Custody Evaluations: What You Should Know
If you and your former spouse have been unable to reach an agreement regarding child custody, the family court judge deciding your case may order a custody evaluation. A custody evaluation is a process in which a mental health professional, usually a psychologist, evaluates you, your children and your spouse in order to make a custody and visitation recommendation to the court. Courts tend to give considerable weight to the recommendations of the evaluator. A family law attorney can explain custody evaluations and answer your child custody questions.
Custody Evaluation Basics
Depending on where you live, custody evaluations can cost up to several thousand dollars, but some courts have lower-cost alternatives. Though ordered by the court, the divorcing couple usually pays for the evaluation.
The court may assign an evaluator to you or may allow you to choose from a list of evaluators who meet specific standards of education and experience. Regardless of who chooses the evaluator and who pays for the evaluation, the evaluator should be neutral and should not have a patient-therapist relationship with anyone in the family either before or after the evaluation. Nothing you tell the evaluator is confidential or subject to doctor-patient privilege.
Custody Evaluation Process
The evaluator is working to make a determination of the best interests of the child. So that the evaluator may fully understand the family dynamics, the typical custody evaluation consists of:
- Two or three interviews with each parent
- Two or three interviews with each child
- Observation of parental interaction with each child in the office and potentially at home
- Psychological testing as necessary
- Review of important court papers
- Interviews with people like teachers, pediatricians and day care providers as necessary
Once the evaluation process is complete, the evaluator will issue a report with recommendations regarding custody and visitation. Most evaluators will specifically address concerns raised by each parent in making recommendations. The final custody and visitation recommendation is based on factors such as:
- The quality of each parent’s relationship to each child
- The relationship between the parents and their ability or willingness to support their children’s ongoing relationships with the other parent
- The parenting skills and capacity of each parent
- Each parent’s psychological health and any drug or alcohol abuse
- The children’s psychological health
- Any evidence of abuse or violence
Preparing for the Custody Evaluation
Custody evaluators expect you to be nervous. They understand the stress that the evaluation process can cause. Following some basic guidelines will decrease your stress and help the evaluator get a true understanding of you and your parenting style.
Treat the evaluation like you would a job interview. Be on time and dress neatly. Don’t become defensive. Be honest and sincere, but remember that what you say to the evaluator will not be kept confidential.
Go in organized — get your documents together. Make a list of your concerns so you can be confident that they have been communicated.
Show the priority the children have in your life. Communicate your knowledge of their interests, needs and desires and use that knowledge as a basis for your views on custody. Pay attention to the questions and answer them directly and to the point. Ask for an explanation if you don’t understand the question. Avoid negative comments about the other parent and his or her family. Limit answers to questions about your spouse to specific facts. If you want to give the evaluator names of teachers or others you would like the evaluator to contact, let the evaluator know that you plan to do so in advance. Help your children understand what is going on, but do not coach them on the answers to give. Respond promptly and calmly to evaluator requests, including requests for additional testing, documentation and/or payment. Do not make repeated calls to the evaluator or call to see when the report will be finished.
Custody Evaluation Report
The custody evaluator may meet with you to discuss the report. Most reports contain:
- A recommendation regarding custody and visitation
- A parenting plan to help you carry out the recommended schedule and a process for resolving future problems
- Suggestions for therapy or parenting classes as needed
- Guidelines for dealing with special problems like abuse, violence or parental alienation
- Schedules or suggestions for reevaluation as needed