Higher Standards Sought for Custody Forensic Evaluators

During a protracted custody dispute, Jacqueline Franchetti of Manhasset repeatedly told the Nassau County Family Court that her former boyfriend was violent, unstable, and suicidal. Despite her pleas, the forensic evaluator assigned to the case recommended joint custody to the judge. In July 2016, 2-year-old Kyra was on a court-ordered unsupervised visit with her father. She was shot and killed by him as she slept. He then set the house on fire and killed himself.

Now six years later, a package of bills aims to improve child safety in custody cases. Twenty New York children have been killed in the last five years by a parent going through a divorce, separation, or child custody proceeding.

If you are in a custody dispute involving an abusive parent, strong legal counsel experienced in child custody cases is a must.

Role of Forensic Evaluators

When a settlement cannot be reached in a child custody case, judges often appoint a forensic evaluator to conduct interviews with the involved parties and provide a report to the court. The forensic evaluator typically includes recommendations about who should gain custody. Judges often base their decisions on the evaluator’s report.

Blue-Ribbon Panel on Child Custody Cases

A blue-ribbon panel was established in June 2021 to evaluate forensic custody evaluations. The panel’s report was delivered to Gov. Kathy Hochul in December 2021.

The panel found there was no uniform approach for who could act as a forensic custody evaluator or how evaluators should conduct themselves. There are no clear standards or accountability for their findings.

In a unanimous vote, the group recommended mandatory training for forensic evaluators about implicit and explicit bias, domestic violence and intimate partner violence, child abuse, substance abuse, coercive control, and trauma. Most of the members agreed that quasi-judicial immunity should be eliminated for evaluators so they could be sued for misconduct. The 20-person panel voted 11-9 to eliminate forensic evaluators completely.

Possible Changes Coming to Forensic Evaluations

New York lawmakers have passed a bill that directly impacts forensic evaluators and how they work in the court system.

Potential changes to forensic evaluations in family court proceedings include the following:

  • Require that forensic evaluators be licensed New York psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers
  • Mandate that forensic evaluators complete training every two years on domestic and family violence
  • The training must include how trauma and abuse affect the behavior of participants in custody or visitation disputes

Proposal Would Change How Judges Address Child Custody

Since Kyra’s death in 2016, her mother has been on a mission to protect children in custody cases. A bill in the 2021-2022 legislative session bears the little girl’s name. This bill would require that the child’s health and safety be the primary concern of the judge when deciding custody.

Kyra’s Law would require courts to first make findings regarding abuse before addressing custody and visitation. Judges and other court officials would be required to complete training about domestic violence and child abuse.

One bill that was signed into law on June 30, 2022, expands the number of judges in certain judicial districts and the family courts of New York City and Nassau and Saratoga counties.

Legal Counsel Fighting for a Child’s Best Interests

Custody disputes with an ex are among the most contentious issues some people face. Anger, resentment, revenge, and other emotions are common. What matters most is the best interests, health, and safety of the child.

If you are battling with an ex over child custody, make sure you have seasoned legal counsel. At Jason M. Barbara & Associates, P.C., we have experience in complex and bitter child custody cases.

Talk to us about your child custody case. Schedule a consultation by reaching out online or calling (516) 406-8381.