Divorce and child custody are polarizing topics in the United States. Divorce itself is an ugly business. Two people who stood in front of their friends and families and promised themselves to another now find themselves in a situation where the life they built together is over. Often it is a storm of heightened emotions, personal crises, mediation, negotiation, carping, and resentment. For many, children sit in the eye of the storm, helplessly witnessing the destruction of their family unit around them. As if this were not tumultuous enough, children often become silent pawns between two parents or caregivers who seek to hurt one another. When developing a strategy for navigating a custody situation, caregivers often do not consider the possibility of hiring a private investigator to help build a credible case for sole or partial custody.
Many couples who are on the brink of divorce, or already treading in the harsh current of proceedings, default to the advice of lawyers, the court system, and child services when it comes to issues of custody. There is a myriad of reasons for this, including a parent’s financial means, work schedule, health issues, and ignorance. What’s problematic about leaving issues of custody in the hands of lawyers and the courts is families in turmoil become files in a drawer. The decisions made on behalf of the legal system often rest on the review of a mountain of paperwork; courts relying on police reports, financial/asset summaries, psychological evaluations, et cetera. What’s on paper becomes the load bearing beam for any decision made regarding custody, because caregivers in conflict are both subject to scrutiny in their statements against the other.
Private investigators have a tool chest similar to that of law enforcement allowing them to document a subject’s movements, behavior, and treatment of their children—both prior to divorce proceedings and after. Members of law enforcement are often the most credible investigators in the eyes of the court. However, unless a criminal act is reported, such as domestic violence or child neglect, law enforcement has little to no involvement in custody cases. Parents without those tools at hand are left with little recourse. Any evidence they document themselves is subject to scrutiny by the courts and by opposing counsel as misrepresented, inaccurate, or downright false. In those cases, those parents trying to build a credible case against their co-parent or caregiver can be maligned as malicious by opposing counsel, and those details may prove to be to their detriment.
The number one advantage of hiring a private investigator to document a questionable parent’s behavior is their ability to move through any environment undetected. Despite the fact a study determined there was an excess of 78,000 private investigators employed in the United States alone in 2017, you’ll never see a good one in the field. Private investigators are trained to blend into the crowd and surveil inconspicuously in order to ensure the subject does not modify their behavior for the benefit of being watched. In addition to hiding in plain sight, part of maintaining success in their profession means staying up to date on the best available surveillance technology on the market in order to gather evidence for their cases. Things like cameras disguised as ink pens, or drones with quiet motors that will not be easily detected. Parents are on their very best behavior when in mediation or appearing before a judge, but private investigators can completely upset the current state of a custody case with evidence they uncover in the field. They can document things like abuse and neglect through photographs, video, audio recordings, witness testimony, and the same examination of vital documents that would be performed by the courts. Their training has equipped them to be on the lookout for things like substance dependency, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or gambling problems. They can also document the opposing caregiver’s living conditions, whether or not the child is clean and well-fed, and their emotional wellness while in the care of said person. What makes a private investigator a particularly valuable asset is they are an objective third-party. Even if they have in fact been paid by one party in a custody case, misrepresentation of facts on their part may mollify their client in the moment, but will ultimately hurt their integrity with future business. Due to this, private investigators can become unimpeachable witnesses to behavior they’ve seen on the part of the opposing side that would damage the child’s well-being.
Private investigators can take on child custody cases at many different levels, all of which can be beneficial to the parent who wishes to establish a case against another parent or caregiver who they perceive to have questionable integrity. As with any investigation, the sooner the process of documenting and gathering evidence starts, the stronger a foundation the parent will have when they present their case before a judge. Parents who are considering divorcing a co-parent or caregiver and intend to establish a pattern of unfitness should consult a private investigator right away. The subject is more likely to proceed as they would normally prior to news that their partner is taking them to court. While the subject may not suspect they are being legally surveilled during a divorce proceeding, they are aware of the fact that—at a minimum—their behavior and actions during that time will be taken under consideration by the courts. The time to start collecting evidence is before divorce papers are drawn up and served.
However, it’s no mystery circumstances may not allow for this. Events prompting divorce proceedings may be very sudden, allowing no time for a hyper-covert investigation on behalf of the client. Parents who are in abusive relationships may not have access to the financial resources for this kind of initiative. As such, many private investigators enter the case when divorce is already a reality and custody proceedings are in full swing. One of the major criticisms of the court system in custody cases is children are often defaulted to the custody of their mothers, leaving fit fathers or other caregivers with few options. In one such example, an investigator from Indianapolis, IN was hired to investigate the parental fitness of a mother fighting her ex-husband and his parents for custody of their eight-year-old daughter. The child was shuttled back and forth between her mother and father’s respective homes for a few months while family court proceedings moved at a glacial pace. The father became increasingly concerned about his daughter while she was in her mother’s custody, and hired a private investigator to find answers. The investigator uncovered the mother’s place of residence on the record was dilapidated, dirty, and not at all a suitable environment for a child. Additionally, the investigator found the mother’s new husband had a criminal record, regularly used drugs, and had questionable judgement when it came to things like social media interaction and encounters with law enforcement. This led to the father retaining full custody of his daughter, with the mother being allowed only supervised visits. This investigative strategy is a two-way street, meaning that a parent who has been falsely accused of abuse or neglect in order to limit access to their child can hire a private investigator to disprove these claims, document the proper living conditions for the child in question, and secure evidence of malicious intent on behalf of the caregiver making false allegations.
Children should never be used as chess pawns in a messy divorce. Ultimately, any child custody investigation should be about the child’s safety and well-being—not about which parent is righteous in their indignation. A private investigator’s expertise, testimony, and lack of bias can shine a crisp, contextual light on the muddied waters of a child custody case.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2010, there were over 34,7000 licensed private investigators operating throughout the United States. The Bureau projects by 2020, the figure will increase twenty percent—resulting in almost 42,000 PIs. Though they may be great in number, you may never spot one, because private investigators have a unique set of skills allowing them to blend in with all walks of society.
When the average person thinks of a private investigator, it often evokes a handful of stereotyped images. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous private investigators in the global lexicon—even if he is fictional. In the United States, the film noire genre gave average citizens a staple look for PIs; long, tan trench coats, matching fedora hats, toting cameras with obnoxiously long lenses. More contemporary private sleuths are often thought of as being clad in all black and wearing dark sunglasses. Because these images have permeated American culture, a private investigator fitting any of these descriptions can instantly have their covers blown. With a surge in surveillance culture and the ubiquity of technology and social media, private investigators in the 21st century must modify their investigative methods to adapt to a world where everyone is watching.
Close, But Not Too Close
Even in a world where individuals often have their eyes glued to a screen, it is easier than ever for a private investigator to have their cover blown while in the field. Rise in the saturation of crime coverage in both local and national media has citizens paying attention to their surroundings more than ever, especially when walking to and from their vehicles, and when developing a home security system. Despite concerns about the proverbial “Big Brother,” invading human privacy, the U.S. began to appreciate surveillance technology as a nation after a CCTV camera captured the perpetrators behind the Boston Marathon bombing in the summer of 2013. Law enforcement investigating the tragedy were able to identify Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a crowd of thousands, tracking every move they made until the fateful moment when they planted the two homemade pressure-cooker bombs killing three people and injuring hundreds more.
In 2018, the nation saw a rise in law enforcement agencies utilizing drones in their investigations, leading to a new wave of outrage and concern over the violation of privacy and spying. As of December 6th, over 900 law enforcement agencies were reported to use drones in their casework. This heightened awareness in the American population has forced private investigators to redefine their standards for proximity to a subject. Of course, a PI must be close enough to properly observe the subject, and despite their benefits, long camera lenses outside of large events inundated with press can just as likely be the aspect that blows a private investigator’s cover. Being too close to a subject can provoke them to confront the investigator and compromise the entire investigation. This obliterates future opportunities for surveillance and collection of evidence, as the subject will be on high-alert.
Do Your Homework
Prior to a stake-out or any form of field surveillance, private investigators must conduct extensive research about the area in order to move fluidly and avoid detection. Study of local businesses and restaurants can inform a private investigator what the public will be doing in the area, and increase their chances of successfully blending in with a crowd. In order to keep a low profile, PIs must place themselves in the mindset of a local. Places like coffee shops, restaurants, or shopping malls can be ideal places for surveillance, as there are built-in explanations for a person sitting or milling about without purpose for extended periods of time. In situations where this is not the case, it’s important for the investigator to have a method for making themselves appear occupied to cover their presence in an area. Luckily, a person staring at their phone for large blocks of time will raise no alarms with the subject or anyone else. Books, laptops, or accompaniment by an associate for “lunch” are also tried-and-true covers. Many private investigation periodicals recommend conducting as much online research as possible prior to surveillance in order to limit exposure. This means searching public databases, combing news articles, and scraping social media to arm oneself with as much information as possible.
Blending in is the name of the game when you’re a private investigator.
As mentioned above, everyday citizens are more hypervigilant than ever. Subjects with a history in the criminal justice system or with law enforcement will be even more so. As such, the concept of tailing a subject is becoming less effective, resulting in the private investigator “getting made” by their target. Subjects will recognize the same face after multiple sightings, even if it is in a crowd, and strange vehicles parked in the same location for hours at a time are sure to draw suspicion. This is where thorough research with a private investigator’s client can become invaluable. Reconnaissance at the hands of a client can provide the investigator with information allowing them to be more inconspicuous when following a subject from location to location. For example, a spouse suspicious of infidelity can provide the private investigator with their spouse’s daily schedule—what time they wake up, their morning routine, addresses for their employment, frequent lunch locations, extra-curricular activities, the addresses of friends’ homes, the list goes on and on.
Even the most catlike of private investigators will have their covers blown from time to time. That’s why it’s imperative to have a bulletproof cover story. If they’ve done their research, private investigators can be ready with a plausible reason for being in the area, such as house-hunting, shopping, or just being plain lost and in need of direction. These quick explanations will cause a subject to lower their guard and reconsider their suspicion. Just as is the case with any deception, too many details pierce the veil. Being caught with surveillance equipment like cameras or microphones will also require explanation, but in a culture saturated with technology, this can also be easily explained. Camera drawing too much attention? Not if you’re a professional photographer on assignment. Microphone too conspicuous? It’s no longer a stretch to believe the average citizen is a fledgling podcaster or filmmaker recording “foley” or “walla” noise for their project.
As is the case with many professions, media and culture have defined the role of private investigator as one for a man, which often leaves women out of the conversation. However, it could be argued female private investigators have a much better chance of remaining undetected in surveillance. While social code continues to grow and develop, women are often socialized to diminish themselves—to listen, not speak. Follow instead of lead. Men are socialized to be forward and confident in the interest of being some kind of alpha, while women are known to be better at reading a room, picking up on behavioral cues that might inform their investigation, and their perceived gentility improves their chances of a subject or witness trusting and opening up to them. These aspects of our society are the same ones preventing citizens from suspending disbelief when a woman is accused of a violent crime. A woman would never do that. This allows a female private investigator to conduct field surveillance with more freedom.
Technology has spiked over the last 25 years at astronomical proportions, and our population’s socialization has changed dramatically since the invention of social media. While this may have hampered private investigators in their work, the proper tools, flexible strategies, and an analytical mind can get the job done. Whatever a private investigator’s method for remaining inconspicuous in the field, there is no doubt that as society changes, so must their methodology.