Critics Call For More Oversight of Court-Appointed Psychologists in Child Custody Cases

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One year ago, in February 2020, ex-New York City police officer Michael Valva and his fiancée pleaded not guilty to killing his 8-year-old son Thomas by forcing him to sleep in an unheated garage in their Center Moriches home, triggering Child Protective Service reforms aimed at not repeating such a tragedy.

But critics say additional reforms are needed to provide better oversight of court-appointed psychologists who play a key role in granting deciding where young children should live when parents are in custody disputes. Complaints regarding such appointees are filed with the New York State Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), but OPR requires all court records to do an investigation and if the court refuses, the investigation is closed.

A problem underlying the OPR’s refusal to investigate complaints against custody evaluators is the fact that most judges in [New York State] do not allow the litigants (parents, usually) to have copies of the custody evaluations,” says Nancy Erickson, an attorney who has represented several parents who’ve filed complaints about such appointees in Suffolk County court cases she’s handled. “In fact, some don’t allow the attorneys to have copies — a total violation of due process.”

A number of complaints have been filed against Dr. Barbara Burkhard, one such court-appointed family evaluator used in a number of cases in Suffolk. Those who complained include Anna Frank, who blames the doctor for losing custody of her son; Kathy LaPietra, who lost custody of her daughter in a Burkhard-assigned case; and Allison Vernick-Chaikin, who lost custody of two kids after meeting with Burkhard.

Frank told the Press that she filed a complaint against Burkhard, but it went nowhere. As with Frank, LaPietra too said the court and Burkhard ignored a mountain of evidence to deem her a parent alienator and keep her away from her daughter. 

“Because of the evaluation [by Burkhard], I am not permitted to see my children, speak to them, nothing,” LaPietra said.

LaPietra also filed a complaint against Burkhard, but she said she did not even get a response. She has not seen her daughter, now 15, since 2017. 

Allison Vernick-Chaikin said she was kept away from her two daughters for years due to Burkhard. Vernick-Chaikin said both were returned to her upon turning 18. She also filed a complaint with OPR and received a form letter in reply. 

Jack Reilly, who lost custody of his teenaged son and daughter to his ex-wife after Burkhard was tapped to do an evaluation of the family in the case, believes he was falsely accused of trying to alienate his kids from their mother.

“Dr. Burkhard concluded that the plaintiff/father was alienating the children from their mother and not fostering a relationship between the children and their mother,” the court found, records show.

Reilly, who stopped short of filing a complaint with OPR against Burkhard, also took issue with Laura Golightly, a court-appointed attorney tapped to represent the children on the case.

“The first time my kids met with Laura, I tried to get rid of her because both kids came out crying, and I thought, ‘All right, guys, is it because you’re telling this woman you don’t want to live with Mom?’” he said. “They said, ‘No, she’s making excuses for Mom and we’re getting frustrated because she won’t listen to what we’re saying.’”

Neither Burkhard, Golightly nor OPR, the oversight agency, responded to a request for comment. A clerk in the chamber of Judge Andrew Crecca, who presided over each of these cases, said he was forbidden from commenting. Crecca was promoted last year to chief administrative judge in Suffolk.

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