In New Jersey, What is the Child Custody Neutral Assessment Program?
In the past few years, the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey has employed the Custody Neutral Assessment program. This procedure is utilized when parents cannot agree to either custody or parenting time. In this program, a child psychologist interviews the parents or a clinical social worker in order to help the parents identify and focus on what disputes exist. Each interview is takes approximately three to four hours. Depending upon the age of the children, they may be interviewed as well. Within thirty days of all interviews being conducted, a report will be submitted to the appropriate family court judge and each New Jersey family law attorney.
At this point is it important to understand the difference between a private custody evaluation and a report generated by the Custody Neutral Assessment Program. Simply put, the program does not conduct any testing and does no perform a large review of documents (as would be the case with a private custody evaluation). The report is an initial review, which specifies the most essential issues involved in the child custody dispute that a judge of a New Jersey family court would need to know in order to make findings and resolutions. Examples range from substance abuse or mental health issues of one or both parties. If a child has special needs, this would certainly be paramount.
Each county who engages the Custody Neutral Assessment Program conducts interviews with multiple psychologists and clinical social workers. Those approved are then placed on a list of those court-approved for the program. Court personnel also train these professionals so they fully understand the parameters of the program.
The program is initiated during the early stages of a New Jersey child custody case. If mediation fails (which is almost always the first step) then the Custody Neutral Assessment Program may be set forth by a New Jersey family judge in a document called a Case Management Order. The parents and their respective N.J. family law attorneys will then select a professional from the court list or the judge may simply appoint one. The parties must pay a $1,000 in order to enter the program. As private child psychologist’s average retainer is between $5,000 to $10,000, this program is clearly more cost effective. At this point, the interviewing process begins.
As the Custody Neutral Assessment Program’s report is not a custody evaluation, no recommendations are made to the New Jersey Family Court regarding custody or parenting time. Nevertheless, the report will emphasize the primary disputes that are preventing the parents from entering into an agreement regarding how they shall best co-parent their child.
However, the report may make recommendations, including but not limited to, the rare need for sole custody, a risk or substance abuse assessment for one or both parents, or the appointment of what in known as a parent coordinator who would help the parents work out their problems moving forward.
The intent of the Custody Neutral Assessment Program is to assist the court, the parents and their respective family lawyers in bringing the parents together in order to settle their disputes. If the report does not resolve the case, either party maintains the right to hire a private expert to provide a complete custody evaluation at their own expense. At this point, the case is likely headed to a full-blown child custody trial.