Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

How Does The Custody Neutral Assessment Program Work To Protect Children?

The Middlesex County Bar Association has a Committee for Family Law and Divorce Lawyers and Judges in New Jersey.  As a member of this committee for my entire career as a child custody attorney, I have been fortunate to play a role in numerous advancements over the years that make the Family Part of the Middlesex County, Superior Court of New Jersey.  Now, in a child custody case, a lawyer must advise his client to hire an expert (or the Judge, under certain circumstances, shall Order that an expert must be hired).  While many of these professionals are excellent, they are also very expensive.  In light of the fact that many families simply could not afford an expert, the Custody Neutral Assessment (CNA) was initiated. 

On July 1, 2010, the Middlesex County Family Part implemented a Custody Neutral Assessment (CNA) program to assist litigants in resolving custody and parenting time disputes. A CNA is a procedure where the parties in a custody or parenting time dispute meet with a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker in an attempt to define the disputed parenting issues. The interviews take place at one time for 3 or 4 hours and often include the children. A report is then prepared by the mental health professional and submitted to the court and the litigants and their attorneys within 30 days. The cost of the CNA is $1000 and is paid for by the litigants in accordance with an allocation set by the court. The CNA is not a mini custody evaluation. No testing is done and, in general, there is no comprehensive review of documents in the case. It is a preliminary or screening assessment which highlights issues that the court needs to know in determining a final resolution of the custody or parenting time dispute such as a mental health or substance abuse issue of one party or the special needs of a child.

Over the past year, a subcommittee of the Family Section of the MCBA met with Judge Deborah Venezia, Presiding Judge of the Family Part in Middlesex County and Charles Hager, Family Division Manager, to develop a CNA program in Middlesex County. A CNA program has been operating successfully in Burlington County for 17 years and the working group sought to model its program after that one. Several psychologists and licensed clinical social workers were interviewed and a list of court-approved mental health professionals was adopted. Training was provided to the evaluators, and forms and a brochure for the program were established.

The process begins at the Case Management Conference or some other court appearance where it has been determined that there is a contested custody and/or parenting time issue which has been unable to be resolved through mediation. The parties can then decide is a Custody Neutral Assessment would help them to resolve their issues. If they chose to do a CNA, they can pick an evaluator from the Court’s list of approved evaluators (a psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker) or one can be assigned to their case. An order is entered for the CNA, appointing the evaluator, and apportioning the $1000 fee between the parties. A letter is sent from the Family Court CNA coordinator to the parties and the evaluator with a copy of the court order advising the parties to pay their share of the fee and make an appointment to see the evaluator. The appointment is with both parties and the children and they all meet at the evaluators’ office for a 3 to 4 hour block of time. (In view of the lengthy time period, it is recommended that the parties bring a babysitter or other family member to care for the children.) The evaluator will meet with each party individually and possibly with both parties together, if appropriate. The evaluator will also meet with the children if they are of appropriate age. At the conclusion of the appointment, the evaluator will prepare a report and send it to the Court and the parties within 30 days. It is important for the parties to understand that since the CNA is a forensic assessment as opposed to a clinical one, none of the information obtained in the assessment is confidential and may be shared with both parties and the Court.

Since the CNA is not a custody evaluation, the evaluator will not make a recommendation on custody or parenting time.  However, he/she will point out issues to the Court which may be hindering the resolution of the issues. Those issues could include, for example, substance abuse or a mental health problem with either party or alienation of the children by one party. The recommendations could include: the need for a full custody evaluation, a risk assessment, a review of DYFS records, school records, or police records, counseling for the parties and/or the children, appointment of a parent coordinator, the pros and cons of certain parenting time arrangements, substance abuse testing and counseling, or other appropriate recommendations.

The CNA evaluator could be subpoenaed to a deposition or court proceeding; however, the evaluator may charge an additional $500 for a half day for any appearance to be paid for by the party issuing the subpoena.

It is hoped that the use of the CNA, which provides the Court and the parties with the input of a mental health professional, will help to facilitate and expedite resolution of those custody and parenting time cases where a full custody evaluation is necessary. In the event that the CNA does not resolve the case, the parties always have the option of obtaining a full custody evaluation at their own expense.

To learn more about child custody and the CAN program, please contact our office today.