I accept occasional pro bono cases from The Children's Law Center. Recently, The Children's Law Center began offering free classes on child abuse and substance abuse in the context of acting as a family court advisor. I took advantage of them because I would get credit with the state bar for my continuing legal education requirements. Naturally, they asked me to accept an appointment as a family court advisor and I agreed.
A family court advisor is a mental health professional or a family law attorney who investigates a family court case and makes an assessment and a recommendation to the judge regarding legal decision making (custody) and parenting time (visitation). The judge makes the actual determination.
The family court advisor will usually interview both parents, interview children that are old enough for an interview, interview anyone else with relevant information (particularly anyone who lives with either parent), visit each parent's home, and review relevant documents, such as court records, school records, day care records, and medical records. After the family court advisor has gathered all necessary information, he or she writes a report analyzing the information in light of the relevant statutes. At the end of the report, the family court advisor should make an assessment and a recommendation to the judge on legal decision making/custody and parenting time/visitation. Sometimes, the advisor avoids making any specific recommendations, which can be very frustrating to the parties, attorneys, and, I expect, the judge.
In my case, I spent about 40 hours gathering information and writing my report. I interviewed both parents and the child. I also visited both parents' homes and reviewed about 900 pages of documents. I made about 15 pages of hand-written notes and wrote a report 18 pages long, single-spaced. In my particular case, neither party had an attorney and, as I watched the trial, it became apparent that neither parent was going to present any detailed information on the most important factual issues because neither parent really knew how to go about presenting evidence. This is when I realized that I had for sure not wasted my time in writing such a detailed report. The only reason why a lot of relevant information got to the judge was because he had the foresight to appoint a family court advisor.
I enjoyed going to court today and answering the judge's questions, especially because the judge seemed to appreciate my efforts. I am also glad that the judge had me testify last. I had began to wonder if I had wasted my time, but after listening to the other evidence I decided that I had spent my time well. I look forward to reading the judge's decision and learning whether he adopted all or most of my recommendations, or whether he adopted my report as the court's findings.