The Ohio Supreme Court has approved a new rule establishing specific requirements for custody evaluations in child custody cases.  The new standards are effective September 1, 2022.  The qualifications and responsibilities of a custody evaluator are clearly defined by this new rule.

Under the new rule, a custody evaluator must complete a 40-hour initial training program and satisfy one of the following professional qualifications:

(1)        An Ohio licensed psychologist or a psychologist licensed in another jurisdiction and authorized by the Ohio Board of Psychology to practice psychology in this state on a temporary basis;

(2)        An Ohio licensed social worker, professional clinical counsel, or marriage and family therapist or a professional with an equivalent level of licensure issued by another jurisdiction and authorized by the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapist Board to practice in this state on a temporary basis;

(3)        A physician licensed in any state and board-certified in psychiatry or who has completed a psychiatry residence accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education or a successor to that Council;

(4)        A court-connected evaluator who has a minimum of a master’s degree in a mental health field that includes formal education and training in the legal, social, familial, and cultural issues involved in custody decisions.

The new rule also defines the custody evaluation process and mandates that custody evaluators do all of the following when performing a custody evaluation:

(1)        Maintain objectivity, provide and gather balanced information from both parties to the case, and control for bias;

(2)        Strive to minimize the potential psychological trauma to children during the evaluation and report writing by performing responsibilities in a prompt and timely manner;

(3)        Protect the confidentiality of the parties and children with collateral contacts and not release information about the case to any individual except as authorized by the court or statute;

(4)        Immediately identify himself or herself as a custody evaluator when contacting individuals in the course of a particular case and inform these individuals about the role of a custody evaluator and that documents and information obtained may become part of court proceedings;

(5)        Refrain from any ex parte communications with the court regarding the merits of the case;

(6)        Not offer any recommendations about a party unless that party has been evaluated directly or indirectly or in consultation with another qualified neutral professional;

(7)        Consider the health, safety, welfare, and best interest of the child in all phases of the process, including interviews with parents, extended family members, counsel for the child, and other interested parties or collateral contacts;

(8)        Not pressure children to state a custodial preference;

(9)        Inform the parties of the evaluator’s reporting requirements, including, but not limited to suspected child abuse and neglect and threats to harm one’s self or another person;

(10)      Not disclose any recommendations to the parties, their attorneys, or the attorney for the child before having gathered the information necessary to support the conclusion;

(11)      Be conscious of the socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cultural values, religion, family structures and developmental characteristics of the parties;

(12)      Upon discovery, notify the court in writing of any conflicts of interest arising from any relationship or activity with parties or others involved in the case.  A custody evaluator shall avoid self-dealing or associations from which the custody evaluator may benefit, directly or indirectly, except from services as a custody evaluator.

The court may order a custody evaluation upon the motion of a party, guardian ad litem, counsel for a child, or on its own initiative.  If a guardian ad litem has been appointed in the case, the guardian may request a custody evaluation, but the guardian ad litem can’t be appointed as the custody evaluator.  The court must consider only valuations completed by a court appointed custody evaluator.  The report will be admitted into evidence at a hearing or trial as direct testimony upon the court’s initiative.  The court may also receive and review the written report in advance of a hearing or trial to promote settlement.

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