April Whitford, a Certified Adoption Specialist, has been conducting Home Studies for the Department of Social Services (DSS) since 2006, mostly for families in the process of adopting a child. However, these detailed, impartial reports are also helpful in custody-related family court cases. April has experience working with the family court system as well as with families in conflict and crisis. Her expertise and experience is reflected in the quality of her work.
A Custody-Related Home Study (also called a “home inspection”) is pretty much what it sounds like: an evaluation of a child’s place of residence. The study is done to find out what the living conditions are, whether or not they appear suitable and appropriate for a child to live in, and whether or not there are hazards or deficits in the living arrangements that might be detrimental to the child. Home studies may be performed by various parties such as Child Protective Services case workers, CASA’s (Court Appointed Special Advocates) or GAL’s (Guardian ad Litem).
A home study may be requested by either party in a divorce and custody action or it may be ordered by a judge. Some couples may want to ensure that their homes are up to par without entering the court system. A home inspection may also be paid for by your spouse, using a private inspector as an “expert” to go out and check your place out (and obviously, to make it sound as bad as possible). If this is the case, you may need to get your OWN inspector to dispute that report.
Regardless of the cause, fix your home up as much as possible. Take plenty of good, clear pictures of the house and the room(s) for the children, the yard where they play, etc. You may need to show these to the Judge as proof of the general state of your home environment. Remember that access to community services and recreational areas – like parks, etc., are important as well. Be able to tell the Court about all the opportunities there are for the kids in your neighborhood and surrounding areas.
During the home study, different home study evaluators look for different things, but there are some things they all look for:
- Is the home safe? Are there hazards present that go above and beyond the typical things that might be found in any home?
- Hot tubs, pools, spas, and saunas are also hazardous to children. Certain safety requirements may need to be in place if small children are in the family.
- Is the home reasonably clean?
- Have at least one suitable fire extinguisher located on each floor of the home, and have a working smoke detector in every room.
- Make sure all prescription medicines and cough/cold remedies are stored safely out of reach of the children. The same goes for household cleaners, detergents, paints, solvents, etc. These must all be stored in such a way that it is not possible for a child to get a hold of them.
- If you’re a fan of “racy” magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, etc., either get rid of them or store them out of sight. Adult videos should be stored out of sight and in a place where the children cannot access them.
- Is appropriate food for a child available?
- How does the child’s bedroom appear? Clean blankets and sheets on bed; age-appropriate toys in the room; electrical plugs covered or capped off; no locks on the doorknobs; room should be reasonably clean and neat and furnished appropriately.
- A special concern about firearms: Stored responsibly; must be under lock and key; not accessible by children.
- What are the other family members or residents like? A home study worker likes to see a balanced family setting if possible, but as long as the other people in the home don’t pose a threat (real or imagined) to the child it’s not usually a point of contention. A roommate who is on parole, or who has a drug or alcohol problem will generally not be considered a suitable person to have around children.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you have your tax returns and W-2’s for at least the prior year, marriage and divorce decrees, check stubs, past work histories, references, and your family history (when mom married dad, etc. etc.). You’ll need the year and dates for everything…when siblings were born, city and state, etc.). Definitely make copies of all of this for him/her to take with them, DO NOT allow them to take the originals.