SENE is the acronym for Social Early Neutral Evaluation, or ENE for short. This is a confidential process designed to facilitate resolution of custody and parenting time issues in family law matters and is similar in purpose to the Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE). The ENE was first implemented as a pilot project in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties a few years ago, and because of the overwhelming success of this program (between 60 and 70% of all cases are settled through this process), the program has expanded to most if not all counties in the state of Minnesota. In addition, court services personnel from Hennepin County have instructed other family court services departments around the country on the merits and techniques of the ENE process.
The ENE program is a voluntary program and is usually initiated early on in the family court case. Typically the court will introduce the subject of an ENE during the first hearing known as an Initial Case Management Conference, and will solicit the parties’ interest and willingness to enter into the program along with their attorneys. If the parties agree to enter into this process, they will make arrangements through family court services or with independent providers in those counties which do not have qualified personnel on staff, to meet with an ENE team which will consist of one male and one female who are experienced family court services staff or experienced, private custody evaluators. An approximately 3 hour session will be scheduled at which the parties will share information about themselves, their children, and their family with the ENE team, including their opinion on the issue of what custodial or parenting time arrangement they believe will be on their children’s best interest. The ENE team will often ask questions of both parties to ensure that they have a relatively complete understanding of the circumstances. In some cases, if the parties agree, another session may be scheduled allow the evaluators time to gather information from other collateral sources. However, typically the ENE personnel can gather the information they need in the initial session. Before the session is completed the evaluators will confer privately and then give their educated opinion about what they think would ultimately be in the children’s best interest based upon the information provided. Most ENE evaluators are experienced in performing custody evaluations, so their opinion is based upon their experience in that field and what they think the likely result of a full evaluation would be after considering the circumstances and the legal standard that the court would employ to make a custody and parenting time decision. Obviously, there may cases where it simply is not possible to draw a reasonably accurate conclusion after a short session, but in most cases the opinions offered by these evaluators will be reasonably accurate and helpful to the parties.
Once the ENE team has offered their opinion, the parties and their counsel have an opportunity to engage in further discussion to determine whether some sort of settlement may be reached within the parameters recommended by the evaluators. This may result in an informal agreement at the initial session, or may result in a subsequently scheduled session where the evaluators will function somewhat as mediators to help the parties reach an agreement.
It is important to note that the entire process in confidential. Nothing discussed in the meeting can be published by the evaluators to the court or to anyone else, nor can statements made in the ENE process is used by either party in the proceeding unless that information is obtained in some other way. If a full or partial settlement is reached, the ENE personnel will communicate that agreement to the judicial officer. If an agreement is not reached, a report will be made to the judge. The ENE team will not be called as witnesses with respect to the information obtained or any recommendations made during the ENE process.
In addition to reporting full and partial settlements, the ENE team members may communicate with the judicial officer for the limited purpose of facilitating case management. For example, if one fact issue stands in the way of settlement, such as a severe or complicated mental health issue, the ENE team may report the disputed issue to the judicial officer for case management purposes. With that information, the judge may opt for psychological assessments rather than a full fledged custody evaluation.
If the case does not settle, the judge will consult with the parties and their attorneys to decide the next step, which may be mediation, or a partial or a full custody evaluation.