Custody Evaluations or Parenting Plan Evaluations are now called Social Investigations in the state of Florida. The Florida Courts may enter an order appointing a Social Investigator when there are ongoing disagreements about time-sharing, decision-making, caretaking, or relocation.
Marriage & Family Therapists are authorized to conduct social investigations and parenting plan recommendations pursuant to section 61.20 of the Florida Statutes. Therapists who perform forensic evaluations are qualified to provide the Family Court, the parties, and the parties’ attorneys with impartial and competent recommendations that focus on what is in the best interest of child(ren). We have knowledge, training and experience with issues common in family law cases, and practice in accordance with the highest nationally established standards of professional conduct. In this role, we are not providing treatment for the parties and children; our duty is to uncover information regarding the children’s best interests and report it to the court. As such, nothing the parent(s), child(ren), or collateral sources tell the investigator is confidential or subject to privilege.
Once the evaluation process is complete, the investigator submits a report with recommendations regarding an updated parenting plan. We will specifically address concerns raised by each parent in making recommendations. The time-sharing recommendation is based on factors such as the quality of each parent’s relationship to each child, the relationship between the parents and their ability or willingness to support their children’s ongoing relationships with the other parent, the parenting skills and capacity of each parent, each parent’s psychological health and any drug or alcohol abuse, the children’s psychological health and any evidence of abuse or violence.
- Interviews with each child, parent, step-parent, or adult in a parenting role.
- Contact with relevant professionals, such as teachers, doctors and employers.
- Interviews with objective character references submitted by each parent.
- Visits to the homes of each parent.
- Background checks of relevant police and court records.
- Completion of relevant surveys and questionnaires as requested by the social investigator.
- Presentation of facts to the court offering professional opinions as to parental responsibility, and time-sharing arrangements that are in the best interest of the child(ren).
GUARDIAN AD LITEM
A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a specially-trained advocate who is court-appointed to perform an investigation or evaluation and provide recommendations to the judge as to the best interest of the child(ren). In dissolution of marriage cases or other family law cases involving the creation, approval, or modification of a parenting plan, the court may appoint a GAL if it finds that doing so is in the best interest of the child. Fla. Stat. s61.401. appoints the GAL “to act as next best friend of the child, investigator or evaluator, not as attorney or advocate.”
Additionally, the GAL will be a party to any judicial proceedings from the date of appointment until the date of discharge. This means that the GAL is entitled to be present and to participate in all depositions, hearings, and other proceedings in the action, and, through counsel, may compel the attendance of witnesses.
How is Heather Vann unique as a GAL?
The GAL’s working in dependency courts are trained volunteers from diverse life experiences and professional backgrounds. Conversely, most GAL’s working in domestic relations cases are family law attorneys who are hired in the role of GAL. However, very few GAL’s are trained mental health professionals with specific training and expertise working with couples, families and children. I have spent my entire career working with high-conflict, legal-involved families in family therapy and have been qualified as an expert witness. My clinical expertise working with high conflict family systems combined with experience navigating the family law arena makes me uniquely qualified to be a compassionate and effective GAL.
Role of the GAL:
- Meet and interview both parents, any step-parents, or other adults in a parenting role
- Directly interview children and any other relevant individuals such as teachers, medical and mental health providers
- Request the court to order parents, child(ren), or any other parties to undergo expert examinations by doctors or other healthcare providers, including mental health professionals
- Obtain unbiased expert examinations
- Provide oral and/or written recommendations to the court
Common Questions & CONcerns
How long does the process take?
Most Social Investigations take 90-120 days from first contact with the investigator although more complex situations may take longer. Much of the timing depends on how quickly appointments can be made with each party as well as the amount of records that must be reviewed.
GALs may stay on the case for extended periods of time until they are discharged by the court.
What does it cost?
Social Investigations are billed much like how your attorney bills you. We start with a $5,000 retainer (split according to the language of the court order) that is billed at $200/hour. Occasionally we take cases at reduced retainers based on need and current caseload.
Credit cards are accepted for all fees and can be billed to your card on file. I do not accept cash or checks.
How do I get started?
Forensic evaluations must be court ordered. You can speak with your attorney about recommending a Social Investigation or Guadian ad Litem.
You or your attorney can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information regarding current availability to take new cases, court order language, and instructions for serving court-related documents to ensure proper receipt.
Do I need a Social Investigation or GAL?
Good question! We always recommend speaking with your attorney about which process may be best for your specific case.
In general, you can consider that the Social Investigation is to evaluate custody (in Florida- that means time-sharing and parental decision-making) and ends in a formal report making recommendations to the Court. The investigator is not a party to the case and is a hired expert who may be called into court to testify.
In general, a court ordered GAL is an advocate for the child who participates in the ongoing legal process to navigate overall issues as an impartial party. The GAL makes recommendations to the Court regarding the best interest of the child.
Does the Social Investigator or GAL "make decisions"?
While the investigator or GAL does make recommendations to the Court, the judge is the ultimate decision-maker.