The Custody Assessment Team – a local, multifaceted, and sometimes controversial process

For parents involved in custody litigation in La Crosse County, here is an important acronym to be aware of: C.A.T. The Custody Assessment Team is the main process for reaching resolution in disputed custody cases, where parents have not reached an agreement on issues of legal custody (decision-making authority) and physical placement (schedule and conditions of each parent’s time with the children).

The CAT is a special custody evaluation process specific to La Crosse County. Its existence is recognized by La Crosse County Local Rule 908, which provides that

A Custody Assessment Team (CAT) consisting of the guardian ad litem, a child development specialist and a mediation/case evaluator will assess the family and make a recommendation as to a suitable parenting plan within 90 days.

The team will meet with the parents to recommend a parenting plan. If the parents agree with the recommendation it will be incorporated into a marital settlement agreement (MSA) and the matter will proceed to a default hearing. If the parents do not agree with the recommendation, the family court commissioner will impose a plan and the matter will be set for trial.

The CAT will only be appointed after the parties have attempted mediation with the La Crosse Mediation and Family Court Services office, and that mediation has failed to produce a final agreement. There are two Mediator/Case Evaluators in that office, and where one handles the attempted mediation, the other will then serve as the Case Evaluator on the CAT. When mediation has failed, either party may request a hearing (a “CAT pretrial”), typically before the Family Court Commissioner, to initiate the CAT process. The Case Evaluator will appear at the hearing to make introductory remarks and hand out a packet of information for the parties to fill out and return to the CAT. At that hearing, the Guardian ad Litem, an attorney, will be selected, and following the hearing, the Child Development Specialist (a counselor or psychologist) will be selected by the first two team members. These three individuals will comprise the CAT for the remainder of the process.

Another aspect of the CAT decided at the CAT pretrial is the payment of the total CAT fee of $4,400. In most cases this expense will be divided equally between the parties, but the parties are required to bring a financial disclosure statement to the hearing so that the court can make an informed decision on this division of costs, and whether the payment needs to be made up front or according to a payment plan.

The CAT tends to be a longer, more involved, and more intrusive process than the Guardian ad Litem investigations conducted in contested custody cases in other counties in this part of Wisconsin. In fact, in most cases, the process runs longer than the 90-day time frame set forth in Rule 908. Does this result in better outcomes for the parties, or benefit the children involved? The CAT process has supporters and detractors among people who have been through the process, including local family law attorneys. A second blog post on this topic will compare the CAT to the more typical GAL process, and examine some of the pros and cons cited by those who know it.