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Using Social Investigations to Resolve Child Custody Disputes


Divorce puts a lot of strain on the ability of parents to see eye-to-eye about how to divide parenting responsibilities and childrearing in general. When parents reach an impasse on this issue, a court will need to step in and decide how to arrange parenting time and decision-making responsibilities. These core aspects of child custody are hard to assess when parents are in agreement about how to proceed, and become considerably harder for a court to navigate when conflicting versions and visions of child custody are offered by each parent. In fact, when a court is concerned the information being provided is insufficient, it may order a social investigation to flesh out the missing pieces. This step is used to clarify the positions of each party, and to avoid the need to bring the child into the legal process, an option courts try to avoid at all costs. Social investigations can be an effective way to provide the court with a more well-rounded picture of the home situation for each parent, the needs of the child, and how best to facilitate a parenting arrangement the parties will accept and follow. An overview of the purpose and process of a social investigation, and what it can offer to couples who cannot agree on child custody issues, will follow below.

What Is a Social Investigation and Who Conducts It?

A social investigation is an assessment of the parents’ lives and the relationship each has with their child to determine how to formulate a workable parenting plan. A licensed mental health worker (psychologist, clinical social worker, family therapist, or mental health counselor) conducts these investigations, which can be requested by either parent or by order of the court. This option is generally underutilized, but if conducted correctly, can offer a nuanced look into the family’s life, so the court may make an informed decision. As mentioned above, conflict between the parents is a common reason these investigations are ordered, but they may also be prompted by concerns over abuse, substance addiction, mental health issues, or questionable parenting skills, as examples.

The Process

The court will issue an order outlining the scope of the social investigation, and how long the process is expected to last, dictated according to the circumstances of each family, so the time involved can vary widely. Typically, the social investigation consists of the mental health professional interviewing the parents, the child, and close relatives to obtain a picture of the child’s life and level of adjustment. The investigator may also contact other key adults in the child’s life, normally the child’s principal teacher and primary doctor. In addition, the investigator may visit the parents’ homes and/or give the parents surveys or questionnaires to complete to evaluate mental health, parenting skills, coping skills, and the like. The underlying purpose of this process is to determine the best interests of the child, and the investigator will compile his/her findings and recommendations that he/she submits to the court for consideration. The judge may choose to adopt all, some, or none of the investigator’s proposals. Note that the parents are expected to pay for this service, unless an exception is made because the parties are considered indigent.

What It Offers to the Court and the Parents

The primary purpose of a social investigation is to give the court a more comprehensive understanding of potential and actual issues that could negatively affect the child, and possible options to minimize the impact. In addition, the results of the report can help parents find common ground, so they can possibly create their own parenting plan. It may also confirm or alleviate concerns one parent may have about the other, which is likely to affect cooperation once the custody arrangement is finalized.

Contact an Orlando Family Lawyer

Coming to an agreement on child custody is one of the hardest decisions divorced parents will ever make, and the services of an experienced family law attorney can help facilitate an outcome that both protects parental rights and is fair. The Orlando attorneys at the law firm Donna Hung Law Group understand the obstacles that commonly arise in child custody matters, and can help you find an acceptable resolution. Contact us at (407) 999-0099 for a consultation.