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Emergency Screenings

As discussed in our prior articles available for review on our website, Santa Clara County has a defined process for addressing issues related to custody and visitation in both Divorce and Parentage cases. Sometimes, but not always, that process can involve a referral to an emergency screening. The purpose of this article is to help shed some light on what parents can expect if they are referred to an emergency screening.

An emergency screening is essentially an investigation by the Court that is ordered only in circumstances where the Court is presented with an emergency that suggests the minor child’s health, safety or welfare is at risk. For example, one parent might make allegations at a hearing that the other parent is using illicit drugs while caring for the child or driving under the influence while transporting the child. If the parent against whom the allegations are made denies these claims, the Court may find that the only way to ensure that the child is truly safe is to refer the parties to an emergency screening with Family Court Services. While in Court, the parties will be given a date upon which they are to return to Court and report to Family Court Services first thing in the morning to commence the emergency screening. The child will have to be present and brought to Family Court Services for the screening. However, the parents will be instructed to be sure to have a third party available to watch the child while the parents are being interviewed and to ensure the child is available to be interviewed and/or to be observed with his/her parents when Family Court Services is ready to do so.

The screening itself is a long process usually requiring the parties to be at the courthouse for the entire day. During the emergency screening, the screener will start by meeting with the attorneys who represent the parents so that they may brief the screener on what the issues are for the screening and provide any collateral contact lists or documents they believe are helpful to the screener. The collateral contact list provides the screener with names of people who the parents feel would be useful for the screener to speak with when conducting the investigation. This can include teachers, family friends, significant others, doctors, etc. Both parents will need to sign releases allowing the screener to contact any mental health professionals. Further, parents should be aware that the screener will do complete background checks on both parents as well as any significant others who reside with the parents and the minor child.

Once the attorneys finish the initial briefing, the screener will begin the investigation. Aside from contacting individuals such as those mentioned above, the screener will interview both parents separately as well as observe the child with both parents. Due to the extensive nature of the investigation, parents should be prepared to have substantial periods of time when they are simply waiting at the courthouse. Once the screener completes their investigation, they will meet again with the attorneys to go over their recommendations and findings. The parties and their attorneys will then have the opportunity to discuss the recommendations made to the Court and determine whether they wish to object, or in the alternative, agree and stipulate to the temporary recommended orders.

If either parent has any objections, a hearing will be held that day with the judge, both parents, their attorneys and the screener. The hearing will give the opportunity for the parents and the judge to ask any questions of the screener regarding how he/she came to their recommendations. Usually, it is the parent who is dissatisfied with the recommendations who will have the most questions as they want to try and “poke holes” in the investigation so as to try and convince the Court that those recommendations are not in the best interest of the child. Once the hearing is complete, the judge will make a ruling as to whether to adopt the recommendations of the screener or make alternative temporary orders in the best interest of the child. Usually, once orders are made, the Court will set a review hearing to come back at a future date to determine how things are going and whether any additional orders should be made.

Here are Mello & Pickering, LLP, with our combined 35 years of experience in family law, we have assisted many clients through the emergency screening process. We are familiar with the ins and outs of an emergency screening and our attorneys are well-equipped to ensure the best possible outcome for you and your family. Call our office (408) 288-7800 for your free 20-minute phone consultation.

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