While people can often approach the division of their marital property as if it were just another business transaction, it is far more difficult to remain detached when it comes to one’s children. That’s why contested custody and parenting time cases are the most difficult cases of all. They are often fraught with contention and can quickly devolve into expensive and emotionally draining mud-slinging contests. In order to avoid this situation, the courts actively encourage and in fact, in some counties require the parties to engage in mediation. There are free mediation programs in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties. If the mediation is conducted through the auspices of the court, the parties will meet with the mediator in a conference room at or near the courthouse. Lawyers and other third parties are usually not permitted to attend the mediation. If the parties are unsuccessful in crafting a mutually agreeable parenting plan in mediation, either or both parties can propose that a custody study or evaluation be done. In Multnomah and Washington County, there are publicly subsidized custody evaluations which are far less expensive than ones done privately by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or psychologist. While the private evaluations are usually more thorough, they are usually far more expensive, too, and typically entail a visit to each party’s home by the evaluator. The going rate for a custody evaluation is anywhere from $2500 to $6000 and up. The custody evaluator interviews the parties, the children, and “collateral sources” such as coaches, teachers, therapists and daycare providers to get an idea of how well each party parents the child(ren). Sometimes there is psychological testing done, if there appear to be some mental health issues with one or both of the parties. The evaluator will issue a report and make a recommendation to the court as to which party should have custody and how much parenting time the other parent should receive. It used to be that an evaluator’s recommendation was almost always followed by the court, but that is not necessarily the case anymore.
In years past, custody was almost always awarded to the mother, as long as she was deemed fit by the court. The idea was that most mothers were the primary caregivers of their children, since many women either did not work or worked fewer hours than their husbands or partners. The courts deemed it vital to maintain this “continuity of care” so as to ensure maximum stability to the child(ren). However, the economic downturn of 2008 resulted in a dramatic shift in the landscape. Men were far more likely to be laid off than women were. Men, now unemployed, started becoming the primary parent for their children, and the courts, recognizing this emerging pattern, began awarding custody to stay at home fathers on a more frequent basis. However, there are many other factors a court will look at to determine which parent should be awarded custody. The court’s overriding concern is to award custody of the child based on the child’s “best interests.”