It used to be that parties who could not agree on custody and/or parenting time were referred to a custody evaluation where a public employee would conduct a lengthy, in-depth investigation into the disputed issues and make a recommendation to the Court in that regard. Or, parties would pay thousands and thousands of dollars for a private custody evaluator to do the same. Today, with Court budget cuts and a growing belief among the judiciary and other professionals that parents can and should make their own decisions about the fate of their children, Social Early Neutral Evaluation (SENE) has emerged as a highly effective tool for resolving child-related disputes.
SENE is a confidential process by which parents meet with a male and a female evaluator for a period of 3 to 4 hours (and occasionally a second meeting of equal or less time) early on in the case to talk about which custody and parenting time arrangement is in the best interests of their children moving forward. The use of two evaluators eliminates a gender imbalance that may occur if only one evaluator were used. The process is confidential which means that, with few exceptions, any information that is gathered or ideas that are exchanged, cannot be reported to the Court by the evaluators, the parties or opposing counsel in the event that an agreement is not reached. In an effort to minimize conflict, SENE is done early in the divorce process before parties have spent time, money and energy in court and hurled nasty Affidavits at each other in that process. The aim is to have parents hear from experienced professionals what the likely outcome would be if they spent the time, money and energy going through a full custody evaluation, so that they can see the benefit of resolving the case now.
In an SENE session, the evaluators first introduce themselves and discuss the confidentiality of the process and their expectations for the meeting and ask to see pictures of the parent’s children. Then, the Petitioner in the case goes first and explains what they believe is in their children’s best interest relative to the issues of custody and parenting time and why. During that time, the evaluator typically ask questions and the Respondent is expected to take notes and not to interrupt. Then, it is the Respondent’s turn to explain what they believe the best custody and parenting time arrangement is for their children and why. The evaluators typically ask the Respondent not to respond to everything that they heard from the Petitioner but to start from the beginning. And, the Petitioner is expected to refrain from interruption and take notes. Each party is then given an opportunity to respond to the other party. Then, everyone takes a break and the evaluators go back to their offices and talk about their recommendations. When they are ready, everyone reconvenes and listens to the recommendations. Then, another break is taken for the parties to discuss the recommendations with their attorneys and everyone returns to the table to try to resolve the case.
The cost and provider list for SENE varies from county to county. Hennepin County still has a court services department to which SENEs are referred and they are done on a sliding fee scale. The other metro area counties are without court services departments at this time. Instead, they provide a list of qualified evaluators for parents to choose from. Generally, in the other counties, parties pay 1/2 of their attorney’s hourly rate to each of the evaluators. Whatever the cost, it is substantially less than a custody evaluation and any agreed upon solution is much less likely to lead to further future litigation.
Additional information about ENE, including provider lists and fee information can be found at www.mncourts.gov.