In child custody cases, the court may order a home study. A trained social worker goes to the person’s home, evaluates the physical conditions there, and observes the party’s interactions with the child or children. In the past, the Department of Human Services would do home studies in child custody cases. More recently, such home studies have become rarer because the agencies have other priorities and limited resources.
The judges in custody cases have a very difficult job. The decisions they make can have a tremendous impact on the lives of the children who come before them. I can recall one case where the mother’s boyfriend had physically abused her infant child. The judge later return that child to the mother and the boyfriend again injured the child, this time inflicting permanent brain damage. The judge was devastated that his decision had this result. So it is natural that the judges want reassurance that the child or children will be safe where they send them. Home studies are one way to get that reassurance. Although the information was often only marginally helpful to the court, the fact that someone independent had visited the home and checked it out gave the judge some peace of mind. In most cases, however, the investigations found nothing unusual and just established that the homes of the parties met minimum standards.
Now that DHS home studies are rarer, judges have to rely more on the guardian ad litem to report on the conditions in the home. The guardian ad litem is a lawyer that the court appoints to represent the interests of the child or children. They typically make a home visit as part of their investigation. The judges particularly value the input they receive from the guardians ad litem because they are independent of the parties.
One of the disadvantages of being the out-of-state parent in a contested custody case is that the guardian ad litem cannot easily visit your home. Sometimes the guardian ad litem gets flown to the out-of-state party’s home but that will be unusual unless the parties have the resources to pay for it. Instead of a guardian ad litem home visit, the court may require the out-of-state party to have a home study. This can add a significant expense for the out-of-state parent in a custody case.
In my cases, we try to assemble as much evidence as we can including photos of the home and especially video of the client with their child. I sometimes have trouble convincing the client to go to the trouble of making videos But the impact is far better than the best photographs. Video lets the judge see what the parent and child are like together. Good photos and video can convince the judge even without a home study.