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New York Announces Membership of Blue-Ribbon Commission on Forensic Custody Evaluations

The Commission was Proposed in the Governor’’s 2021 State of the State Address and Women’’s Agenda 
New York today announced the membership of his Blue-Ribbon Commission on Forensic Custody Evaluations. The Blue-Ribbon Commission will be co-chaired by retired Judge Sherry Klein Heitler, Interim Dean of the NYS Judicial Institute, Commissioner Sheila Poole of the Office of Children and Family Services, and Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Executive Director Kelli Owens, and is charged with developing recommendations to the Governor regarding how forensic custody evaluations should be used in the New York state court system. 
"Family Court judges are responsible for making decisions that often have life-altering impacts on the individuals who appear before them," said former Governor Cuomo. "It is critical that judges have the most comprehensive, reliable information on which to base those decisions, especially when it comes to determining the best environment for a child. The work of this Commission will improve the quality of the forensic custody evaluation process, help ensure equal access to justice for survivors of domestic violence, and improve the fairness and transparency of the Family Court system. 
Forensic evaluations are often used in New York State courts for cases involving child custody and visitation. Under the current system, there is limited guidance regarding who may act as a forensic evaluator or how the evaluations should be done. As New York reimagines its future and builds back better in the wake of the pandemic, the Blue-Ribbon Commission will offer an opportunity to improve the child custody process and assess how families experience the court system in a holistic way.  
The Blue-Ribbon Commission will hold its first meeting this month, with recommendations to be delivered to the Governor by the fall. The esteemed members of the Blue-Ribbon Commission include retired judges, academics, attorneys practicing family and matrimonial law, children’’s rights experts, domestic violence advocates, psychologists, and parents.  
"Parents have reported experiences with forensic custody evaluators who have no comprehensive training about domestic violence, child abuse or other issues that can be part of contested custody matters. This can result in recommendations that place children at risk of harm, or even death," said Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to the Governor and Chair of the New York State Council on Women and Girls. "This Commission will further advance the work we have done to strengthen protections for survivors of domestic violence and their children." 
Judge Sherry Klein Heitler said, "Our children are our future. Therefore when custody is contested judges must determine and be able to reach out to the most qualified individuals in order to fully understand the family dynamics. The vital work of this Commission will lead to recommendations as to how these individuals should be chosen and what qualifications they must have." 
New York State Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila J. Poole said, "The role of forensic evaluators with the courts can be vital to providing safety for children, yet they have no formal requirements for training in understanding the dynamics of domestic violence or how families of color are often harmed by racial and poverty biases in the child welfare and court system. Ensuring that certified, trained forensic evaluators are trauma-informed and provide courts with clear, unbiased reports that carefully consider evidence and dynamics of gender-based violence and its effects on victims will help improve outcomes for victims of domestic violence and their children and further the Governor’’s social justice agenda." 
New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Executive Director Kelli Owens said, "There have long been discussions of how to create a certification process for forensic evaluators and establish standards for the evaluations they conduct and how they are used by judges. We cannot delay action any longer. I applaud Governor Cuomo for addressing this long-standing issue and look forward to working with my fellow Commission members to establish a process that is more fair and equitable for all parties." 
-Hon. Sherry Klein Heitler, Retired, Interim Dean of the NYS Judicial Institute 
-Kelli Owens, Executive Director, NYS Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence 
-Sheila Poole, Commissioner, NYS Office of Children and Family Services 
Commission Members: 
-Amie Barnes, Executive Director, Seven Dancers Coalition 
-Jaya Connors, Director, Family Violence Litigation Clinic, Albany Law School 
-Hon. Laura E. Drager, Retired, Manhattan Supreme Court 
-Jacqueline Franchetti, Founder, Kyra’’s Champions 
-Jennifer Friedman, Director, Bronx and Manhattan Legal Project and Policy, Sanctuary for Families 
-Joan Gerhardt, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence 
-Dr. Jerold Grodin, Director of Professional Affairs, New York State Psychological Association  
-Leah Hill, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law  
-Pei Fong Kuo, Parent and Survivor Advocate 
-Dr. Robin Lynch, Former Chair, New York State Psychological Association Child Custody Evaluation Committee 
-Joan Meier, Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the National Family Violence Law Center, George Washington University Law School 
-Hon. Janice M. Rosa, Retired, Erie County Supreme Court 
-Michael Scherz, Director of the Domestic Violence Project, Lawyers for Children 
-Lorraine Silverman, Partner, Copps DiPaola Silverman, PLLC 
-Dr. Carolyn Springer, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of African, Black and Carribean Studies, Adelphi University 
-Timothy M. Tippins, Founder, MatLawSystems Corp. 
-Harriet Weinberger, Director, Office of Attorneys for Children at Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, Second Department