WHAT IS A CUSTODY ASSESSMENT TEAM?
If a family law matter is venued in La Crosse County and the parties are unable to reach an agreement either on their own or through mediation regarding legal custody and a physical placement schedule for their minor child(ren), the Court has the ability to appoint a Custody Assessment Team, commonly referred to as a “CAT”. The three person team includes a Guardian ad Litem (GAL), a Child Development Specialist (CDS) and a Child Custody Evaluator (CCE). The CAT will perform an assessment that will be used by the court in helping it make a determination as to a custody and physical placement order that is in the best interests of the children applying the factors set forth in Wisconsin Statutes §767.41(5).
Each member of the CAT has a specific role. The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is an attorney appointed by the court to represent the “best interests” of the children. Although part of the “team”, the Guardian ad Litem acts independently of the two other members of the CAT, just as any other attorney acts independently for his or her client. The Child Development Specialist is a mental health professional trained and experienced in issues regarding children and is typically the team member that will interview the children. The Child Custody Evaluator is also trained on issues such as the impact of divorce on children, domestic violence, and substance abuse and will help manage the scheduling and dissemination of paperwork and other information among the team members.
If a Custody Assessment Team is ordered in your case, both parties will be required to view a video explaining the Custody Assessment Team process. The Court will set a time for a CAT Pre-Trial hearing at which time the Court will determine how the $7,100* CAT fee will be paid for (typically splitting the cost between the parties and setting up a monthly payment plan). Both parties will need to bring a completed Financial Disclosure Statement to this hearing and if a parent did not already file a Parenting Plan within 60 days after mediation failed, the parent will need to file one prior to the CAT pre-trial hearing. The parties will also receive a packet of information at this hearing which will need to be completed and returned to the CAT along with a written autobiography.
The CAT members will conduct several interviews with the parents and may also interview other witnesses that have substantial contacts with the children such as grandparents and/or stepparents. It is often said that there is “no stone unturned” by a Custody Assessment Team as the assessment is quite comprehensive and will include a review of social service records, criminal records, and medical and behavioral health records. Depending on the facts of the case, the CAT may also require one or both parties to undergo psychological testing and/or alcohol or drug assessments. (The cost of the additional testing/assessments is in addition to the underlying CAT fee of $7,100* and is split by the parties.) The CAT may also speak with teachers, guidance counselors, and therapists.
After the assessment is completed, the CAT will hold a “feedback session” with the parties (and their attorneys) to discuss the CAT’s findings and recommendations and will provide the parties with a copy of the written report that will be submitted to the Court. A hearing will be held approximately one week later with the Family Court Commissioner to implement the custody and placement recommendations made by the CAT.
You should consult with an attorney regarding any questions you may have regarding the CAT process and how best to prepare for the same.
*The CAT fee as of 2021 is $7,100.