By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Being an assessor in custody and access matters means walking into an active
dispute between parents in high conflict. The reason the parents are before
an assessor is because they have been unable to resolve their dispute between
themselves and they are stuck with very different position for the ongoing care
of their children. Each parent is hoping that the assessor strengthens their
respective position and that the assessor will make a recommendation in their
favor. Clearly this is a set-up for the distinct possibility that one parent
may be very dissatisfied. In some cases, even both parents may be dissatisfied.
Parents in this situation need to recognize that by going to Court and attending
for an assessment, they have abdicated their right to determine the outcome
of their dispute. They can only hope to influence it, but not determine it.
Determination is now in the hands of the Court and will be greatly influenced
by the recommendation of the assessor. Parents are well advised to reconsider
looking at solutions for a settlement before going to Court. As soon as parents
go to Court control is lost to the will of the Judge and the influence of the
Parents whose position or preferred outcome is not supported by the assessor
may cry foul by challenging the competency of the assessor or alleging bias.
However, their objection to the recommendation does not make it bad or wrong.
It may just signal their upset for not winning.
The role of the assessor is not to take either parent’s side, but to
make recommendations with a view to the best interests of the child. The assessor
is by definition on the side of the child. If by chance the opinion of the assessor
aligns with the position of a parent, this does not in and of itself indicate
bias on the part of the assessor. Further, some parents may complain that the
assessor is opinionated. Interestingly though, that is exactly the role of the
assessor. The assessor is to provide their opinion on the matter before them.
If the assessor was not opinionated on the matter, then ironically there could
truly be a problem with the assessment.
Regardless of a parent’s position or how intensely a parent may defend
their position, the assessor must look at the needs of the child now and for
the future; the strengths and weaknesses of both parents; the conflict between
them; their relative abilities to subordinate their needs to those of the child
and then arrive at recommendations. The assessor should take a developmental
view, one that regards the interests and needs of the child now and as they
grow and age. The assessor should provide discussion on parental deficiencies
or behavior contributory to conflict or poor parenting and provide direction
to address and improve those situations that may interfere with the child’s
development and well-being.
In the heat of a custody or access battle, some parents have difficulty heeding
the input and recommendations of the assessor. A parent may seek to continue
their battle and may even draw the assessor in as a target for the battle. While
perhaps in a limited number of cases this may be appropriate, parents are advised
to consider the input of the assessor carefully. The assessor is attempting
to act only with the interest of the child. Their input may be instructive even
if in conflict with a parent’s position. The final thought to remember
though is that the parent still has some measure of control up and until the
time the Judge brings down the gavel.
Consider using the time between receiving the assessment and the Court date
as an opportunity to negotiate a settlement. An agreement will likely be on
the basis of the assessor’s recommendation but there would be the opportunity
to negotiate some fine-tuning to the plan and retain some measure of control.
You may not like the outcome, but still try to work with the results before
the gavel comes down.