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Troubling Admission of Supervised Visitation Reports

 

Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse

by Nat Stern and Karen Oehme, J.d.

Supervised visitation programs provide services to courts in visitation and custody disputes in which a parent alleges physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or other harmful behaviors against a spouse or partner. Hailed as a welcome tool in the judicial management of high-conflict family court cases, these programs are garnering increased attention from legislatures, judges, and lawyers nationwide. The flurry of activity focused on funding and developing these programs,however, has obscured evidentiary questions arising from the visitation reports created at each visit. The widespread misuse of visitation reports, this article argues, threatens to compromise both the interests of abused children and the safety of domestic violence victims, whom supervised visitation was developed to protect.

Part I of this article explores the purposes of supervised visitation programs and the legal community’s call for their development. Part II describes the efforts of legislatures and provider networks to develop standards and guidelines for the administration of supervised visitation services. Part III addresses issues surrounding the use and admissibility of observation reports and other reporting tools routinely kept by supervised visitation programs. Focusing on disputed custody cases with allegations of parental unfitness,3 this section examines the tendency of courts to call for program staff to make explicit evaluations based on visit interaction and the improper use of so-called "objective records." Finally, Part IV proposes a standard limiting the circumstances under which courts may admit program records into evidence in custody proceedings.

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