Running Background Checks in Preperation for Custody Disputes

May 12, 2009 · 4 comments

When a court is deciding what is in the best interest of the child, the criminal records of both parents (or guardians) is taken into account. This will include any adults living with those parents. It is very important to have all of the facts before going to trial or mediation. In many cases, criminal records, police reports, trial dockets, registers of action and reports from calls for service can be examined by anyone and can be a good way to determine what issues may be present within the home.

When putting a case together to bring before a court in an effort to either gain or keep custody, not only does the petitioner have to show cause, and often a change in circumstances, but they should be able to prove these claims with compelling evidence.  The following types of reports will help.

Getting Started

Before you get started you should gather the following information regarding everyone that lives at the other parent’s residence, and anyone living at your residence. You should have:

  • The person’s first and last name. Middle initial is nice.
  • The person’s date of birth
  • The person’s social security number
  • The person’s current address and dates they have lived there
  • The person’s previous address and dates they have lived there

If you do not have access to things like  social security number or date of birth, that is usually okay. It is good to have and can lead to more information later, but don’t let not having it stop you from taking action. If you don’t have a date of birth, make sure that you know approximately how old the person in question is.

There is a document on this website (here is a link to the custody background worksheets) that you can use to organize your information and use when requesting reports. Here is a picture of one that is filled out.

What else should I have to be prepared?

I can tell you from personal experience that you should bring cash with you anytime you are requesting public records. I usually take about $60.00 in small bills. When I started this process of requesting public records, I could not believe that none of the government buildings I went to took a credit or debit card. Paying in cash makes the process smoother for everyone involved. Also, make sure to bring some pocket change for parking meters.

I should also make a quick mention here that being very nice to the people that you are asking for information and smiling a lot is going to go a long way. Most of the city clerks that you will meet will appreciate a smiling face and a polite attitude. I have a feeling that most people that these clerks deal with on a daily basis are not as nice. Also don’t be afraid to ask questions. I find that a lot of times the clerks like to answer questions and understand that the whole process can get confusing.

A Brief Mention of FOIA

FOIA, or the Freedom of Information Act, is the law that allows you to access governmental records upon request. It is a federal law that was passed in 1966 and most of the information that you will see on the internet is based on federal law, but when you are asking for information regarding a person or address, you are making a FOIA request. If you encounter issues when you are trying to obtain information make sure that you state that you are making a formal FOIA request. That should get you some traction.

Police Reports

Running police reports is critical and they are pretty easy to obtain in most areas. Where I live, I can go down to the city police office and request police reports on anyone for any time period or any address. There are some clerks that sit behind a plate glass window and take FOIA requests and process other requests for things like concealed carry permits for handguns.

Here is where having the document that I have prepared will pay off. You are about to ask for quite a bit of information on quite a few people and addresses. If you opt not to use the document, make sure that you have the names and addresses of the people you are investigating written neatly on a piece of paper that you can give to the clerk. Being unorganized and asking for this information is just going to upset the clerk and you will probably miss important information.

Greet the clerk and tell him or her that you are looking for police records for the following people and hand them your sheet. You will want to reiterate that you are looking for any and all police record information that pertain to these people or anything that deals with these addresses.

At this point the clerk will either enter the information on a computer screen or go through some files and tell you if they have anything or not. In most cases you will have to fill out a FOIA request form. Make sure that you put your correct information on this sheet. In most cases they are going to mail this information to you after it has been reviewed by someone like the city attorney to ensure that private information is removed. The clerk will tell you if anything was found and what the cost will be for the records. If anything was found, ask if there are any case images for any of the records. Request these images as well. The clerk will give you your total and you will pay them. At this point they will either give you the records or tell you that they wil be mailed to you, usually between 5 and 10 business days later.

Calls for Service

Anytime a police officer is called upon for any reason at all, that call is recorded within a log. This information is available to you for review. Why would you care about if or when a police officer was called to a residence? Well, if you can use this information to infer that activity that is going on at the residence is not in line with being what is in the best interest of the child, then you have something there.

Sometimes the calls for service information will be online. As an example, in Kalamazoo, Michigan you can review calls for service at http://www.kalamazoocity.org/PublicSafety/CallsForService.asp. They allow you to pick date ranges, neighborhoods and other information. I will say however that your best bet for accurate calls for service information is going right to the police station. When you run your police report search with the clerk, you can also ask for any calls for service at those locations.

If anything comes back for the residences that you gave to the clerk, take careful consideration as to what the calls mean. As an example, let’s say that there were 2 calls for service at the current residence of the other parent for noise violations. Many times this will not show up on a criminal record, but there would be a call for service to the location. Was the child there at the time? Was it late at night? Was it a party? On a school night? This is the kind of information that can be very helpful in determining a safe and consistent home life for the child.

Sometimes a call for service can lead you in new directions as well. Maybe there was a call for service to a prior residence when the other parent lived there for domestic assault with a third person, or a group of unrelated adults. Maybe the child was there (it most likely wouldn’t matter). This can lead you to investigate new people or incidents that involve your child’s other home.

Trial Documents

There is a court clerk, or an office of the court clerk that keeps what is called a register of actions for all cases. This information is available for your review. Generally, you are able to either request information based on a case number, or on the persons name. Many times the court clerks office will make computer terminals available to you. These are generally VAX type dummy terminals. If you need help or have questions about using the screens, politely ask a staff member.

In some courts, you will be able to do court lookups at your leisure from your computer at home. A great example of this is the 61st District Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can see their interface at https://www.grcourt.org/CourtPayments/.

If you are able to do searches yourself on a computer monitor in the clerk’s office, start off by running searches on each and every adult that lives within the other residence and also on any adult that has had contact with the children. Most of the time they are listed by last name/first name/middle name or initial. Review all records that are relevant to your investigation. You can start to infer quite a bit about the other parent and his/her acquaintances based on their history in court. You will be able to find:

Issues with debts
Issues with traffic tickets
Issues with housing
Issues with parking tickets
Issues with criminal incidents

Here is a good example of the types of information you will find within a register of actions. This is from the online database from grcourt.org. It is for a criminal case, armed robbery.

We see the following information:
Offense dates
Jail time
Fines and probation
All actions associated with the case from beginning to end

An example of a court record that can be used to help in child custody

An example of a court record that can be used to help in child custody

What is nice about the Grand Rapids Courts search interface is that it also gives you a summary of all other court history for the given person. As we can see, our sample here has had quite a few issues through the last couple of years. If this person lives with the other parent, or even associates frequently with them, you need to be aware of it and also bring it to the court’s attention as it would not seem to be within the best interest of the child to be associated with this person.

Many times new information may come to light from the court record search and you will subsequently need to visit the police station again to pull more records. May times the court records will give you more information on a person though, such as birth date or age and this may be helpful.

Checking for Sex Offenders

You should always run the people you are investigating through the national sex offender database.

You should always run the people you are investigating through the national sex offender database.

I highly recommend searching all friends, acquiantences and co-habitats of the other parents home against the national sex offender database. Here is a link to the search-able national database from the NSOPW:

National Sex Offender Data Base

I also recommend searching your states database as well, just to make sure that nothing is left to chance. Here is the one for Michigan:

State of Michigan Sexual Offender Data Base

A word on paying for background checks on the internet

I have never personally had very good luck with online background checks, but I have only tried them twice. I suppose if you are ready to spend a lot of money and you have a lot of states/counties to check it would be beneficial, but you can use the forms we have made available to do searches yourself locally, and even mail letters for other states or counties. If anyone has any recommendations for background check services please let us know in the comments.

Wrapping Up

The goal for all of this is to really examine all of the information that you get back from the requested reports to help you determine what is in the best interests of a child for a child custody dispute. Take a look at the information and see what it says about the other parent/guardian. Sometimes you will stumble across huge issues like domestic assault charges that you were unaware of, or perhaps a drunk driving arrest that no one told you about. It is issues like these that can go a long way in helping you to create a solid case.

We will be putting some articles together in the upcoming days that talk about checking into civil lawsuits and also how even small issues that are found within police reports, call for service records, civil suits and court documents can be used to make a clear and convincing case for a change in child custody.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 yomike May 29, 2009 at 1:27 pm

You know that the same tools are available to the parents preparing for the child custody evaluation and the tables can be turned on the psychologist in a very similar fashion. In my case I looked up every case the psychologist did and contacted the parties directly to get their take on the psychologist. I reviewed every case that the person did that arrived at the appeals level. Some very intersting stuff emerged. This psychologist made a recommendation to have parental rights terminated and here is the worst of it: he never interviewed the child the parents, the foster parents. His recommendation was based soley on a review of records. The Superior Court in my state found this to be very troubling. You bet this information will tear down is creditability in future cases.

Parents are not as stupid as may would like to think. Be very careful as you may find that you will be asked to answer some difficult questions as the “expert” based on your professional and personal background check.

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2 admin May 29, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Hey Mike,

That is some pretty good insight. What state was your case in and how did your appeal process go? How were you able to see the records for past recommendations from the psychologist? Were there any special steps you needed to take to get these records? This would be great information for states where psychologists are used within the court process.

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3 yomike May 29, 2009 at 8:03 pm

I’m in Pennsylvania. Contrary to what a lot of psychologist think – records including the full child custody evaluation are not often closed to the public. In fact they are viewed as a public document and can be received by anyone, no identification necessary. The clerks could care less who you are and what your purpose is for reviewing the record. For all they know you could be making paper airplanes with the report and flying them in the court house square.

I am making light of how easy it is to obtain this information, but it raises serious issues about the potential for further harm if records which contain confidential information are so easily available. I’m thinking that the psychologist may have some liability issues under the “satisfactory assurance” aspect under the privacy act if he did not request some form of protection of the record and if confidental behavioral health infomation contained in the record fell in to the hands of others hemay have a real tiger by the tail.

As to how to get the names – one only needs to spend a little money to get access to the court law docket. It is actually pretty easy and very cheap to do. It lists the case, the litigants, the Judge and any wittness to be called. Aside from my time the cost of the copies is the most expensive part of the deal.

To determine if a psychologist was involved on a case that went on to appeal at the next level, I just search the Uniform judicial records and include the name of the psychologist in the search path. Summary and findings are a matter of public record unless closed/sealed. With a little track back you have it all.

It is important for litigants to understand the type of person that they are dealing with and how to cause some questions about this persons creditabilty as an expert.

Lets take a case from PA. This by the way is not my case. The quoted summary is a matter of the public record, so I am not disclosing anything that anyone else couldn’t dig up. Here is an exerpt from the Superior Court decision:

BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J., MUSMANNO, LALLY-GREEN, BENDER, BOWES,PANELLA, DONOHUE, SHOGAN AND ALLEN, JJ.

THE OPINION BY ALLEN, J, [in part reads as follows]:

“In this regard however, the Majority’s extensive discussion of the testimony provided by Dr. Mapes, whose opinion was sought by the trial court and who gave his opinion based solely on his review of the agency’s case file, essentially as a hypothetical situation, is not founded upon actual interaction with the parties involved. Dr. Mapes never interviewed Mother, the child or the foster parents. This in my mind is quite troubling when so much of Dr. Mapes’ testimony is relied upon and in some ways is not consistent with testimony provided by agency personnel, who did interact with the parties.”

Pretty chilling information if your the psychologist and need to explain that one as part of your qualifications as an expert. Furthermore, this could lead to a very brisk discussion of how this might fit in to the ethical aspects of rendering an opinion (to terminate parental rights) based entire on a chart review and if this practice is a common practice supported by the APA standards of practice, guidelines, etc. As you can see this psychologist could be exposed in ways that he never thought possible.

Just as you consider the use of background checks, know that any parent fighting for their children will be (or should be) doing the same degree of due diligance.

You need to be very careful in the way you approach these background checks and more specifically how you use the information obtained. Your role is to assist the court on a matter of law – not to act as a private investigator or make the case one way or the other. If you overstep your appointed role you may end up doing more harm to your reputation than you intended.

Check back if you like.

Reply

4 admin May 29, 2009 at 9:11 pm

That is some nice information and something new to think about for sure.

When we talk about running background checks I agree with you about being careful. Nothing that we are mentioning is against the law. The steps that we mention are for the parents to take in preparation for a custody dispute and these steps can generally provide some pretty decent information in helping to determine what is in the best interest of a child.

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