William G. Austin, Ph.D. ACCS dba

Austin Child Custody Services dba

(303) 670-6767 voice   (303) 217-8990 fax
Office: 710 Kipling, Ste. 306, Lakewood, CO 80215
William G. Austin, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
P.O. Box 3939
Evergreen, CO 80437
Email: wgaustinphd2@yahoo.com
Home · Attorney Services · Relocation & Child Custody Evaluation · Domestic Violence · Parental Gatekeeping and Alienation

Evaluation Services · Forensic Methodology · Curriculum Vitae · Work Product Review Service · Brief-Focused PRE

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BRIEF-FOCUSED PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY EVALUATION:

(B-F PRE)

Forensic Service Offered by Dr. Bill Austin

William G. Austin, Ph.D. is now offering the forensic service of a brief-focused child custody, or parental responsibility evaluation (B-F PRE) that is to be conducted as a court-appointed expert under the Colorado statute C.R.S. §14-10-127. Parenting, parental responsibility, or child custody evaluations are needed when parents cannot agree on a permanent parenting plan concerning a parenting time schedule and/or how to share decision making. The parenting plan eventually is implemented as the court’s order along with the divorce decree. This plan provides the structure and guidelines on how the parents are supposed to share time and involvement with the children. With all parenting evaluations in Colorado the evaluator is appointed by the court to conduct an objective, neutral evaluation. The evaluator is the court’s expert. Neither of the parents or the child is the evaluator’s “client” no matter who is responsible for paying the evaluator’s fee for services rendered. Parents usually will attempt mediation or another very brief intervention if they are stalled in their attempts to work out a voluntary settlement.

Dr. Austin does not offer services in Colorado of conducting a Child and Family Investigation (CFI) for courts and families.

The B-F PRE generally will cost $5000. The forensic procedures and data gathering will consist of one 3-4 hour interview with each parent with follow-up telephone interviewing; a limited number of collateral interviews; collateral questionnaires; a parent questionnaire; and a limited review of records/documents. Psychological testing will not be conducted. The B-F PRE is most appropriate when there are not complex issues involved such as domestic violence or relocation, and the parties cannot afford a Comprehensive PRE (C-PRE). The B-F PRE is best fitted to cases involving a focused issue such as the best parenting time plan, an issue of overnights, etc., but most disputes that  require an evaluator do not just involve one or two focused issues. When there are complex issues and the parties cannot afford the cost of a C-PRE, then a B-F PRE may be conducted, but ultimate issue opinions will not be offered because of limited procedures and data collected. For example, for a relocation case or one involving allegations of intimate partner violence the evaluator would not have conducted sufficient investigation in order to have an opinion on relocation or the credibility of allegations of domestic violence and implications for parenting.  For the complex case, the court will be provided with a description of the data; a case analysis of the main issues including a summary of the relevant research; and data that support the alternative hypotheses on the main issues. This should be helpful to the court. With opinions deferred on complex issues, the evaluator in a B-F can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of parenting plan options depending on the court’s findings on the complex issues, such as the credibility of DV allegations. Ideally, when parents cannot resolve their parenting issues, then a comprehensive evaluation should be conducted. Few parents in an entrenched dispute can afford a thorough evaluation. Authorities agree that only experienced and highly trained custody evaluators should conduct a B-F PRE.

Dr. Austin now offers a flat fee billing for the C-PRE of $12,000 and in some cases, for $8500, when there are financial limitations. There is a screening for the extraordinary complex case. Such cases are not appropriate for a flat fee schedule and are billed at $300 per hour.

Dr. Austin is an experienced child custody evaluator and consultant. He has conducted custodial-parenting evaluations for 28 years. He has educated evaluators, attorneys, and judges on issues and techniques for child custody evaluations by conducting over 50 workshops for state and national organizations. He often provides the forensic service of reviewing the quality of custodial evaluations conducted by other professionals and provides expert testimony if there are deficiencies in the evaluation.

Dr. Austin was the co-chair of the project that created the Model Standards for Child Custody Evaluation Practice for the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2006). He has authored numerous articles and book chapters on forensic procedures and approaches to complex issues in child custody & parenting evaluations. He has particular specialties in disputes that involve the issues of relocation or allegations of family violence. He is a member of the current  task force of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts on creating guidelines for child custody evaluations that concern allegations of domestic or intimate partner violence.

What is a B-F PRE?

The B-F PRE is designed to be an efficient, cost-effective approach for adequately and accurately addressing the issues for the court and parents. The B-F PRE provides a needed forensic service for the court to receive timely and accurate expert opinions on the issues in dispute. It is designed to fill the need of economically challenged parents for an impartial assessment of the issues as a step towards achieving dispute resolution and creation of a sound parenting plan that will be in the best interests of the children, practical in light of the parents’ lives, and allow for constructive co-parenting.

The B-F PRE is designed to be completed within 30 days after receiving court’s order of appointment and a retainer for the forensic services. The report will be short and to the point on the issues and recommendations for the court. It will be settlement-focused after the issues are investigated and all of the data collected. A telephone conference will be conducted with the parents to provide feedback on the main findings of the evaluation and explore options for possible settlement. Results of the conference, points of agreement & disagreement, will be described in the report for parents and attorneys to use in attempting to reach agreement on a parenting plan and settle the case. There is settlement-encouragement based on the points of agreement and the options the court is likely to consider in light of the facts and conclusions of the evaluator. The B-F PRE does not include mediation or even settlement facilitation. It is known that custody evaluations and the release of the report result in a high rate of settlement. The philosophy of the B-F PRE is that due to the focused and non-complex nature of most of the cases there should be more impetus towards settlement from the feedback and by identifying points of agreement. If the B-F PRE has the effect of resulting in settlement, then there will considerable savings of money to the parents and less pressure on the court docket and staff. If the B-F PRE is used for a complex issue case, then the communication of the data and case analysis may also serve to facilitate settlement.

The B-F PRE approach and work product (report) will be consistent with the controlling statute and professional guidelines for parenting evaluations. It is a scientifically-grounded approach in terms of procedures used and reliance upon the research literature on children and families. It is also recognized that there is an “art” component to every evaluation to understanding the needs of the particular children and parents as they start to move on with life following separation and divorce.

Dr. Austin attempts to be mindful of how intrusive the legal process and custody evaluations are for families, and how emotionally draining it can be. He is mindful of how the process can stir-up and exacerbate conflict between the parents. An attempt is made to get the parents to see the evaluation as a problem solving tool in resolving the dispute. The evaluation is an opportunity for the parents and children to be heard on their views and opinions on the issues and their needs for the future. Recommendations always address the issue of how the parents can achieve a proactive or at least cooperative co-parenting relationship for the benefit of the children.

Reality of Cost and Affordability

The B-F PRE addresses head-on the important issue of how and whether divorcing parents who are involved in a legal dispute over parenting can afford to obtain an expert custodial evaluation when their funds are limited. Legal and mental health professionals involved in custody litigation often tiptoe around the issue of cost, but it is always one of the main determining factors on whether parents seek a PRE. Dr. Austin’s position is that many parents can find a way to afford a B-F PRE, but the reality is that most parents cannot afford the cost of a Comprehensive PRE.

 A Comprehensive PRE (C-PRE) can be very expensive because it is thorough and time-intensive. Reports range from 30 to 100 pages. Parents may be facing attorney fees for litigation well in excess of $10K so parents may face the difficult choice to hire or keep an attorney, or to pay for a custody/PRE evaluation. Due to the high cost of attorney fees, a high percentage of parents involved in a legal parenting dispute choose the option of self-representation, or to be a pro se litigant. A decision also faces the parents on the type of custodial evaluation that is needed, the cost, and the qualifications of the evaluator. In Colorado, the parents actually have to decide if they want a licensed mental health professional, usually a psychologist, to conduct a PRE versus the option of choosing a lawyer, non-licensed mental health professional, or even a layperson with limited training to conduct a Child & Family Investigation (which would cost a maximum of $2K). This would be conducted under the Colorado statute C.R.S. §14-10-116.5. This choice between a PRE and CFI concerns cost, but also quality since most PREs are conducted by licensed psychologists.

The B-F PRE, like all custodial evaluations, will result in the evaluator having expert opinions and making recommendations to the court about the appropriate parenting plan. While the approach is brief, the opinions need to be based on the necessary and sufficient information in order to draw accurate conclusions. The PRE-BF needs to be well designed and conducted in order to be helpful to the court and the family. Authorities agree that the BF-PRE is a viable approach only if it is conducted by the most experienced and highly trained evaluators.

Brief-Focused versus Comprehensive PRE versus CFI?

About 90% of divorcing parents figure out how to resolve any differences or conflict about how to share their parental responsibilities with the children. When divorcing parents are unable to resolve their dispute, either through their own discussions or mediation, then the court may order that a licensed psychologist should conduct a “forensic mental health evaluation,” or a FMHE. In Colorado the FMHE for parenting disputes is called a Parental Responsibility Evaluation (PRE). It is a different term for what is usually called a child custody evaluation in other states. The PRE is always conducted under the authority of a court appointment under the statute C.R.S. §14-10-127. Sometimes the court will appoint someone to conduct a Child and Family Investigation (CFI) under C.R.S. §14-10-116.5 to assist in resolving a parenting dispute. The CFI rarely would be conducted by a psychologist. It is not a FMHE when it is conducted by a lawyer or individuals who is not licensed mental health professionals, which often the case. It is supposed to be a factual investigation of the issues and the opinions of the CFI would not be based on the science of psychology when the CFI is not a licensed mental health professional.

The B-F PRE is contrasted with a C-PRE in terms of the amount of information collected by the evaluator, length of time to complete the evaluation, cost, and length of report for the court. With the B-F PRE there are a shorter number and less time involved in interviewing the parents, children, and third parties; and psychological testing usually would not be involved. The B-F PRE evaluator reviews fewer documents and records; the report is shorter (10-15 pages); report is completed within 30 days versus 3 to 6 months for a C-PRE, or longer; and a much lower cost is charged ($5K vs. $10K-$20K). Dr. Austin generally completes a C-CCE within 60 days of the appointment and receiving a retainer.  It is designed to be a streamlined version of the comprehensive evaluation, but to collect the necessary and sufficient information to answer the questions for the court. It is very difficult to efficiently conduct a brief, focused evaluation so that the questions for the court can be accurately answered based on this approach.

When is a B-F PRE Appropriate?

The B-F is an appropriate alternative to the C-PRE when there are focal, specific issues or just on the general issues at the time of divorce (parenting time schedule, overnights for very young children, decision making). It is best suited when there is a specific issue, but realistically few cases have only one or two focal issues when they reach the point of litigation. The B-F PRE is generally not appropriate when the dispute involves complex issues such as allegations of domestic violence/intimate partner violence, relocation, child abuse, allegations of alienation of the child by a parent, substantial mental illness with a parent, or allegations of chronic substance abuse. A CFI evaluation also would not be appropriate when these types of issues are involved.  and the investigator often would not be qualified to address these types of issues.

Professional Guidelines for Brief-Focused custody evaluations caution against letting the cost/economics dictate the approach to an evaluation (Guides for Brief Focused Assessment, Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 2009), but the economic realities for divorcing and disputing parents must be considered. The alternative to a B-F PRE for many parents is to either have no expert evaluation for the court or to use a CFI that may be conducted by an attorney, retired school teacher or anyone who receives 40 hours of training, or parents my just need to let the court hear the evidence and make a decision. The benefits from a custodial evaluation is that court and parents should receive objective input and expert opinion from a highly qualified mental health professional, usually a psychologist. Evaluations help facilitate settlement.

There exists a double-bind when the parents cannot afford a C-PRE, but the issues are complex such as relocation of domestic violence.  If the B–F PRE cannot be used (by a highly qualified evaluator) when there are complex issues, then the issue may be that no evaluation is conducted or it would have to be a pro bono service.  It would seem that the resolution of this “Catch-22” is for a B-F PRE to be conducted with an understanding (that is spelled out in the evaluation service agreement) that the evaluator will only do a screening assessment on the complex issues by collecting the basic data and providing a preliminary analysis for the court and the parties. Opinions and recommendations would not be provided on the complex issue and the implications for the ultimate issues of a parenting time schedule and decision making. However, the B-F would present a case analysis of the issues and relevant research and discuss data that support alternative hypotheses on the main issues such as relocation. The evaluator in the B-F report would identify the points of agreement and disagreement on the complex issues just as he would on other issues. The complex issue then would need to be resolved through mediation or a court hearing, but the mediator and judge would be better informed about the issues in question. It is often the case in a C-PRE that allegations about such issues as partner violence or alienation cannot be corroborated or resolved by the evaluator, but the existing data and some analysis can be presented to the court. The B-F report always would point out the limitations to the evaluation and opinions.

B-F PRE Procedures and Protocol

The forensic procedures for the B-F PRE are the following:

·         3-4 hour interview with each parent supplemented by follow-up telephone interviewing as needed;

·         Interview of step-parents and/or significant others;

·         Observation of parents and children in the evaluator’s office;

·         Interview of the children if old enough;

·         3 third party or collateral interviews from individuals familiar with the parenting and children;

·         Collateral questionnaires completed by 5 additional individuals who can describe the parenting and parent-child relationships;

·         Review of up to 20 pages of records or documents;

·         Telephone feedback conference to identify points of agreement and disagreement on keys issues which may prove useful for settlement purposes.

The B-F PRE does not include psychological testing. A screening instrument for domestic violence is included. An instrument for an objective measure of the co-parenting relationship is used. A home visit is usually not included. The evaluator always has the option of conducting additional interviews, requesting more documentation, making a home visit, or even conducting psychological testing, but these would be the exception and involve additional fees for the services.

Screening for Complex Issues

 When attorneys or pro se parties inquire about a B-F PRE there will be a screening for complex issues. The screening form that is part of the B-F PRE Statement of Understanding should be completed. If there is a complex issue such as relocation or domestic violence, then a C-PRE would be recommended. If a B-F PRE is requested due to financial constraints, then the limitations will be discussed, agreed to, and identified in the Statement of Understanding. These limitations will need to be part of the order of appointment.

Cost and signing the B-F PRE “Statement of Understanding”

The cost for the B-F PRE is $5000 and the retainer in the full amount must be received before the evaluation can begin. It is understood that $2500 of the retainer is nonrefundable if the evaluation is terminated for some reason. There are additional charges if there is an additional parent figure/significant other ($500) and more than two children ($250 per child). Additional costs will be assigned on an hourly basis of $150 per hour for time required for travel, home visit, or additional collateral interviews. Travel costs sometimes will be waived.

The forensic service agreement, or Statement of Understanding for B-F PRE can be downloaded from Dr. Austin’s website: www.child-custody-services.com or www.AFPS-CO.com [Austin Forensic Psychological Services-Colorado]. Click on the Service Agreements link.
Home · Attorney Services · Relocation & Child Custody Evaluation · Domestic Violence · Parental Gatekeeping and Alienation

Evaluation Services · Forensic Methodology · Curriculum Vitae · Work Product Review Service · Brief-Focused PRE

Service Agreements · Parenting Coordinator/Decision Maker · Peer Consultation Services · Fees for Services

Colleague Case Consultation - Custody Evaluation