Child custody can be a hotly disputed issue in a divorce, especially when there are questions raised about possible domestic violence and child abuse. The family courts often hear evidence from and rely upon forensic evaluators in custody cases. The evaluators assess each parent for child-rearing fitness and interview the children of an appropriate age. After completing the assessment, the evaluator makes recommendations to the court as to custody and visitation. A recently enacted state statute known as Kyra’s Law is likely to profoundly affect these custody reviews and resulting court decisions.
Kyra’s law is the result of a custody case that ended tragically. A forensic evaluator recommended that a two-year-old child’s troubled father have unsupervised visitation and the judge agreed. The father murdered the toddler during a routine visit. Kyra’s law is designed to prevent such improvident recommendations from becoming court orders.
Prior to the new law, there was no requirement for evaluators to be trained in domestic violence or child abuse prevention. The new statute imposes high standards for forensic evaluators. Now, only a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker can serve as a court sanctioned evaluator. In addition, each evaluator must complete domestic violence training through the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Protecting children is of course a laudable goal. That said, Kyra’s Law adds another level of complexity to custody and visitation cases. As the evaluator qualifications are much more stringent, it will likely be harder to find qualified individuals to serve. Also, increased evaluator credentialing means that the parents might have to pay more for court ordered evaluators. Given that nobody wants another tragedy like the one that drove Kyra’s law, evaluations are likely to be more thorough and take longer to complete. Judges might take a dim view of the slightest negative feedback concerning a parent and will likely investigate any allegations of parental misconduct.
Child custody matters require a balancing of societal and personal interests. As children are vulnerable, the state has a compelling interest in protecting them from abuse or neglect and ensuring that they have a secure upbringing. On the other hand, rearing children is a fundamental right so parents should have a close relationship with their children free from state interference. Also, many children have a strong preference as to which parent should have primary custody. Sometimes these competing interests conflict, so it is up to the courts to decide how to reconcile them all. Given the potential consequences and long-term effects on children, these custody matters cannot be taken lightly.
Goldberg, Sager & Associates in Brooklyn has a strong family law practice that has been serving individuals throughout the five boroughs for decades. If you have a child custody or visitation matter, feel free to contact us online or call 718-514-9516 for an initial consultation.