New legislation toughens the process of child custody evaluation in Texas divorces.
Court-ordered child custody evaluations provide important and informative evidence for courts to weigh when making decisions in contested child custody proceedings such as divorces. In a child custody evaluation, a trained expert conducts an investigation into the parents’ fitness to parent their children and the suitability of their respective homes as residences for the children.
The resulting report is submitted to the court as evidence in the child custody proceeding.
A new Texas law made significant changes to the child custody evaluation process in the state. The changes took effect on September 1, 2015, for divorces and other suits affecting the parent-child relationship that is filed on or later than March 1, 2016.
The law officially changes the name of this investigative report to a “child custody evaluation” from the previous “social study.” This is interesting because although “custody” is a word used widely in Texas and other states, the official term in the statutes for child custody in the Lone Star State is “conservatorship.” However, the new name in Texas is consistent with the broader use of the term “child custody evaluation” nationally.
The new law adds more formality to the process, expands the basic elements of an evaluation by requiring assessment of additional evidence, strengthens evaluator eligibility requirements, and more tightly regulates evaluator conflict of interest and bias. Some highlights of the changes include:
- The law lists different combinations of credentials (for example, advanced degrees, professional licenses, professional development, and work in a relevant field under supervision) that are sufficient to qualify a person as an evaluator. Family violence training must also be completed.
- For courts in counties with less than 500,000 people where professionals who meet the new requirements are not available, the court may appoint an evaluator who is “otherwise qualified” after either a hearing or if the parties agree to the appointment.
- The court may order an evaluation either after a hearing or if the parties agree; whereas, before, the judge could order the evaluation without a hearing or agreement.
- Before the change, the court order required evaluation of the child, the parents and the parental homes. The new law adds to the judge’s option to request an evaluation of any other issue.
- The new law fine-tunes and adds direction to evaluators about professional and evidentiary standards, appropriate avenues of inquiry, recordkeeping requirements and the content of the final report.
- A new provision allows psychometric testing if certain standards are met and procedures followed, presumably to help understand whether a person’s capacity to parent by administering a standardized test attempting to assess personality, ability, character and so on.
- No expert opinion about custody may be given in a divorce unless that person has produced a child custody evaluation that meets the new requirements.
- Strict and detailed standards for disqualification of evaluators based on conflict of interest and bias were added.
This is a high-level overview of a substantial and complex change to Texas law. Any Texan facing a child custody matter should speak with a knowledgeable family lawyer about the legal and personal issues involved, including the possibility that a child custody evaluation could be part of the proceedings if they end up in a trial.