Vail Daily column: ‘Helpers’ in domestic law
Domestic law, said differently, is family law. It is the law pertaining to home, hearth and, all too often, controversy. In fact, family law is, understandably, where passions often burn the hottest.
Any experienced domestic lawyer will tell you that family law is the arena in which love, hate, vengeance and regret all too frequently collide, at times clouding the reasoning of otherwise reasonable people. Too often children become entangled in the war between their parents and are played as pawns.
Kids and money, practiced counsel will advise, are the two things people most frequently argue over and try to leverage when divorcing. At least where the kids are involved, anyway, help may be available.
There are, in fact, a smorgasbord of “helpers” available to parents and their kids in “high conflict” divorces. The first of these is known as a Child and Family Investigator.
Upon the motion of either party, or on its own initiative, a CFI may be appointed by the court. The CFI is charged with helping to determine the allocation of parental responsibilities that best serves the interests of the minor children of a marriage. The CFI may be an attorney, mental health professional or other person with appropriate training and qualifications acceptable to the Court. The CFI is charged by the court with investigating, reporting and making recommendations as to what parenting arrangements will most fully suit the children’s health, well-being and prosperity. While the desires of the children may be considered, they are not controlling and the CFI must consider all factors which may weigh for or against a particular parenting arrangement.
At times, the children in domestic matters need their own attorney to protect their distinct and separate interests. In such circumstances, the court may appoint a legal representative for the children. Such person must be an attorney in good-standing and must be licensed to practice in the state of Colorado. The children’s legal representative may be charged by the court to protect the interests of the children with respect to matters of custody, support, allocation of parental responsibilities, protection of the children’s property, parenting time or any other issue related to the children that may be identified by the legal representative of the children or the appointing court. The legal representative of the children actively participates in all aspects of the case involving the children and is, in fact and practice, their attorney charged with protecting their particular interests.
Also available to assist the court are Parenting Responsibility Evaluators. Similarly to a CFI, a PRE may be appointed by the court upon the motion of either party or the court. A PRE may be appointed from the probation department, any county or district social services department or may be a licensed mental health professional qualified to perform an evaluation and file a written report concerning the disputed issues relating to the allocation of parental responsibilities for the child. Essentially, the PRE performs testing and evaluation of the parents to determine their relative fitness to serve the children’s interests in the context of the controversies existing between the parents as regards the children. The PRE may consult any person who may have information about the children and the children’s potential parenting arrangements. Upon order of the court, the evaluator may refer the children to other professionals for diagnosis. The evaluator may consult with and obtain information from medical, mental health, educational or other experts who have served the children in the past without obtaining the consent of the parents; but a child’s consent must be obtained if the child has reached the age of 15. Following testing and evaluation, the PRE issues his/her report and makes recommendations regarding the evaluation to the court.
Available to the court and parties, too, are “parenting coordinators.” At any time after entry of an order concerning parenting responsibilities, a parenting coordinator may, on motion of either party or upon the court’s initiative, be appointed. A parenting coordinator is a neutral third party who assists in resolution of disputes between the parties concerning parental responsibilities including, but not limited to, implementation of the court-ordered parenting plan. The parenting coordinator shall be an individual with appropriate training and qualifications and a perspective acceptable to the court. While a parenting coordinator may be agreed upon between the parties, one may, upon sufficient findings by the court, nonetheless be appointed even if one of the parties protests. The parenting coordinator is a facilitator, not a decision-maker, and may only guide the parties toward resolution of their parenting disputes.
Where parental disputes are intractable and a decision-maker is required, one may be appointed by the court but only when both parties have consented. As with a parenting coordinator, a statutory “decision-maker” may be appointed by the court only after the entry of an order concerning parental responsibilities. By agreement between the parties, a decision-maker is invested with the authority to “break ties” between the parties as regards to certain specific areas of dispute. For example, a decision-maker may be invested with authority to determine what school the children shall attend. A decision-maker is restricted, however, to clarifying and/or implementing existing orders, but this can, at times, be broadly interpreted as orders themselves.
In addition to the above avenues of recourse, certain disputes between parties may, at times, be referred to traditional mediators and/or arbiters.
All considered, however, help is available, even in the most contentious of divorces or the parenting disputes that all too often linger following divorce. In the interests of the children, and the parents’ own mental health, it is wise to employ the scheme that is available. Rather than allowing a dispute to fester, resolution is almost always the better course and allows the parents to get on with the more important job of nurturing their children.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.