What is a “Custody Neutral Assessment” (CNA)?

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By John Jones, Esq.

The Rules Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey deal specifically with “Custody of Children.” (R. 5:8-1) Once the court identifies a “genuine and substantial” issue of custody or parenting time in a matter, the court must refer the parties to mediation, which cannot last longer than two months, unless extended by the court. The parties can agree to participate in custody evaluations with an expert but they cannot be required to do so. If the mediation fails to resolve the custody issues, the court can order an investigation by the Family Division of the “character and fitness” of the parties, the economic condition of the family, the parties’ respective homes and similar factors. If the parties cannot agree on custody or parenting time, each must submit to the court a Custody and Parenting Time/Visitation Plan. The court must consider the submitted plans when it makes its decision on the issues.

The CNA process is not specifically governed by or mentioned in the Rules of Court. The CNA process had its genesis in the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mind-set in the Family Court. It is not a statewide program and is not uniform where it is being used. CNAs have been used in Burlington and Ocean Counties for quite some time. At the time this article is written, they may have been implemented in Mercer and Middlesex Counties as well.

In Burlington County the CNA program is described as follows:

The Custody Neutral Assessment Program (CNA) is available
for high conflict cases that are inappropriate for, or are unable
to be resolved, through mediation. This program utilizes several
mental health practitioners in the community who meet with the
parties, discuss contested issues and make clinical recommendations
to the court on how to resolve disputed issues.

It is important to understand that a CNA does not involve psychological testing or evaluation. After one or more meetings with the litigants, it is simply the mental health professionals’ recitation of his/her concerns and those of the litigants – a “snapshot.” The professional is not supposed to make a custodial or parenting time recommendation; rather the professional advises the court of what other steps might be considered. For instance, a risk assessment or full-blown psychological evaluation, the appointment of a parenting coordinator, anger management and so forth.

The initial fee in Burlington County at the time this article is written is $1,000 (September 2011). That fee may be paid equally by the litigants and provides for about four hours of the professional’s time. Of course, if one of the parties requires the expert to attend court, there are additional fees for the expert. Theses fess range between $500 and $700 for one-half day in court.