Despite the fact that family courts are trending towards making divorce filings public records, there are certain documents that should not, and cannot be disclosed. The most important of these are evaluations that are conducted in custody disputes.
A California appeals court recently ruled that the Los Angeles attorney representing singer Paul Anka’s ex-wife, Anna, in a custody battle acted “maliciously” and ” recklessly” when she disclosed information contained in a confidential custody evaluation from a prior case during a deposition.
The information revealed contained details about the child and the parties which involved the singer’s first marriage. The attorney was sanctioned, and there were proceedings against the party who initially disclosed the information.
Closer to home, in New Jersey several years ago, a judge appointed a custody expert to conduct a best interests evaluation to determine what custody arrangement was in the best interests of the children. The evaluation was completed and sent to the judge.
The judge then gave copies to the parties and attorneys along with what is known as a confidentiality order. This is an order from the court which typically states that the information in the report is not to be disclosed and shared with anyone other than the parties, the attorneys and the court. The mother read the evaluation and was upset.
In violation of the confidentiality order, she confided in her sister and told the sister part of what the evaluation had said about her, and the father. The sister, horrified, then told the grandmother, who then convinced the daughter to allow her to read the report. Then, unable to keep it to herself, the he grandmother wrote a letter to the judge explaining all the things that the grandmother felt that the evaluator had gotten wrong.
The judge was furious, and sanctioned the mother thousands of dollars for disclosing the report in violation of the order. More importantly, the judge then had concerns about the mother and her truthfulness, which would last through the end of the case.
The judge also had concerns, and this is what is most important, that now that there were individuals that had the information, it would be inadvertently disclosed to the children who were the subject of the evaluation. A custody evaluation includes confidential information about the parties and the children, which, while important for a court to know when making a decisions, should not be disclosed to non-parties.
This information includes psychological testing results of the parties, and sometimes the children. Past and present mental health information is contained in the reports.
Divorce and custody disputes are some of the most difficult times a person will experience, absent illness or death of a loved one. It is human nature for us to want to have a person who we can confide in when going through these difficult times.
However, it is so important to remember that some things just absolutely cannot be shared. Talk to your lawyer, talk to yourself, or ask the court to allow you to discuss it with a therapist who would have a similar duty of confidentiality. But don’t talk about it to your family, your friends, and certainly not your mother!