An Overview of Child and Family Investigators, Child Legal Representatives and Parental Responsibilities Evaluators
Divorced parents are fond of saying that at a certain age their children can go into court and “tell [the court] the truth” which will lead to changes in parenting time, decision-making, etc. The most common age they claim this can happen is when the child is twelve years old. There is no rule in Colorado on what age a child has to be to voice his/her opinion on parenting time. There is no hard and fast rule that says a court has to speak to the children. Generally children are not allowed in the courtroom during proceedings involving them and their parents. However, there are alternatives to allow their voices to be heard such as Child and Family Investigators, Child Legal Representatives, or Parental Responsibilities Evaluators.
On occasion a judge or magistrate will talk directly to a child to find out what his/her opinion is or what the child desires for an outcome. This is done on the record and out of the presence of the parents and their attorneys. These records are normally sealed and require a court order for good cause to be released. Generally, it has to be a very good reason to open these sealed records to parties. This is not a common occurrence and some judges will not allow it at all. When it does happen the children are usually teenagers and/or mature for their years.
This does not mean the judge will order what the child wants, but the judge will take the impressions and information garnered from such a conversation into account when issuing orders. Requesting a child be allowed to talk directly to the court is not something to be done lightly or without serious consideration of the pressure this puts on the child. It is not recommended that this be done with children who are very young. Having a child come to court is quite literally placing the child between the parties and smack dab in the middle of the fighting.
There are other ways to take into account the wishes and opinions of the child. The most common way in Colorado is a Child and Family Investigator or CFI. This person is a neutral party appointed by the court, usually recommended by the attorneys in the case, to investigate all allegations and make recommendations to the court based upon their thorough investigation and the best interests of the child(ren). Barring exceptional circumstances, e.g., out of state travel for investigation, CFI fees in Colorado are capped at $2,000 with each party usually bearing one-half of the costs. These fees are due up front before an investigation begins. There are some CFI would take state assistance for those who qualify.
A CFI will speak with the parents and the child(ren) among others during the course of an investigation. The CFI files a report with the court at the end of the investigations with recommendations. A CFI is useful when there are allegations of drug/alcohol abuse by a parent or child, neglect or endangerment of a child by a parent, domestic violence, alienation of parental affections, and relocating with the child to another state. Where a CFI is not useful is where the parents simply do not get along and do not agree or communicate well. Just because one parent is unhappy is not a reason to request the appointment of a CFI.
Another option is a Parental Responsibilities Evaluation or PRE. These are usually done by mental health professionals and can run over $10,000 and there is no cap on the expense. A PRE can ask for mental health evaluations or conduct testing if they are qualified. The PRE usually discusses issues with both parties, the child(ren) and interviews persons involved with the child. When there are issues of abuse or serious mental health issues a PRE can be helpful to the parties and the court. Again a PRE is most effective in situations which involve more than one parent being unhappy with the current situation.
On the opposite end is a Child Legal Representative or CLR. This is an attorney assigned to represent the child’s best interests which is different that representing the child’s interests. A CLR does not submit a report or testify in court. The CLR acts as an attorney at all proceedings including questioning and calling witnesses to testify. A CLR is useful in cases where there are older children such as teenagers and many times can help all parties reach a resolution outside of court. The parents are responsible for the payment of the CLR fees.
A prime consideration needs to be are you putting your child in the middle of a dispute with your ex to further your interests or your child’s. Children should not be asked to choose between parents. Although we always counsel clients not to ask their children to choose there is frequently one parent who does or who does not understand that what they are asking of the child equals making them choose between parents. Children are the innocent bystanders in divorce and custody cases. It is not their choice for their parents to divorce or dispute custody. Many times they are the casualties of these proceedings. So, yes, you can ask that Lil Johnny be allowed to talk to the court, but ask yourself if you really want to put Johnny in that position.
Written by June F. Bourrillion, Esq. for http://www.rkymtnlaw.com