The Best Interests of the Child Standard
The underlying goal for any children’s court judge or family court judge is to determine what’s in the best interest of the child or children. They do this in every child custody decision, every child support determination, and in CYFD abuse and neglect cases. Parents believe their ideas, goals, and plans are in their child’s best interests. Lawyers draft motions and advocate for what they believe is in the best interests of child-client or in the best interests of their clients’ children. And of course, psychologists, teachers, therapists, guardians ad litem, and a host of other professionals submit reports, observations, recommendations and proffer testimony all trying to figure out what’s in the child’s best interests.
What does the “Best Interests of the Child” standard mean?
Although there is no standard definition of “best interests of the child,” the term generally refers to the deliberation that courts undertake when deciding what type of services, actions, and orders will best serve a child as well as who is best suited to take care of a child. “Best interests” determinations are generally made by considering a number of factors related to the child’s circumstances and the parent or caregiver’s circumstances and capacity to parent, with the child’s ultimate safety and well-being the paramount concern.
In New Mexico, our state statutes in the form of two passages from the Children’s Code provide this as guidance:
N.M. Stat. Ann. § 32A-4-28(A) In proceedings to terminate parental rights, the court shall give primary consideration to the physical, mental, and emotional welfare and needs of the child, including the likelihood of the child being adopted if parental rights are terminated.
N.M. Stat. Ann. § 32A-1-3 The Children’s Code shall be interpreted and construed to effectuate the following legislative purposes:
• First, to provide for the care, protection, and wholesome mental and physical development of children coming within the provisions of this code, and then to preserve the unity of the family, whenever possible
• To provide judicial and other procedures through which the provisions of the Children’s Code are executed and enforced and in which the parties are assured a fair hearing, and their constitutional and other legal rights are recognized and enforced
• To provide a continuum of services for children and their families from prevention to treatment, considering, whenever possible, prevention, diversion, and early intervention, particularly in the schools
• To provide children with services that are sensitive to their cultural needs
• To provide for the cooperation and coordination of the civil and criminal systems for investigation, intervention, and disposition of cases, to minimize interagency conflicts and to enhance the coordinated response of all agencies to achieve the best interests of the child victim
• To provide continuity for children and families appearing before the family court by assuring that, whenever possible, a single judge hears all successive cases or proceedings involving a child or family The child’s health and safety shall be the paramount concerns. Permanent separation of the child from the child’s family, however, would especially be considered when the child or another child of the parent has suffered permanent or severe injury or repeated abuse. It is the intent of the legislature that, to the maximum extent possible, children in New Mexico shall be reared as members of a family unit.
This is quite the laundry list of factors for the Courts to consider when deciding these types of complicated cases. We can see that Courts are to consider not only the basic needs of the child or children such as housing, food, medical care, and education, but also cultural and community concerns as well. Clearly this is a very broad list of factors for the Court to examine when it considers such things as parenting plans, physical custody, child support, and even more mundane questions such as which school will the child attend? Which church shall they attend? Which extracurricular activities are best for the child?
Decisions to these questions are seldom made very quickly. That means that Courts seldom make these types of decisions in one or two hearings. This is why this type of litigation is both costly and time consuming. Because these types of cases are very emotionally loaded and legally complex, oftentimes it’s best to seek legal representation. Please contact me and I can explain how to keep costs low and judicial involvement in your family’s lives to a minimum.