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Second-Hand Testimony Is and Never Will Be Better Than the Witness’s Own Testimony in His/Her Own Voice

For lawyers and parents (and perhaps even commissioners and judges) who hate child custody determinations (temporary or otherwise) based upon proffer, I share this with you:

This court has previously expressed concern about determining custody based upon proffers given the seriousness and magnitude of child custody decisions.

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In Fullmer v. Fullmer, 761 P.2d 942 (Utah.Ct.App.1988), this court reviewed a permanent custody award entered based upon a proffer of witness testimony and the stipulated receipt of two child custody reports. In a footnote, we observed:

Although the parties stipulated that the testimony could be presented by proffer, and appellant does not argue that she was entitled to an evidentiary hearing, we note that an evidentiary hearing with all witnesses testifying would have been preferable. In a child custody case, we are convinced that witness demeanor and credibility are critical in ascertaining whether there has been a change of circumstances and what is in the best interests of the child. Any award of physical custody based solely upon what an attorney states a witness would have said and documentary evidence not subject to cross-examination is tenuous at best and subject to close scrutiny on appeal. Such deficiencies undermine the vitality of the trial court’s determinations.

Id. at 945 n. 1 (citations omitted); see also Hamby v. Jacobson, 769 P.2d 273, 278 (Utah.Ct.App.1989) (“[I]n cases involving the best interests of a child and competing claims by parents of the child, demeanor and credibility of witnesses is particularly critical, and use of proffers should be discouraged.”).

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[W]e reiterate that the use of proffers as a basis for child custody determinations, whether permanent or temporary, is discouraged.

(Montano v. Third Dist. Court for County of Salt Lake, 934 P.2d 1156, 1157-1158 (Utah Ct.App.1997).

The presumption that second-hand testimony “from” a child through someone other than the witness is generally better than hearing from the witness himself/herself is rationally and factually bankrupt. The idea that a judge (a former lawyer) charged with adjudicating a child custody dispute shouldn’t interview a child who is the subject of a custody dispute but should appoint a lawyer to do it (and in secret) instead is rationally and factually bankrupt as well.

In light of the sentiments expressed in the Montano decision, I ask you: why appoint PGALs and/or custody evaluators who (a) refuse to record their interviews of the children and of collateral sources for the record and (b) refuse to allow children to testify and/or refuse to interview children on and for the record in child custody dispute cases; and (c) continue to insist that second-hand testimony is better than the witness’s own testimony in his/her own voice?

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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