the family’s geographic area.
5. All the children are involved in extracurricular activities. Both parents need to support and encourage the children in these activities. The costs of the extracurricular activities will be shared equally between the parents.
6. Jane (the mother) is currently in counseling and should remain in regular counseling. Additionally, Jane would benefit from the services provided by the Center for New Directions. The CND provides career counseling services at no cost. The CND is located on the College of USA campus. Jane needs to become financially independent as soon as possible.
7. Eric (the father) has recently found full-time employment. He needs to remain employed full-time to provide financial security for himself and his children. He also needs to find adequate housing for himself and the children.
8. Eric would also benefit from counseling services provided by a licensed therapist. Counseling would provide him the opportunity to improve his parenting, communication, and coparenting skills.
9. A regular time each week needs to be established for the parents to communicate with each other about the children. The parents can negotiate the day and time for this weekly communication opportunity.
10. A formal reevaluation may be necessary as the children age and their needs and best interests change. It is hoped that if there is a need to modify the custody and visitation schedule, both parents will have become successful coparents and can communicate with each other effectively and can modify the schedule without a formal reevaluation. If a formal reevaluation is necessary, it should consider the coparenting abilities of both parents, their effective communication skills with each other and the children, and the children’s ages and developmental levels. Depending on relevant circumstances, the reevaluation should consider whether the current custody and visitation or a shared arrangement would better meet the children’s best interests.