What to Expect – Court Clinic
The Second Judicial Court Clinic in Albuquerque is a group of professional family therapists, counselors, psychologists, and social workers who work for the court. They are called Court Clinicians. Court Clinicians sometimes get involved when there are issues relating to when and for how long the children will be in each parent’s care, both on a regular basis and for vacations and holidays (also known as “timesharing” or “physical custody”). They also are called in when there is a dispute as to whether both parents or only one parent should make important decisions for the children, such as which doctor the children should see, where they should go to church, which school the they should attend, and where they should live (also known as “legal custody”). The Court Clinic’s role is to assist the court in determining what timesharing and legal custody arrangement will be in the child’s best interests. The Court Clinic does not address child support, spousal support, or division of marital property. Court Clinicians do not represent either party and they cannot give you legal advice.
If you were referred to the Court Clinic, it was probably for mediation, an On-Call Consultation, a Priority Consultation, or an Advisory Consultation. Sometimes it can take several months to get an appointment with the Court Clinic, but resolving disputes there can be much less expensive in the end than resolving them through other means.
If a judge or a hearing officer sent you to the Court Clinic, he or she will probably wait to decide custody and timesharing issues until the Court Clinic process is complete. Judges usually adopt the Court Clinician’s recommendations, so it is important to take the process seriously.
When there is a custody dispute, the parties are often referred to mediation. The mediator’s job is to help the parents reach an agreement. At mediation, both parents will have a chance to present what they think timesharing and legal custody should be, so you should write out your schedule and any proposals and bring those to the mediation. Try to think of a way to address holidays, summer vacations, transportation, and exchanges that will be in your children’s best interests. In general, you should not discuss the court clinic process with your children.
At first, the Court Clinician meets with the parties only: lawyers do not attend, and you should not bring your children, new partner, relatives, or anyone else. If you, the other parent, and the mediator agree that the mediator should interview your children, you will schedule a separate time for that meeting. If the mediator does meet with your children, rest assured that he or she is trained to work sensitively with children. Your children will not be asked to choose between parents.
The purpose of mediation is to try to agree on timesharing and legal custody, but you are not required to agree to anything. Everything said or written in the mediation is confidential and cannot be used in court, although the mediator is required by state and federal law to report suspected child abuse or a risk of harm. The mediator will tell the judge whether or not you reached an agreement, and any terms of the agreement. If you do not reach an agreement, then the court will schedule another hearing to determine what next steps are appropriate. If mediation is not successful, the court may order a Priority Consultation, an Advisory Consultation, or a Custody Evaluation. The court may also simply issue a ruling on the timesharing or custody issues.
“On-Call Consultation” refers to when a judge or hearing officer asks the Court Clinic for assistance during a hearing. The judge or hearing officer can ask the Court Clinic to perform a mediation or prepare a report and recommendations, as in an Advisory Consultation or a Priority Consultation. To make matters more confusing, sometimes the court orders a “Scheduled On-Call Consultation,” which is an On-Call Consultation that is set for another day.
Priority Consultation (PC)
Priority Consultations are for when the judge or hearing officer requests a brief assessment of the parties and/or the children in order to learn specific information. Usually, Priority Consultations are conducted within three weeks of the order being entered, so they are generally slower than an On-Call Consultation but faster than an Advisory Consultation (see below).
- Meet with parties
- Observe parties w/ children
- Additional meetings as necessary, including others (collateral sources)
- Written report & recommendations issued by the Priority Consultant
- 11 days to object
- If no objections, adopted by court
Advisory Consultation (AC)
An Advisory Consultation is an evaluation of the current parenting situation and a recommendation of what it should be going forward. The parents pay a fee for the Advisory Consultation that is based on their income and the number of children.
An Advisory Consultation begins with an initial assessment, at which the Court Clinician will meet with the parents separately. The clinician may observe interactions between the parents and the children. After the initial consultation, the clinician may conduct psychological tests or interview other people who may have relevant information, such as relatives. This process can take several months. When the process is finished, the judge will set a hearing for the clinician to present a summary of her findings and her recommendation as to the custody and timesharing arrangement that would be in the children’s best interest.
In making a recommendation, the Court Clinician has several tools in his or her toolbox. The clinician can require that visits be supervised by an organization like APN Family Services or by a friend or relative of the parents. The clinician can recommend classes in parenting or anger management. In some cases, the clinician recommends that the parents submit to random drug testing. Sometimes the Court Clinician recommends long-term plans like ongoing counseling for the children or the parents.
11-706 Custody Evaluation
Sometimes the court appoints a private psychologist outside of the Court Clinic to investigate the custody situation and prepare a report and recommendations. These are sometimes called “Rule 706 Custody Evaluations” in reference to the court rule that gives the judge to order such an evaluation. This is like an Advisory Consultation, except that it is usually more in-depth and expensive.
This article is focused on the Second Judicial Court Clinic, which only gets involved in cases filed in Bernalillo County. However, there are some similar programs in other counties.