Availability for New Cases

Laura Cass is accepting a limited number of new Guardian Ad Litem cases with the following requirements:

  • An Order Appointing Guardian Ad Litem must be signed by a judge and filed.
  • The parties should register for Our Family Wizard for all communications which will be monitored by Laura Cass.
  • The parties should attend an in person co-parenting course with Terry Ashcom.
  • The parties must pay the retainer fee in full before Laura Cass will begin her investigation.  The hourly rate is $250.00 with a retainer of $4000.00 (which pay be ordered split between the parties.  More complex cases or cases pending a trial may require an additional retainer fee.

*The next available dates for the initial office appointments for all new cases begins on October 26, 2018.**

Parent to Child Communications

Communication Between the Child and Absent Parent can be a source of conflict among parents.  The guidelines provided below are aimed at alleviating the conflict and promoting healthy relationships with both parents for the best interest of the child:

Up to Age 5 (or older if the child does not have another mode of communication listed below available):  Skype

1. The custodial parent will need to assist the child in communications with the absent parent.  As the child gets older, the custodial parent should allow the child more freedom and privacy in making the call.

2. The best mode of communication is Skype calls with a large desktop monitor.  A close second choice would be a lap top computer.  Occasionally, when Skype is not available, a regular phone call can be substituted.

3.  These calls should be scheduled and should occur about two times per week or by mutual agreement of the parents (and will depend on the time-sharing schedule in place).

4. If the calls do not go well or there is too much conflict between the parents then the benefits of the calls for the child versus the trauma being caused by the conflict will need to be examined.

Ages 4 – 10:  Ipad

1. During these ages, a great mode of communication between the child and the absent parent is an ipad.

2. Ideally, the parents should split the cost of the ipad and present it to the child for a birthday or special occasion as a joint present from both parents.  With the present, the parents should also provide the child with some rules associated with the ipad (this will be age appropriate depending on what age the child is when the ipad is purchased).  If the ipad is jointly purchased it should travel back and forth with the child to the parents’ homes.

3. The rules associated with the ipad should include a mandatory docking time before bed as well as no use of the ipad during meals. The use of games should be limited. The use of apps should be restricted to age appropriate.  The parents should do frequent and random checks of the ipad to ensure appropriate use and not overuse of the device.

4. If the parents do not purchase the ipad jointly, then each parent should have a separate ipad for the child’s use at his or her home.

5. The child should be instructed on how to use Facetime on the ipad and the parents’ contact information as well as close relatives’ contact information should be entered.

6.  For younger ages, the calls may need to be scheduled.  The child should over time be given freedom to call the absent parent and other relatives at his or her discretion and the calls should not be monitored.  In most cases, the child should be able to send and receive calls on his or her own by the age of 6.  The absent parent should never encourage the child of the need to place a call to him or her.  The call should occur naturally as the child desires.  If a child has a tendency to “overcall” the absent parent then the length of the calls may need to be limited.

7. The calls are intended to allow the child freedom to communicate with the absent parent as he or she desires. It should not cause a strain on the relationship or time with the custodial parent.  It the calls result in negative reactions for the child, then the guidelines of the calls will need to be reevaluated to fit the needs of the child.

Ages 11 – 14:  Cell Phone

1. Around 5th or 6th grade, the parents may wish to provide the child with a cell phone. This decision should be made by mutual agreement.

2. As with the ipad, ideally the parents should split the cost of the cell phone and present it to the child for a birthday or special occasion as a joint present from both parents.  With the present, the parents should also provide the child with some mutual rules associated with the cell phone (this will be age appropriate depending on what age the child is when the cell phone is purchased).

3. The cell phone should travel back and forth with the child to the parents’ homes.  The parents should split the costs of the cell phone.  Although the cell phone will most likely be associated with one of the parent’s family plans, both parents should have all passwords needed to access the cell phone and any apps on the cell phone.

4. The rules associated with the cell phone should include a mandatory docking time before bed as well as no use of the cell phone during meals. The use of games should be limited. The use of apps should be restricted to age appropriate.  The parents should do frequent and random checks of the cell phone to ensure appropriate use and not overuse of the device.

5. It is extremely important to restrict the child’s access to social media apps including Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.  The child needs to start by using the phone for regular calls, text messaging and Facetime ONLY with friends and family.  This is much easier for the parents to monitor and ensure appropriate communications with known and trusted individuals.  Overtime, the parents may grant additional access to apps and social media via mutual agreement ONLY.

6. The parents should prepare a contract for cell phone use and have the child sign it.  It is extremely important that the child understands that the same rules apply to both parents’ homes.

7. The child should be able to text, call, or Facetime the absent parent and other relatives as he or she desires subject to re-evaluation if negative results occur or it is otherwise not in the best interest of the child.  There should be not be any required scheduled calls with the absent parent but the custodial parent may need to encourage the child to call the other parent to report any special occurrences/events (such as a report after the first day of school, the other parent’s birthday, etc.).

8. The parents should routinely and randomly check the child cell phones to ensure appropriate use and not overuse.

Ages 15 – 18:  Cell Phone

1. If the child has demonstrated maturity with the use of the cell phone without major rule violations, then the parents can start to allow the child more freedom and privacy in the use of the device.

2. All rules associated with the device should be my mutual agreement.

3. The rules are very much driven by the individual personality and responsibility of the child.

4. There should be no restriction on calls placed to the absent parent and no requirement that the child talk to the absent parent if there is not a desire to do so.  By this point, the child has developed his or her own comfort levels with the relationships with both parents and forced communication with either parent is unlikely to be successful.

Recommendations and Tips For Parents

After serving as Guardian ad litem on hundreds of cases, I have identified several potential problem areas and tips to improve the custody situation for the children as follows:

1. Attend an in-person co-parenting course.

2. Use Our Family Wizard to communicate with the other parent.  See OFW Guidelines on the home page categories section.

3.  Enroll in individual therapy and/or a parenting course if needed.  This will not be used against you in the investigation process.  Anything to improve a parent’s mental health, coping strategies, and parenting is a positive for the child.

4. Do NOT introduce a new significant other to your child until the relationship is a committed, stable and solid one.  Do NOT move in with a significant other or allow a significant other to move in with you and your child(ren) until the relationship is an intended permanent one and the relationship is committed, stable, solid and in the best interest of the child(ren).

5. Be an active parent:  If you were not the more involved parent, take steps to educate yourself about your child.  Navigate your child’s school website; e-mail the teacher; attend meet-the teacher day; attend all school meetings; become involved in field trips and volunteer events at school; help ensure your child finishes and turns in all homework; have structure and routine in the household (consistent with the other parent’s household); attend doctor/dentist appointments (or alternate these appointments with the other parent); contact coaches directly and become knowledgeable about all schedules involving your child.

6. Encourage and respect your child’s time with the other parent:  Put your child’s needs first; do not let the child know that you are sad when he or she is not with you; do not interfere with the child’s time with the other parent by attending routine practices for the child or repeatedly calling or texting the child (or encouraging the child of the need to call or text you).  Also encourage your child that you want him or her to have a positive relationship with the other parent.  This can be done by putting photos of the other parent and child in the child’s room and by not speaking negatively about the other parent to him or her or to others (the child may overhear conversations with others).

7. Allow your child’s belonging to go back and forth between homes:  but also respect the other parent who purchased the items and promptly return them to the originating household.

8. Follow Parent to Child Communication Guidelines:  See  Parent-to Child Communication Guidelines on the home page categories section.

9. Do NOT get your child involved in conflict or court litigation.  Let the GAL explain in an age appropriate manner what is going on in court, as appropriate.

10.  Use and remind yourself of tools learned in the co-parenting course.  There are also videos, books and other resources which may be helpful if you find yourself having difficulties with co-parenting issues.

11. You may not always like the Guardian Ad Litem recommendations but they are being made in the best interest of the child.  Do not assume bias but take the recommendations as a way to reflect on how you can take steps to better improve the situation for your child.  You cannot control the other parent but you can do your part in lessening conflict for your child.

12.  If you find yourself in a parental alienation situation or if your child is affected by the intense parental conflict, you should be aware that the longer this has occurred without intervention may equate with the length of time it takes to improve the situation.  These are the worst cases and often take a lengthy investigation, monitoring and multiple referrals to make improvements for the child.  Eventually, if improvements cannot be made, I often recommend a change in legal and physical custody to the non-offending parent.

OFW Guidelines

Each case is different and may require different communication guidelines. It is important that parents follow any communication provisions that are directed in any Orders of the Court.  I generally recommend the following guidelines for parent’s communications on Our Family Wizard for the majority of my cases:

  1. The parents should use the calendar in Our Family Wizard to post all appointments concerning the minor child within a day of the appointment being made unless it is an emergency.  The parent who posts the appointment on the OFW calendar should also send the other parent a message in OFW regarding the scheduling of the appointment.
  2. The parents should use OFW to communicate concerning all relevant information concerning the minor child, scheduling issues, and financial reimbursements. The parents should document all relevant information concerning the minor child’s behavior and any special issues which arise during his or her timesharing.
  3. The parents should upload to the Myfiles section of OFW, any reports or records that he or she receives concerning the minor child.
  4. The communication should be appropriate and respectful. The communication should consist of factual information regarding the child only.
  5. The parents should keep each other informed of any information that he or she individually or separately receives regarding the minor child.
  6. The parents should check Our Family Wizard at least every 48 hours and provide a response to any reasonable questions posed by the other parent within 24 hours of viewing the message. If there is a time sensitive issue requiring a more immediate viewing and/or response, the parent should notify the other parent via regular e-mail and/or text with a message to check OFW for a time sensitive message.
  7. If available to the parent’s electronic device, he or she should register for an automatic alert when new messages are posted on OFW.
  8. The parents should not authorize or allow anyone else to communicate on OFW on his or her behalf.
  9. If a parent is involved in the minor child being late for school, leaving early or at any point during the school day, or being absent from school, the information concerning the above should be promptly relayed to the other parent on OFW. This also constitutes a “time sensitive” text or e-mail issue.
  10. If the parents are allowed to communicate in other forms of communication aside from OFW then any decisions reached during another form of communication should also be summarized on OFW.  For example, if a decision is reached during an in-person conversation at an exchange of the child or during an event of the child then the agreement should also be summarized and documented on OFW.

Investigation Process

The general procedure for Laura Cass’s investigation in most Guardian Ad Litem cases is as follows:

1.    An Order Appointing Guardian Ad Litem must be signed by a judge and filed. NOTE:  Most attorneys are familiar with GALs and believe that it is a useful and necessary reality of some of the more complex custody cases.  However, there are some attorneys who do not work well with GALs and instead unnecessarily increase the costs and conflict for everyone involved.  In these latter situations, Laura Cass has identified certain firms and individual attorneys who she is not willing to work with.  In these cases, she can and will decline the appointment.

2.   The parties must pay the retainer fee in full before Laura Cass will begin her investigation.  The hourly rate is $250.00 plus gross receipts taxes ($125.00 each parent or as otherwise court ordered to be split).  The initial retainer fee is $4000.00 (which pay be ordered split between the parties ($2000.00 each parent or as otherwise court ordered to be split).  It is preferred that the initial retainer is paid by check or money order so that it can be deposited directly into the IOLTA trust account.  The check can be mailed or dropped off at the office.  If paying by credit card, Laura Cass will need to take the payment directly (the office receptionist will not take credit card information).

3.   Schedule an initial office appointment.  See Availability:  New Cases in the categories section of the home page for possible appointment dates and e-mail or call Laura Cass to schedule.

4.  Prepare for the initial office appointment:  The parties can prepare for the initial office appointment by:

  • Making sure any live in significant other can be present for the office appointment and/or home visit which will be scheduled at a later date.  NOTE: children should NOT be present for this appointment;
  • Fill out the following forms provided in the download tab on the home page and bring them to the initial office appointment:  Initial Questionnaire and Engagement Letter;
  • Begin gathering documents and other evidence for review;
  • Begin gathering collateral contact information and filling out releases (if necessary).  Also in the download tab on the home page.
  • If there is not a court order directing parent-to-parent communication to be on Our Family Wizard (OFW).  Ask the other parent if he or she is willing to mutually agree to use the program.  Once both parents are registered, Laura Cass will then have OFW send an authorization link to the parents via e-mail so that she can monitor the communications and respond and intervene as needed.  NOTE:  please refer to OFW Guidelines on the categories section of the home page for more information on recommended communication.
  • If the parents have not completed a co-parenting course or one has not been court ordered.   Ask the other parent if he or she is willing to mutually agree to complete the program.  Laura Cass recommends Terry Ashcom’s in-person co-parenting course.  Once the course has been completed, the parent should upload the certificate to OFW and e-mail a copy to Laura Cass for her file.

5.    The initial office appointment:  Each parent will schedule a separate appointment with Laura Cass.  This is an free flowing conversation to allow the parent to provide all background information, present concerns, requests and questions to Laura Cass from his or her perspective.  Laura Cass will also ask questions and gather information that she needs depending on the circumstances of the case.  The appointment is scheduled for 90 minutes but may end sooner depending on the complexity of the situation and information that needs to be provided.  Any information that cannot be conveyed in 90 minutes must be provided to Laura Cass in written summary form within 14 days of the appointment.  On a case-by-case basis, Laura Cass, may allow the parents to set up a second office appointment.

6.    Home visits:  In most cases, Laura Cass will set up separate home visits to meet with the children at both parents’ homes.  The purpose of the home visit is to see a brief interaction between the children and everyone else who resides in the home and to meet with the children individually in their home environments.  The home visit is geared towards the comfort level of each individual child.  Laura Cass will not force a child to talk to her and the length of the individual meeting with the child will vary. Sometimes the child is eager to talk and Laura Cass will be able to gather almost everything in the first visit.  Sometimes the first visit is shorter, and the child is more comfortable talking during the second one.  Sometimes, Laura Cass will make a referral to a child therapist with a specialty in custody situations so that the child can be assessed for therapy if the child has difficulty communicating or another need is identified.

7.  Documents and Evidence for Review:  All documents and evidence for Laura Cass to review must be provided within 30 days of the Order Appointing Guardian Ad Litem. If this is not provided at the initial office appointment, it should be mailed or dropped off at Laura Cass’s office.   The office is open Monday thru Friday 8-12 and 1-5.  NOTE:  It is the responsibility of each party to provide this information.  Laura Cass may, but is not obligated, to do her own evidence/document gathering.

8. Collateral Contacts:  The collateral contact list in the download section of the home page should be provided within 30 days of the Order Appointing Guardian Ad Litem.  All necessary releases should also be provided.  NOTE:  Laura Cass will use her discretion in deciding who to contact except that it is mandatory that any therapist for the child be contacted.

9.  Duty to Supplement Information:  The GAL investigation is an ongoing process, the parents have a duty to update and inform Laura Cass of any new information or issues as they arise.  The parents should also provide Laura Cass with any supplemental documents and evidence as needed even if it is past the 30 day deadline.

10.  Report and Recommendations -DRAFT:  In most cases, Laura Cass will provide the parties with a draft report and recommendations.  The parties are then given about 10 days to consult with his or her attorney (if applicable) and provide feedback to Laura Cass, through his or her counsel only (if applicable).  Any other counsel/pro se party must be copies on the feedback.  NOTE;  the report is for counsel and parties only and will not be provided to the Court unless a hearing is required on the GAL Recommendations.

11.  Final Recommendations:  Once final recommendations are filed with the Court, Laura Cass may continue to attempt to assist the parties in reaching a mutual agreement via a Stipulated Order.  Otherwise, a hearing may be set on the adoption of the Recommendations.  NOTE:  A hearing may not be necessary if Laura Cass has binding arbitration authority.  Please refer to the Order Appointing GAL for more specific instructions.  NOTE:  If a hearing is necessary Laura Cass will prepare a final version of the report and offer it is an exhibit at the court hearing.