When Do Courts Order Child Custody Investigations?

If you are facing a child custody dispute – especially one related to temporary orders (such as during the divorce process) – the court may assign an investigator from FCS (Family Court Services) to perform what is known as a child custody investigation. Better understanding what this entails can help you better prepare for what is to come – and can also help put your mind at greater ease.

The Purpose of the Child Custody Investigation

If the court orders a child custody investigation (CCI), the purpose is to obtain a neutral and expedited review of the relevant evidence and facts related to your children’s custody in an effort to help the court make decisions that are in keeping with your children’s best interests (and are consistent with California’s child custody laws). These investigations are often prompted by one parent’s allegations against the other, including:

  • Allegations related to child abuse or neglect
  • Allegations related to substance abuse
  • Allegations of any other issue that could directly affect the children’s health, safety, welfare, or well-being

Child custody investigations are often a function of a contentious divorce in which custody becomes a battleground (sometimes for very solid reasons, sometimes because emotions run too high, and sometimes due to something in the middle of these two extremes). If you are in a situation in which you believe a CCI is in order, an experienced California family lawyer can help, and if you’re in a situation in which your children’s other parent has requested a CCI, an experienced California family lawyer is still the way to go. It’s important to note that CCIs can be opposed by the parent who is being investigated.

Typically, CCIs are less focused on long-term recommendations and are more concerned with immediate – or even urgent – issues. As such, CCIs are generally ordered by the court when there is a pressing need for a snapshot of the custody situation that will allow the court to make an informed decision – usually for temporary orders (such as during the pendency of your divorce).

Do Child Custody Investigations Actually Help?

Ultimately, a CCI is better than a he said/she said type of situation. Having you, your children’s other parent, and your respective child custody attorneys go before the court to argue your positions typically isn’t helpful in moving matters forward. The court is looking for an objective representation of the facts involved, and a CCI can provide that. Ultimately, your CCI can allow the court a fairly comprehensive snapshot that includes all of the following:

  • Interviews with both you and your children’s other parent and any witnesses involved
  • A review of all relevant medical documents
  • Any pertinent photos, videos, texts (or other electronic communications), or anything else that relates to the case at hand

The investigation can include anything that provides the court with a clearer focus regarding your child custody case – before it moves forward with hearing extensive arguments and testimony from both sides. When the court needs to make a swift decision related to temporary custody concerns, CCIs can play a critical role. 

Should You Agree to a Child Custody Investigation?

The question of whether you should agree to a CCI is an important question to which there is no simple answer. Ultimately, the answer depends upon the situation you find yourself in and on what your trusted California family lawyer advises. If the custody concern you face can be resolved by the court reviewing an overview of the situation, a CCI may be the best path forward.

If, on the other hand, your custody concern is more deeply rooted and requires a more in-depth evaluation of the psychology at play, a formal forensic psychological evaluation is likely a much better direction to take. Further, if your children have a preference regarding their custody and are both old enough and mature enough to weigh in, obtaining a minor’s counsel could be a better option.

The Delay Associated with Child Custody Investigations

You and your dedicated family lawyer should carefully consider the delay that obtaining a CCI is likely to cause in your case. Family courts are exceptionally busy, and their backlogs tend to run long – this is not to mention the budgetary concerns related to additional procedures such as CCIs.

If the custody concern should be resolvable with simple testimony from both sides and a reasonable amount of documentary evidence, a CCI is probably not warranted, and you can avoid the attendant delay. If you do need a CCI, however, you’ll need to balance the delay (and the potential risk of waiting) involved against what you stand to gain in terms of protecting your children with a CCI.

Once Complete

Once your CCI has been completed, the investigator involved will submit a report to the court that incorporates all the relevant information compiled during the course of the investigation. The investigator can also provide the court with live testimony of his or her own that relays the substance of the report and the reasoning behind his or her findings. Because this information involves children, it is a private matter, and this means that the live testimony is typically closed for everyone except you and your children’s other parent and your respective family law attorneys.  

If the CCI Is Positive

If the child custody investigation comes back positive, which means that it aligns with your position on the matter, you can agree to the recommendation therein. If your children’s other parent does not agree, the court will likely grant him or her a hearing on the matter.

If the CCI Is Negative

If the child custody investigation comes back negative – and does not agree with your position on the matter – it can be an exceptionally difficult situation, but it’s important to recognize that it is not the end of the matter. The court can’t simply OK the recommendations within the report without carefully reviewing it and making its own determination regarding whether the recommendations therein are in the best interests of your children.

While the judge in your case is likely to give the CCI report – if well-reasoned – considerable weight, it will also factor in the evidence and information – in opposition to the report’s findings – that you have to offer. It is your right to challenge the CCI’s recommendations, and you are well-advised to do so if you believe it’s what’s best for your children.