Cincinnati Family Law & Divorce Blog: Contested Custody Cases in Hamilton County, Ohio
Many of our clients find themselves confused about the path their case might take through court if they are unable to decide upon the custody arrangements for their children via a negotiated agreement. This blog post will explain the process for a contested custody case in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court.
In Hamilton County, the first court date is called the Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC) and typically takes place before a judge, rather than a magistrate. Both the parties and their attorneys attend the ICMC. At this time, the judge will learn basic facts about your case to determine what options might be best to help move the case toward resolution. Almost all cases are sent to the Court’s mediation department as the first step following the ICMC. Typically, the parties will attend mediation without their attorneys. Mediation is provided by the Court at no cost.
If mediation is unsuccessful, the court will schedule a conference for the parties’ attorneys and the judge to discuss the status of the case following mediation. At that time, the judge may order the parties to attend Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE). ENE takes place at the courthouse. The parties and their attorneys are assigned a magistrate and social worker to guide them through this confidential dispute-resolution process. This magistrate and social worker will never be assigned to your case for any other reason. Each party submits a detailed brief to the magistrate/social worker team in advance of the session. At the session, each party has the opportunity to speak for ten minutes to tell the magistrate and social worker his or her side of the story and why he or she believes her position is the correct one. The magistrate and social worker then provide feedback to the parties as to what they believe the likely outcome of the case would be if it were decided by the judge. The parties stay at the courthouse after the ENE session to attempt to reach an agreement based on the feedback of the social worker and magistrate.
If the ENE is unsuccessful, the court will order a full parenting investigation to be conducted by a social worker (not the same one from the ENE session). This investigation is extensive, and takes a few months to complete. The social worker will meet with each party multiple times as well as meet with the parties’ children and talk to their teachers, coaches, medical providers, etc. At the conclusion of the investigation, the social worker issues a detailed report making recommendations for the resolution of the custody dispute. Many parties attempt to settle their cases prior to the start of the investigation so they can keep their children out of the court process. If they do go through with the investigation, many cases will settle upon receiving the investigation report. Because the social workers who conduct the parenting investigations are employed by the court, their opinions are heavily weighted in custody trials. The parent attempting to refute a custody investigation recommendation faces an uphill battle. A parenting investigation must be conducted in every custody case before a trial will be scheduled.
In some cases, a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) will be appointed. The GAL is an attorney appointed to advocate for the best interests of the children. The GAL conducts a similar investigation as the social worker in the custody investigation, and also issues a report with recommendations. The GAL may also take on an expanded role in helping to facilitate better communication between parties and/or assisting with settlement negotiations. A GAL is a great way for the court to hear about the case from the child’s perspective.
Many clients wonder why there are so many steps before the Court will make a decision about custody. The Court seeks to avoid making custody decisions due to their opinion that these important matters should be left to the parents themselves to decide whenever possible. If all of these avenues do not lead to resolution of the case, the court will hold a trial. The trial could be scheduled as long as 9 months or up to 12 or more months after the case is initially filed. There is significant preparation and expense involved in going to trial. The results of mediation and/or ENE cannot be introduced at trial, and nor can any statements the parties made during mediation or ENE be used at trial. The opposite is true for the parenting investigation and GAL reports, which will both be utilized at trial, along with all evidence reviewed and interviews conducted by the GAL and investigator. Each party may bring witnesses to testify on his or her behalf and the judge may want to speak with the children in chambers. Following the trial, the judge will issue a decision. Decisions are not made from the bench and can take a few weeks or up to a few months to receive from the court after the trial date.