SOCIAL INVESTIGATIONS

Determination of Parental Fitness

In extreme cases, the need may arise to substantially change the time-sharing of one parent due to allegations that a child may be at risk while in the care of the other parent.  However, in any action where the parenting plan is at issue because the parents are unable to agree, the court may order a social investigation to evaluate all pertinent details relating to the child and each parent. 

What is a social investigation?

A social investigation is a process performed by an impartial mental health professional who is qualified to provide the court, the parties, and the parties' attorneys with information and recommendations regarding the best interests of the child. The investigator compiles all relevant information into a written report for the judge to consider when making decisions in cases involving disputes about shared parental responsibility, decision making, time-sharing, and other family law matters. The social investigator will draft a recommended parenting plan that addresses the parents' decision making authority and specific time-sharing schedules for the court's consideration.

The court has the responsibility and the final authority for all decisions. Any parenting plan agreed to by the parties or recommended by a professional must be approved by the court.

If you find you are experiencing the need for a professional determination to be made to formulate an opinion as to how parents should share parental responsibility and then recommend the best time-sharing arrangement for each parent and the child, you may want to consider having the court appoint a Social Investigation. 

Who is qualified to be a court-appointed social investigator?

Social investigators can be psychologists licensed pursuant to Chapter 490, Florida Statutes, or clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, or mental health counselors licensed pursuant to Chapter 491, Florida Statutes. Investigators are required to have multiple skills, including techniques for interviewing and assessing adults, children and families; conducting home studies and field investigations; identifying, organizing and understanding important collateral sources of information; administering and interpreting standardized questionnaires, surveys and other data collection tools; and report writing.

Investigators are also required to have knowledge, training and experience in the areas of child development, family systems, the effects of divorce on children and families, other issues common to families in crisis (e.g., domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, etc.), and the accepted standards of professional conduct governing their respective professions.

What Can I Expect From the Social Investigation and Parenting Plan Recommendation?

The areas of assessment may include, but are not limited to any or all of the following:

Interviews with

  • Interviews with each child, parent, stepparent, 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).

How Are Decisions Made?

In Florida, the court will make child custody decisions based on what is in the "best interest" of the child if the parents can't come to an agreement. The court will order that parental responsibility be shared by both parents unless the court finds that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child. In that case, the court may order sole parental responsibility as a measure to best protect the child.

The court may give one parent ultimate responsibility over specific aspects of a child's welfare, such as primary residence, education, or medical and dental care. In deciding which parent should have primary residence, the court will consider:

  • Which     parent is more likely to allow the child frequent and continuing contact with the nonresidential parent
  • The love, affection and other emotional ties between the parents and the child
  • Each parent's ability to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care and other material needs
  • The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity
  • The permanence of the existing or proposed custodial home
  • The moral fitness of the parents
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • The home, school and community record of the child
  • The reference of the child, if the child is intelligent, understanding and experienced enough to express a preference
  • Evidence of domestic violence or child abuse

After the custody order is signed by the judge and filed with the court clerk, both parents are bound by it. If a parent is denied court-ordered access to a child, he or she may bring the issue back before the court. The judge may decide to modify the time sharing order, order makeup time sharing for the time missed and order counseling or mediation.

SOCIAL INVESTIGATIONS ARE CONDUCTED BY COURT APPOINTMENT ONLY

*Social Investigations are conducted under the same standards as Child Custody Evaluations and all components under 61.13, should be addressed.  I follow the Standards of Practice:  Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluations, which can be viewed in detail at www.afccnet.org/resources/standards_practice.asp

More information on the qualifications and the role of a Social Investigator can be found at:  https://www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2011/61.20

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