Understanding the Basics of Custody Neutral Assessments

Sometimes parents are unable to resolve their custody and parenting time disputes without assistance.  This may be due to substance abuse, domestic violence or even parental alienation, but sometimes it can be for a myriad of other reasons such as failure to effectively communicate or co-parent with one another.  However, before your case breaks down to the point where a trial may be necessary, it is important to do everything you can to try to resolve these important issues by turning to mental health professionals who are trained to assist in such matters.  Moreover, if you do go to trial, you will want expert testimony to assist the court in making important child-related decisions such as custody and/or parenting time.

The first step in any dispute over custody and parenting time is for the litigants to be referred to the Custody and Parenting Time Mediation program at the courthouse.  If this process fails, then Court may then refer the parents to the Custody Neutral Assessment Program. 

A Custody Neutral Assessment, often referred to as a “CNA”, serves a very particular purpose and is a type of alternative-dispute resolution method available at a minimal cost compared to a full custody evaluation.  The CNA was created to assist litigants in gaining insights into important child-related issues that they are unable to resolve between them.  The CNA also helps inform the court on these issues as well. 

It is important to distinguish a CNA from a comprehensive custody evaluation. With a CNA, there is no psychological testing and after one or two meetings with the litigants and likely the child, the mental health professional will simply provide a written recitation of his/her concerns and those of the litigants to the court.  The CNA is meant to provide a “snapshot” of the issues and concerns and does not typically result in a definitive recommendation to the court.  However, this “snapshot” can be helpful to the court in determining the issues or to identify what else is needed to move the case along.

A CNA may recommend to the court that various other steps be taken, i.e. a full custody evaluation, a psychological evaluation of one or both parties, the appointment of a parenting coordinator, anger management therapy, etc.  A CNA can also state that a full custody evaluation be performed. 

A custody evaluation is done by a forensic psychologist who has specialized training.  This is a much more lengthy and expensive process and requires several hours of each parent meeting with the psychologist, including the children.  With a full custody evaluation, there is psychological testing done on both parties, documents submitted, and interviews of the parties with the evaluator.  The evaluator will also likely speak to collateral sources, such as a marriage counselor, grandparent, etc.  A litigant will be asked to sign a release for the evaluator to speak to a collateral source such as a doctor or therapist, as those communications are privileged. The full custody evaluation report is usually very comprehensive and will in most cases result in a recommendation on custody and parenting time.  After all, with the full evaluation the objective is to ascertain which parent should have custody (and given recommendations on parenting time). 

When trying to decide whether to seek a CNA or engage in a full evaluation, consider that the CNA is the more cost-effective option that may provide valuable insights in your case that can lead to a settlement in a much more expedient manner.  There are some cases that cannot be resolved without a full custody and parenting time evaluation, however the benefits of a CNA should not be overlooked as the first step before embarking on further evaluation.

If you have questions about a custody neutral assessment, the attorneys at the Law Offices of Sylvia S. Costantino, Esq., LLC are ready to provide you with compassionate and dedicated legal representation to get you through this trying time.  Schedule a consultation today to come in a speak with an experienced New Jersey divorce and child custody attorney.


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