Of all the issues judges must decide in Arizona divorce and paternity cases, the one they take the most seriously is child custody.   Although with time on the family court bench judges begin to feel more comfortable making child custody decisions, most judges recognize their own limitations.  They know they are not child psychologists or counselors, and they know that such professionals are better-equipped to make child custody determinations than they are.  For this reason, many judges want input from an expert before making that all-important child custody ruling.

A.R.S. Section 25-406(A) allows a judge “in contested legal decision-making and parenting time proceedings . . . [to] order an investigation and report concerning legal decision-making or parenting time arrangements for the child.”  This statute gives a judge broad leeway.  When the parents can afford one, a judge may appoint a psychologist to perform a full custody evaluation, complete with psychological testing, consideration of any and all documents the parents wish to present, and interviews of parents, child(ren), and sometimes many other “collaterals” with relevant knowledge.

In most cases, however, the parents simply cannot afford a full custody study.  In these instances, the judge may order a “parenting conference.”  A parenting conference is an “investigation” under A.R.S. Section 25-406(A) which is much more affordable than a full custody evaluation by a private psychologist.  Doctorate and masters-level therapists approved by the court contract to perform parenting conferences at discounted rates.  Each parent pays only $300, and payments may sometimes be deferred.   There is no psychological testing, and the number of interviews and documents reviewed is limited.  Typically, the parenting conference provider interviews only the parents and the child or children in question.  Children who are very young are not interviewed.  The entire evaluation usually takes only a half-day.

Following the parenting conference, the provider issues a written report.  The report contains the provider/evaluator’s findings as to the relevant child-custody statutory factors.  The report may also make an ultimate recommendation as to child legal decision-making and parenting time.

A parenting conference is not the same as mediation, but the parenting conference provider typically explores with the parties during the conference whether they are able to reach agreements on the child custody issues.  When agreements are not reached, however, a parenting conference provider has much more power than a mediator.   Mediation is confidential.  A parenting conference is not.  In mediation, if the parties participate in good faith but fail to reach agreements, the mediator may only report that the parties participated but did not agree.  In a parenting conference, however, the ultimate object and goal is the reporting–specifically the provider’s findings as to what child custody arrangement would be in the best interests of the child.  If the parties do not agree, the provider reports her “best-interests” and other findings to the court.

A judge is not bound to follow a parenting conference provider’s recommendations.  In fact, it is the judge who must decide these issues in contested cases.  The authority to decide child custody may not be delegated to an expert, such as a child psychologist or a parenting conference provider.  About 90% of the time, however, judges follow parenting conference providers’ recommendations.  Depending on which side of the case you’re on, then, the parenting conference provider’s evaluation and report can either make or break your case.

Arizona child custody statutes now create fairly strong presumptions in favor of joint legal decision-making and equal parenting time.  Because of this, in my experience, the most common recommendation resulting from a parenting conference is for equal decision-making and equal parenting time.  When I represent a client seeking joint decision-making and equal time and the opposing party is objecting, I often seek a parenting conference.  The parenting conference very often yields a recommendation favoring my client–a recommendation for equal decision-making and parenting time–and at a cost of only $300, it is the most cost-effective tool I am aware of to “tip the scales” in my client’s favor.

If you are involved in a child custody dispute and a full child custody evaluation is cost-prohibitive, a parenting conference may be a viable alternative.

Copyright © 2017 by Scoresby Family Law – J. Kyle Scoresby, P.C. All rights reserved.