Child Custody Investigations
Child Custody by a Private Investigator Austin and Practicing Guardian ad Litem
Chances are that if you made it to this site that you are a loved one are embroiled in an ugly child custody battle. The prospect of going to court and the money involved can be overwhelming. Beyond the issues of going to court and the money is the real possibility of losing custody to an unfit parent. Some lucky divorced parents can successfully coparent their children and their children will greatly benefit from such an arrangement. On the other hand, there is a percentage of parents where a coparenting arrangement is not possible because the other parent’s abilities are impaired. Sometimes it is due to tangible behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse, but other times it may be due to less obvious reasons such as pure spite or resentment after a divorce. Whatever the case that brought you here, there is help for your situation beyond what your attorney can provide. As a private investigator Austin, TLW Guardian Investigations is here to assist you with your child custody battle.
Some Background about Private Investigator Austin – TLW Guardian Investigations
First, a little background information concerning TLW Guardian Investigations and how we came into being. I like to stress the point whenever possible that TLW Guardian Investigations is not your typical private investigator agency like the stereotype you may have of private investigators seen on television. The evolution of TLW Guardian Investigation came after several years of working as a Guardian ad Litem in public service with Austin Travis County Domestic Relations Office and later as a Guardian ad Litem in private practice. Prior to working as a Guardian ad Litem, I worked for several years as a mental health professional assisting mentally ill persons on probation and parole in an effort to help them remain out of jail or prison and to keep them engaged in mental health services. It was a difficult job but the experience gave me the skills to deal with extremely dysfunctional persons in a criminal justice setting. The work involved assessing newly arrested inmates at the City Jail in Austin and traveling to various prisons throughout Texas to interview mentally ill inmates, some of whom having committed horrendous crimes. At another point in my career, I also worked for Austin Travis County as an adult probation officer who specialized in the supervision of mentally ill probationers and sex offenders on probation. Previous to these activities I worked with the acute mentally ill patients at Austin State Hospital and prepared reports and testified during mental health commitment hearings. I also obtained my master’s degree in Counseling while working full time at Austin State Hospital.
So, with a lot of mental health experience in various criminal justice settings I began a career in family law as a Guardian ad Litem. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a Guardian ad Litem represents the best interest of children during highly conflicted child custody and divorce court battle. So, for a simple explanation, mother has her attorney, dad has his attorney, and the child has me as his advocate and representative during all court hearings or other proceedings or actions related to the disposition of the case. The role of the Guardian ad Litem is highly investigative in nature and the court expects a recommendation from the Guardian ad Litem as to the parent’s character, their background, their associates, their relationship with child, and their parenting skills. One of the benefits of having a Guardian ad Litem in the court’s eyes is it stops the “He says, She says” issue that is seen in highly conflicted child custody battles. From a Guardian’s ad Litem point a view it is dealing with a great deal of conflict in order to get at the truth. Usually, Guardians ad litem are a only appointed in very difficult conflicted cases with frequent issues of drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, child sexual abuse (including manufactured or false allegations, thereof), domestic violence, sexual deviations, criminal activities, and the list goes on. Not only does the Guardian ad Litem handle the conflicts between the two parents but a large part of their duties are dealing with their attorney who can be just as contentious as the parties themselves.
Winning Child Custody
In Texas, the court has a presumption (as required by Texas law) that both parents should equally share parental responsibilities which is commonly referred to as Joint Managing Conservatorship of the child. In order to be designated as something other than a Joint Managing Conservator, say as a Sole Managing Conservator, you have to show proof to the court that will get past this presumption. Of course, this is why it is so important that you get proof of an unfit parent’s bad behavior. I’ll talk more about proof and evidence a little later.
The Tender Years Doctrine - Does it Apply?
With regards to babies and young children, there is an unspoken concept commonly referred to as the “Tender Years Doctrine” in which mothers MAY (I don’t think this happens often) have some advantage in court. It is not a part of Texas law but more as a guiding principle that the court might consider (but really shouldn’t) when making child custody decisions with regards to young children. The doctrine centers on the importance of children properly bonding with their mothers, and that mothers should have the right to breastfeed. The court is truly supposed to have the presumption (by Texas Law) that either parent could be the primary custodian of the child. In all of my years of experience, this is the only time that I have felt that the court may have had the occasion to be somewhat biased in favor of women. I don’t think it happens a lot, especially now, but it would be foolish not to mention it and to warn of its existence. If the Tender Years Doctrine were to come into play it is mostly when both parents are dead even in their capabilities and bonding with the child and the court has to pick one parent or the other to provide primary care to the child. Whatever the advantage a new mother might have (assuming that they had an advantage in the first place) will fade away once the mother stops breast feeding and will become non-existent by the time the child is about 5 y/o, as the child prepares to enter elementary school. However, once the child reaches school age, men and women are equally considered as potential primary caregivers in the eyes of the court. I truly believe this despite some fathers claiming that fathers can’t win child custody battles. Actually, fathers can and do win child custody despite the age of the child – even an infant.
Supporting the other Parent
One of the key elements that the court considers when making custody decisions (no matter what the child’s age) is how one parent is likely to support the other parent when coparenting the child. The importance for one parent to support the other parent is highly significant in child custody battles and should never be undervalued even if the other parent is grossly impaired. Therefore, it is important for the non-impaired parent to be able to straddle a line between making their point in court concerning the other parent’s bad behaviors while at the same time attempting to show that they are encouraging of the other parent’s relationship with the child. The degree of support by the non-impaired parent can be moderated somewhat by the severity of the offending parent’s bad behavior. In cases of child physical abuse, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and even in severe cases of parental alienation, the court will give some consideration as to why the non-offending parent is not overwhelmingly supportive of the offending parent – but it always looks and comes off better if at least some effort is made to be supportive of the child’s relationship of the other parent.
Visitation and Time Share Plans
For very young children and infants, the court recognizes the importance (and by Texas State law they have to presume that both parents should share parental responsibilities equally) of both parents bonding with the child. When deciding a time share plan for both parents to follow, the court has a lot of latitude in this area. Now days, the prevailing opinion from most professionals is that both parents should have equal time with the child. A common schedule for babies and young children is two days on and two days off (sometimes one day on and one day off is recommended as well) for each respective parent. I have seen schedules that even accommodate nursing mothers - it is possible as long as the child’s father is willing to accommodate the mother/child schedule. Or, as an alternative, the nursing mother’s breast milk can be saved and given to the child by bottle while the child is in the father’s possession. As the child gets older, it is generally thought that longer periods of time can be spent with each individual parent without disrupting the child’s bonding experience. By the time the child is ready to enter school, it is generally thought that the child should have one primary residence where he can hang his hat and not be bounced around from one household to the next. Unless the two parents can decide a schedule otherwise, such as through mediation, the court will determine the primary residence of the child and the other parent will be granted a “standard visitation” schedule with the child.
A standard visitation schedule for the child usually begins after the child is picked up from school on Friday by the other parent until 6:00 pm Sunday evening. The other parent is also given a day during the week to visit – usually Wednesday or Thursday evenings. There are variations to the Standard Visitation schedule such as a modified Standard Visitation Schedule. A lot of times, unless you specifically ask for a modified Standard Visitation schedule the court will default to the plain Standard Visitation schedule.
A modified Standard Visitation schedule consists of the other parent picking up the child from school on Thursdays and returning the child on Sunday evening. A lot of parents like this schedule because they help with homework and attend school functions, etc. Other parents dislike the schedule, sometimes because it is a long drive to the school for the child, or simply put, the other parent may be so dysfunctional that spending that much time with the child is not in the child’s best interest.
There are a variety of other time share plans but in most cases unless the other parent agrees to it the court will usually default to a standard visitation schedule if the case makes it to final hearing. In Austin Travis County, all family law cases that are scheduled to be on the long docket must go to mediation. At mediation, practically any time share plan can be devised as long as the two parents agree. It is not that uncommon for parents to agree to one week on and one week off and to split the time in the summer as a way to equally share time with the child. Other variations of this schedule is also common including the other parent having the child every other weekend or even 3 weekends out of 4 weekends (4 times a year there is a month with 4 weekends). The possibilities are endless but the only way to usually get these atypical time share plans is for both parents to agree, and this is usually done in mediation, not in court at the final hearing. Although the court has been known to vary from the default Standard Visitation schedule, you really have to press for it and usually show proof that it is in the child’s best interest.
Formal Designation of Parent by Child No Longer Exists
Until recently, a child age 12 y/o (For a short time the age was 10 y/o) or older could designate his choice of which parent he wanted to primarily live with by signing a written statement. The Texas State legislator changed this in 2011 and there is no longer a formal statement that the child can sign. In the past, the judge would have to consider the child’s designation of choice as a piece of evidence but was not bound by it – The judge would consider it like any other piece of evidence. Personally, I am glad to see this change since many times either a parent or an unscrupulous attorney would pressure the child into signing a statement. There were several occasions during my career where I saw a child change his designated parent 3-4 times depending on which parent he wanted to please. Although, there is no formal statement for the child to sign, a motion can be made for the child to talk to the judge in chambers or his wishes can be made clear by a Guardian ad Litem. In Austin Travis County it is extremely rare that a child will actually testify in court – I don’t believe I have ever seen it.
Psychologists, Counselors, and Mental Health Professionals
During highly conflicted cases it is common for psychologists, counselors, and mental health professionals to be used in child custody cases. Instead of the child testifying, a mental health professional can provide vital testimony as a substitute. Sometimes a counselor or mental health professional can be very good at what they do and provide the court with wealth of information that makes sense and is unbiased. Other times, a counselor can be awful, sounding like another soldier in the other parent’s army who only has half the story.
Either party can petition the court to have the child see a court appointed counselor which is preferable than one parent taking the child to a counselor that they picked (That’s when you tend to get the awful counselors who only know half the story and believe that their roles are advocates, not for the child particularly, but for the parent who hired them). This is not always true, but it is not uncommon that this happens. Additionally, the other parent can complain that the counselor is biased because the other parent has never met the counselor.
Sometimes, especially in pre-litigation, a parent may not have a choice but to take the child to a counselor of their choosing. Especially with young children, having a child see a counselor about concerns you may have at the other parent’s house may be the only way you can get at the truth because the child is not articulate enough to explain what is happening. Before taking a child to a counselor of your choosing, always look at your divorce decree to see if you have the independent right to do so and/or if you have to notify the other parent. If you are unsure consult an attorney – preferably your attorney who wrote or signed off on the original divorce decree. Don’t contact the other party’s attorney about this. If you no longer have a relationship with your original attorney then find another attorney with whom you can consult.
We all know in family law, especially judges, that children can be persuaded to say just about anything or they will say things just because they think it is something you want to hear. It is important that you do not take it upon yourself to question the child about events or wrongdoings at the other household. This is extremely important in cases of child physical or sexual abuse.
I once had a well-known Registered Sex Offender Treatment Provider therapist explain it to me like this:
“When child sexual abuse is suspected think of it as a potential crime scene, but this crime scene is a child who walks and talks. If a parent decides to question the child the crime scene becomes contaminated much like if you walked all over a real crime scene while picking things up here and there and leaving your fingerprints all over. The crime scene becomes contaminated and when a professional attempts to analyze the evidence they don’t know what has been disturbed, what has been added, or with regard to the child, what the child really remembers or what the child has been told by someone else.”
I have seen many a case ruined by an overzealous parent who refused to stop questioning their child concerning perceived wrongdoings by the other parent. After a while the child is unable to distinguish what really happened from what he was told by someone else. Some inexperienced therapists also fall into this trap and it is important that you find a therapist that has an expertise in the particular issue at hand and is willing to handle child custody cases. I have found that therapists who work in HMO type clinics are the least desirable – often, they are young and inexperienced, especially in child abuse issues, and they don’t want a thing to do with child custody or divorce cases. The therapists in private practice who specialize in divorce are your better choice. There are several therapists and psychologists in Austin who specialize in this area of expertise. Most of the family law attorneys know them and have had experience with them. I can also give you a short list if you would like to call me.
In order to keep a therapist from hearing just one side of the story and making up their mind accordingly, both parents should do their best to meet the therapist and if possible alternate taking the child to the therapist for appointments. This is the benefit of having a court appointed therapist, especially if you are the parent being left out of the loop.
Either party can have their own counselor, psychologist, or mental health professional come to testify on their behalf. If one parent has had drug and alcohol problems in the past, this can be very effective if the counselor can show that the parent has be clean for a substantial amount of time (instead of taking the parent’s word for it). To be persuasive, the court generally likes for the parent to have been sober at least 6 months up to 2 years – but any little bit helps. Likely, just having a counselor to help with a drug or alcohol problem will show the court that you are making a sincere effort and is certainly better than having no counselor to testify at all. The same goes for mental health problems. The court may find that it is reassuring that a parent’s mental health issues are being addressed and if medications are recommended that the parent is taking medications as recommended.
In addition to a mental health professional taking the role of a counselor with the child, the court may ask that the parents to be evaluated and occasionally the child as well. This is quite a bit different than what a counselor does in counseling since a formal evaluation involves a completely different process. The most common kind of evaluation seen for court purposes is a psychological evaluation.
Private Investigator Austin
Private Investigator Austin
Private Investigator Austin
Private Investigator Austin