Saturday, January 5, 2013

Child Custody Advocate Program (CCAP) Standards of Practice, Protocol, and Procedures

http://www.lycolaw.org/court/casa.html

 

Introduction:

The following Standards of Practice, Protocol, and Procedures of the Child Custody Advocate Program (CCAP), under the auspice of the YWCA of Northcentral PA, have been developed and are proposed for a Child Custody Advocate Program to conduct assessments in custody and access matters for the Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas, Lycoming County, PA. These Court Appointed Special Advocates, with specialized training in Child Custody Advocacy (CCAP Volunteers) will be highly trained Child Custody Advocates who perform these assessments on a volunteer basis under the direct supervision of Christine Doty, Director of Child Advocacy who reports to Diane Glenwright, Executive Director, YWCA of Northcentral PA.

The Standards of Practice, Protocol, and Procedures of the Child Custody Advocate Program were developed using guidelines by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. They are also intended to supplement the American Psychological Association’s guidelines for child custody and access assessments. Furthermore, these guidelines intend to provide a description of the minimally necessary expectations for a custody/access assessment to assist the Court in determining what arrangements are in the best interests of the child.

Preamble:

In response to issues raised before the court in child custody disputes and recognition of the need for an objective party to assess the situation in an effort to assist the Court in insuring the safety and well-being of the children subject to custody disputes, CASA of Lycoming County is proposing this program to provide in-depth custody assessments to help facilitate the Court’s determination as to the best interests of the children subject to custody and access disputes.

Custody assessment protocol includes interviews of both parents; separate home visits to both parents and “significant others”; additional separate interviews with the children at a neutral site such as their school; collateral contacts with teachers, neighbors, attending mental health professionals, etc.; local, state, and national civil and criminal record checks, if needed; and any other fact-finding needed as determined to be necessary by the advocate.

Custody assessment is a process through which recommendations concerning the custody of, parenting of, and access to children can be made to the court in the cases in which parents are unable to work out their own parenting plans. An assessment may be requested by attorneys, law guardians, therapists, other attending professionals or parents, but must be ordered by the Judge presiding over the case. Highly trained volunteer advocates will perform the assessments. The child advocate will never act as an advocate for one parent or another.

The primary purpose of a child custody assessment is to assess the family and provide the court with objective information and recommendations. The assessment goals of a custody assessment shall be to (a) identity the developmental needs of the child(ren); (b) identify the strengths, vulnerabilities, and needs of all other members of the family; (c) identify the positive and negative family interactions; (d) provide the court with recommendations and supporting information, through a written report.

Referral Process:
  1. The Judge will refer the case to CASA of Lycoming County. Any child previously adjudicated dependent shall receive an automatic referral for a Child Custody Advocate.
  2. The Director will review the referral for appropriateness, completeness, and eligibility.
  3. The Director will assign the case to an available child custody advocate (CCA Volunteer)
  4. CASA of Lycoming County will provide to the Court an Order to Appoint for the advocate.
  5. The Director or Program Supervisor and advocate will meet and discuss the file and form a plan for completion of duties.
  6. The advocate will make contact with the parties involved, schedule interviews and home visits and conduct an assessment.
  7. At the conclusion of the assessment, the advocate will submit a written report to the Director for review and possible revision no later than 10 days prior to the next scheduled court appearance.
  8. The completed written report will be signed and submitted to the Judge and attorneys representing legal parties no later than seven (7) days prior to the next scheduled court appearance. If parties are not represented by counsel, the Child Custody Advocate report will be hand-delivered to the party 24 hours in advance of the hearing. No copy of the report will be placed in the record on file in the prothonotary’s office.
  9. CCA volunteers will not attend the custody trial unless a subpoena is received. In the event that a CCA Volunteer is subpoenaed to testify a fee of $150 will be paid in advance to the YWCA of Northcentral PA CASA program by the issuing party.
  10. The advocate will remain on the case until dismissed by the Judge.
Previous Relationships:

The advocate shall clarify with all parties, the assessment procedure, credentials of the advocate, the mutual responsibilities of the advocate and the parties and the limits of confidentiality. The advocate is required to disclose to the parties and their attorneys whether or not a prior relationship existed or exists between the advocate and any of the parties.

If a previous relationship or knowledge of any of the parties does exist, the issue will be raised and discussed in order to assure each party that objectivity will not be compromised by any prior knowledge or contact. A decision to whether to proceed or not will be made at the conclusion of this discussion or following discussion between the parties and their attorneys.

Communication between the advocate and the attorneys shall be conducted so as to avoid any question of ex parte communication. Communication shall be through the office and staff of CASA of Lycoming County and may be best accomplished by conference call or in writing with copies to both attorneys. Communication between a designated Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) and the advocate is not subject to these guidelines. Communication between the GAL and the advocate serves to further the best interest of the children.

Advocate Standards:

Child Custody Advocates shall have formal education and training in advocacy, child development, child and adult relationships, interviewing techniques, family systems, child abuse, domestic abuse, confidentiality, conflict resolution, professional service by referral process, objectivity, children’s rights, and parental rights. In addition, by formal training or work experience, the advocate shall have a working knowledge and understanding of the complexities of the divorce process, awareness of the legal issues of divorce, and an understanding of the many issues, legal, social, familial, and cultural, involved in custody and visitation disputes.

All advocates will have received 30 hours of child welfare training and an additional eight hours of highly specific custody training. All advocates will have observed court proceedings for at least 4 hours and undergone extensive apprenticeship regimen under the direct supervision of the Director or Case Manager. All advocates will undergo a background check and reference review.

All advocates are required to advise the Director of any potential conflict of interest or personal situation that might prevent them from carrying out their duties.

All Child Custody Advocates are required to attend at least 12 hours of formal in-service custody specific training every 12 months. At least 6 hours of this training will contain content specific to custody.

At the conclusion of every assessment performed, all advocates are required to debrief with the Director or Case Manager and address any issues raised by the advocate or the Director/Case Manager.

All advocates are required to make contact with the Director or Case Manager at least once per week to advise the coordinator of availability, case progress, and volunteer hours.

Advocates can be asked by the Director to resign from the program for the following:

  • Breach of Confidentiality
  • Conduct deemed inappropriate by CASA of Lycoming County staff
  • Conflict of interests
  • Personal biases or agendas
  • Providing legal advice
  • Providing direct services to clients
  • Inadequate performance
  • Non-completion of program requirements
Assessment Procedures:

The advocate shall determine the scope of each assessment, including who is to be included other than the litigants. In general, a diverse number of procedures for information gathering as possible and feasible to the specific assessment is encouraged. These may include interviewing, observation, use of collaterals, and home visits. It is important that the advocate maintain a constant sense of balance by obtaining similar types of information about each parent (when applicable) and spending similar amounts of time with each parent under similar circumstances, except as noted below.

Each advocate may use different procedures relative to interviews, the necessity and feasibility of home visits, and the circumstances under which the child is interviewed. It is desirable that all parties involved in a dispute, as well as any other significant persons, be evaluated or interviewed by the advocate.

  • Adult Interviews: Each adult shall be evaluated individually, and comparable assessment techniques shall be used with all of the significant adults. If special procedures, such as psychological testing are necessary because of specific issues raised by one party, it will not be necessary to recommend the same for all parties.
  • Child Interviews: Each child shall be evaluated individually with procedures appropriate to the developmental level of the child. These procedures may include observation, verbal or play interview. It is not appropriate to ask children to choose between their parents, because in most families, children need good access to both parents following the divorce and should not be placed in the position of having to choose. Information about the child’s feelings, thoughts, and wishes about each parent can be obtained through techniques that will not be harmful or induce guilt. The child shall be observed with both parents in similar settings.
  • Psychological Testing: If specific issues of psychological health are raised, it is appropriate to recommend to the court for an assessment and/or counseling by an agency or individual deemed appropriate by the court.
  • Collateral Information: Information from appropriate outside sources, such as pediatricians, therapists, teachers, school nurses, health care providers, day-care personnel, child welfare and any other directly relevant outside source shall be obtained where such information is deemed necessary and relevant to the issues at hand. Prior to gathering information from these outside sources, a consent form must be signed by the parents if the information sought is directly concerning them. Consent is not necessary if the information sought is directly concerning the child.
  • Interviewing Family and Friends: Interviewing of family and/or friends shall be handled with great care, given its potential for increasing divisiveness and resulting in harm to the children. It is possible however, that family, friends, and neighbors may be able to present valuable information and/or leads to the advocate. The use of such information shall be related to the circumstances of a particular assessment, used only when the advocate is convinced of its usefulness, and obtained in a manner that discourages conflict. The advocate must maintain the confidentiality of the case and should not disclose information to interviewees.
  • Home Visits: When home visits are made, they shall be made in similar ways to each parent’s or potential caretaker’s home. Care shall be exercised so that temporary inequality in housing conditions does not lead to bias on the part of the advocate. Economic circumstances alone shall not be a determining factor in a custody assessment.
  • Geographic Barriers: In those cases in which the parents or caretakers reside in geographically separate jurisdictions, it may be difficult for the advocate to visit with both parents in similar settings. The advocate shall not suppose or make assumptions as to what a home visit would have elicited.
Areas of Assessment:
  • Age and Development of Child: The child’s age and developmental level is relevant to custody and visitation in that it directly impacts a child’s ability to handle stress and change. Is the child growing developmentally? Advocates use the information provided in their training on developmental impacts of divorce on children as their guide.
  • Parent/Caregiver-Child Relationship: Do the child and parent/caregiver demonstrate a bond? What is the interaction between parent/caregiver and child? Has there been a period of no contact that has adversely affected the relationship? Who has been the primary caretaker? Who does the child feel most nurtured by?
  • Sibling Relationships (to include half-siblings and step-siblings): What are the ages and developmental level of siblings? Does the child currently reside with siblings? Is there a bond between the siblings? Are there any issues within sibling relationships? Would a change in primary custody result in a strain in or loss of sibling relationships?
  • Past History of Custody/Visitation: What has the custody and visitation (access) looked like in the past? Has there been supervised visitation? Why?
  • Drug and/or Alcohol Abuse: Does the parent use drugs? Does the parent abuse alcohol?
  • Mental and Physical Health of the Parent: Is the parent in reasonably good physical and mental health? Are there issues that may inhibit their ability to care for the child? Are they addressing the issues?
  • Ability and Willingness to Parent: Is the parent able to nurture, provide guidance, stability and consistency. Is the parent capable of nurturing the child? Is the parent willing to nurture the child? Does the parent have the skills to nurture and guide the child? Does the parent provide consistency for the child? Can the parent provide the tools to the child for growth and development?
  • Child’s Educational Needs: Does the parent address what the child needs to succeed in school? Is the parent an active part of the child’s education? Does the parent attend school conferences and activities?
  • Consistency of Custody and Visitation: Has there been a period of no contact? Why? Does the parent need help to build the relationship again? Has the parent honored the scheduled dates and times of visitation?
  • Parenting Style & Discipline Style: Does the parent act appropriately with the child? Does the parent discipline appropriately? Will the parent attend classes to learn more about how to become a better parent? Does the parent communicate and cooperate with the other parent concerning parenting and discipline styles to ensure consistency?
  • Parent & Child’s Support System: Does the parent have healthy relationships with other adults? Are there people in his/her life that can be counted on in an emergency? Does the child need/have a counselor, other adult to turn to? Are there siblings that the child can rely on?
  • Child Behavior & Adjustment to Change: Is the child acting out, pulling in, or a combination of the two? What are the causes and do the parents recognize and address these issues? How is the child adjusting to change? What would be the impact of a change in custody?
  • Family Permanence: Does one parent move frequently? Are there individuals in and out of the child’s life? Does either parent have multiple partners? Has the child attended multiple schools?
  • Pattern of Domestic Violence and/or Child Abuse? Has there been domestic violence or child abuse? What impact has this had on the child? Was the child abused or is he/she being abused? How has this been addressed? All CASA, Child Custody Advocates are mandated reporters and are obligated to report any suspected occurrence of abuse and/or neglect to the PA ChildLine child abuse hotline.
  • Encouragement of Other Parent’s Relationship with Child: Does each parent encourage the child to have a relationship with the other parent or discourage the child? Do the parents respect the other’s role in the child’s life?
  • Ethnicity, Culture and Religion: Are there any issues related to ethnicity, culture or religion that are not being addressed?
  • Ability to Communicate with the Other Parent: Can the parents talk to each other? Do they send notes or messages with the children? Can they be present together at conferences, meetings, activities, family events, etc. without turmoil for the child?
  • Conflict Resolution Techniques: How does the parent handle conflict?
  • Parents’ Work Schedules and Finances: Are there issues with work schedules that interfere with ability to care for the child? Can the parent afford to provide the child with food, shelter, and clothing?
  • Child Care: What arrangements have been made for child care? Who will pay for child care? Can the other parent provide care if one has to be away from the child?
  • Transportation: Who will be responsible for transportation and when? Is a third party necessary?
The Assessment Report:

The assessment report shall be written in a style free of jargon so that the court, attorneys, and the clients can understand it. It shall convey an attitude of respect for all parties. The report shall be written following the format provided. [See attached].

Distribution: The signed report shall be submitted to all parties no later than seven (7) days prior to the next court appearance. Attorneys may not distribute the report to parents. A parent without attorney representation will receive a copy of the report. At no time shall children be in possession of the report. CASA is not responsible for the distribution of information in a submitted report by a party to the case to a third party.

Recommendations: Advocates will make every effort to include all parties involved in the custody dispute in the assessment process. Advocates shall not make statements of fact or inferences about parties they have not interviewed. Advocates may at times, be unable to see all parties in a dispute, either because of refusal of a party to meet or logistical factors. In these cases, the Advocate will limit his/her conclusions. The Advocate will report on those individuals who have been seen and on their interactions with each other and may draw conclusions regarding the nature of those relationships.

Court Appearances:

The Program Director and/or Case Manager will accompany the Advocate to any court hearing in which the CCAP Volunteer is required to testify. The Advocate understands that he/she may be called upon to testify to information contained in the CCAP Report to the Court report.