Social Investigations in Florida Child Custody Cases

Social investigations, formerly called custody evaluations, assess each parent's ability to meet their children's best interests.

Social investigators make recommendations about parental responsibility and time-sharing to judges, who then decide final judgments.

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Common reasons for social investigations

When one parent calls the other's parenting into question, the court often orders an investigation so the judge has accurate, unbiased information.

Cases involving special circumstances like domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, long-distance relocation or a child with special needs are likely to require social investigations.

A parent or guardian ad litem can request an investigation, and a mediator can recommend one, but the judge ultimately decides whether to order it.

Selecting and paying an investigator

In most counties, social investigations are conducted by forensic psychologists. Social workers, family therapists and qualified staff from child-placement agencies also conduct investigations.

The judge decides if parents will hire a private investigator or one provided by the court (the cheaper option). The judge also specifies how parents will split the investigator's fee. Parents must pay before the investigator begins, usually within 15 days of the court ordering an investigation. Parents who have an income-based fee waiver don't have to pay.

Court-provided investigators are assigned automatically and cost $650 to $1,200, depending on the county.

For private investigations, parents agree on an investigator, whom the court must approve. When parents can't agree, the judge appoints one. Private investigators generally charge between $2,000 and $15,000.

In high-conflict cases, parents commonly hire additional investigators to review or challenge findings. In these cases, each parent can spend more than $50,000 on social investigations alone.

What happens in a social investigation

The judge gives the investigator a deadline, usually 45 to 120 days out (though the investigator can ask for an extension).

The judge might request a particular focus, but investigators can inquire about anything relevant to the children's welfare.

The investigator will evaluate the parents and children in the case using tools like:

  • Psychological assessments
  • Scheduled and surprise home visits (also called home studies)
  • Interviews
  • Observations of parent–child interactions
  • Reviews of social media activity
  • Academic, medical and criminal record checks

In addition, the investigator might interview:

  • Other children in each parent's home
  • Stepparents, grandparents and other adults in parenting roles
  • Child care providers
  • Doctors and therapists
  • Teachers and school counselors
  • Parents' employers and coworkers
  • Character references suggested by parents

Special circumstances

Investigators can recommend that the judge order drug testing, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling and other interventions to protect children's welfare. They must always report child abuse.

When any of these issues arise, the investigator requests a status conference with the judge and the parents. Investigators also request a status conference when parents need clarification on the process or do not comply with the investigation.

At this conference, scheduled for as soon as possible, the investigator explains their concerns and parents can ask questions. The judge may issue further instructions, including any necessary protections for the children.

Report and recommendations

To close the process, the investigator writes a report for the judge that includes recommendations for parenting responsibility and parenting time. The report can only be accessed by people involved in the case.

The report compiles the information from the investigation and assesses each parent's:

  • Mental health
  • Ability to co-parent
  • Relationships with the children
  • Ability to support the children's needs (physical, emotional, academic, social, etc.)
  • Strengths and weaknesses as a parent

In addition, the report assesses the children's mental health and may include their time-sharing preferences.

The investigator also makes recommendations for the parenting plan and time-sharing arrangement. They may recommend parenting coordination or counseling. The report does not include recommendations for child support or other financial issues.

Social investigation reports in Florida are unusually lengthy; it's common for a report to be more than 150 pages.

The investigator must submit their report to the court and to parents at least 30 days before the hearing it will be reviewed at.

Parents who object to a report can question the investigator during trial. They can also hire other professionals to review the report and serve as expert witnesses.

Tips for parents going through a social investigation

  • Prepare with an attorney or legal professional.
  • Take all interactions with the investigator seriously.
  • Be courteous in phone calls, meetings and emails.
  • Be on time for all meetings, interviews and home visits.
  • Comply with the investigator's requests promptly.
  • Always show that your children are a top priority in your life.
  • Be honest.
  • Recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a parent.
  • Try not to speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Don't tell your children what to say to the investigator.
  • Understand that the investigation is not meant to interrogate or punish you but to determine what's best for your children.

Staying organized

Social investigations add complexity and stress to an already difficult process. Staying organized is essential.

Throughout your case, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft parenting-time schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place.

With a parenting plan template, customizable time-sharing calendars, a parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to parental responsibility in Florida.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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