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What are forensics in a child custody case in New York?

When parents can’t come to a custody arrangement, the New York Family Courts decide on custody and visitation. One tool the courts use in child custody cases is forensics, which is a term for reports put together by the court’s psychological professionals. These psychological professionals meet with family members multiple times to gather evidence the court can use in its custody decision.

How Child Custody Works in New York

Child custody is a common conflict among parents. Whether a child’s parents were previously together and are separating or getting a divorce, or they were never together but both want to be a part of the child’s life, they’ll need to determine when each of them get to be with the child.

Family courts allow parents to figure out custody on their own, and parents can come up with any custody agreement they want, as long as it’s acceptable to both parties. For example, parents could split custody evenly and switch off from week to week. Or, one parent could have primary custody and have the child every week and every other weekend, while the other parent would only have the child every other weekend.

If the parents don’t come to an agreement on custody, then they’ll need to present their case to the court, which will set up a custody arrangement. That’s when forensics can come into play.

How Forensics Works in Child Custody

The first thing to understand about forensics is that it’s typically expensive, and both parents are required to pay for it. Parents each contribute a certain amount based on their income. The cost of forensics can incentivize the parents to figure out a custody arrangement on their own. The court can, however, waive the cost if the parents demonstrate financial hardship.

Once the court orders forensics, then psychological professionals, which may be psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers, meet with the parties who are relevant to the case. They will obviously meet with both parents, and if the child is old enough to communicate, then they will meet with the child, as well. They could also meet grandparents, other relatives and anyone who is important in the lives of either parent or the child.

It’s standard for the investigators to have multiple meetings with everyone. They will typically have solo meetings with each parent and the child, along with a meeting with all three, or just the parents together if the child can’t communicate yet.

The goal for the investigators is to determine what custody arrangement would be best for the child. To figure this out, they evaluate the information they get from their meetings while also carefully considering any potential biases certain parties could have.

How Forensics Affect a Child Custody Case

Each court will have its own rules regarding forensics in child custody cases. Some courts will ask the forensics investigators to include a recommendation on what the court should do in their report. In this case, the investigators can recommend the custody arrangement they feel would benefit the child the most. Other courts only ask forensic investigators to record their observations and thoughts in their report without providing a recommendation on what to do.

Regardless of whether the forensics report includes a recommendation, the judge handling the case will have the final say in the custody arrangement, unless the parents can come to a settlement.

Parents usually don’t get to see the forensics report, but their lawyers can. The lawyers will either have the opportunity to read the report or will get their own copies of the report. They can provide information on what the report says to their clients, but they typically cannot provide actual copies to their clients.

The contents of a forensics report may lead to a settlement because it favors one parent over the other. If the parents don’t settle, then the forensics report can be used as evidence on its own if both parties agree to it. If they don’t, then the investigator who authored the report must take the stand as a witness to provide their professional opinion.

Forensics are often the strongest piece of evidence in a child custody case, which means it can be the deciding factor that either convinces the court to rule one way or convinces the parents to settle. That doesn’t mean that forensics will always decide the case, though.

The court could go against the recommendation in the forensics report or interpret the observations differently than the investigators did. Either parent could find expert witnesses of their own to go against the conclusions in the forensics report. And if a forensics investigator is called to the stand, cross-examination could weaken their position. A good lawyer can recommend what to do based on the information in a forensics report, whether that means settling the case or fighting the report.