If a child custody evaluation has been ordered in your case, get to your attorney’s office right away! Also, if your divorce attorney says something like “just cooperate and everything will be fine,” get a free consult with a highly experienced divorce attorney!
A child custody evaluation can make or break your high conflict custody case. A highly experienced divorce attorney who routinely handles high conflict cases will prepare you for your custody evaluation. Often, you will meet with your divorce attorney more than the custody evaluator, just to get you prepared.
What Is A Child Custody Evaluation?
When parents are unable to resolve disputes about child custody, a trial will be held and the judge will decide the issues. Prior to the trial, the judge may require the family to participate in a child custody evaluation. A custody evaluation provides information about the family to help the parents and the judge reach a decision that will be in the best interests of the children. Custody evaluations may also be used in post-decree cases, when parenting disputes arise after the initial divorce has been granted.
A custody evaluation is:
- An assessment of the needs of your children and each parent’s ability to meet those needs.
- Directed toward helping your family make a positive adjustment to divorce.
- Attentive to past events, present resources and future needs of the family.
- Concerned with the strengths and weaknesses of both parents.
- Focused on the “best interests” of children.
Preparing For A Child Custody Evaluation
A child custody evaluation will consist of a series of interviews. You should expect to talk to the evaluator alone and with the other parent. Separate individual interviews will give you the opportunity to present your issues and concerns about the children and the other parent. Conferences with both parents, when determined by the evaluator to be appropriate, allow the evaluator the opportunity to assess parents’ capacity to work together.
Evaluator Interview With You & Your Children
The evaluator may also schedule an interview with you and the children. This may take place in the evaluator’s office or it may occur in your home. Spending time with you and your children will allow the evaluator to observe the relationships between family members. The evaluator may interview other people in the children’s lives, including stepparents or domestic partners.
Consent To Obtain Records & Information
The evaluator may request your written consent to obtain school and health records, social service and police information, and any other documents that contribute to a complete understanding of the family. The evaluator may wish to talk with some of these people in order to understand how others see the issues. The evaluator may also ask both parents to complete a detailed questionnaire asking about you and your relationship with your children and the other parent.
Psychological testing may be required when information about each parent’s emotional and mental status would be helpful to the judge. A psychological evaluation is conducted by a qualified psychologist. The psychologist will want to talk with each parent and may administer several paper and pencil tests. You can ask the evaluator to tell you more about the kind of psychological evaluation that is being requested.
A thorough evaluation requires that both parents be involved in the process. Be cautious of taking the children to your own separate evaluator. Courts may consider these evaluations to be incomplete. One-sided evaluations may be a duplication of time and money and may subject your children to added stress.
Cooperate With The Evaluator
Custody evaluators in private practice are usually licensed psychologists or mental health professionals with other credentials. Custody evaluators in court-connected programs are usually counselors or mental health professionals. In addition to their mental health training, custody evaluators should be familiar with the laws in your jurisdiction, have expertise in the divorce process and its effects on families, and have an understanding of child development issues and the needs of children. You should be comfortable with the evaluator and feel free to ask questions about their qualifications, training and experience.
Cooperate with the evaluator. The evaluator is there to help your family and to help the judge figure out what will be in the best interests of the children.
- Separate your marriage problems from your parenting concerns. You may still have a lot of hurt and angry feelings toward the other parent but marital issues may not be relevant to child custody issues.
- Do not look at the custody evaluation process as a win/lose situation. This is a good time to try to put the past behind you and focus on the future.
- Plan to be open and honest with the evaluator.
- The evaluator can be an information resource. Ask about reading material, parent education classes, counseling and other help.
- Consult with your attorney as needed throughout the evaluation process.
- Keep your appointments.
- Organize school and health records, and other information that the evaluator asks to review.
- Make notes of the questions you want to ask.
Speak To Your Children About The Interview & Observations
Custody evaluators regularly interview and observe children. It is best if this is done in a comfortable and non-threatening environment. The evaluator understands that children may be experiencing a range of feelings about the divorce. Depending upon the ages of the children, the evaluator may have the children participate in structured play, draw pictures or tell stories in order to express their feelings.
Parents often want to know, “Will the evaluator ask my children where they want to live?” Children’s thoughts, feelings and experiences are important. However, the evaluator will not ask children to choose between parents. This would not be fair to the children and only keeps them in the middle of your dispute.
Evaluators Written Report Of Their Assessment
Most custody evaluators will prepare a written report of their assessment. The report is intended to give the judge a clear picture of the family and to provide information about how the children’s needs can best be addressed. The evaluator’s report may submit specific recommendations to the judge. An evaluator should not make a recommendation unless both parents have been interviewed.
Court rules vary as to who has access to the report. The report may be available to both parents or it may be restricted to the judge and attorneys. In most jurisdictions the report is considered a confidential document and can be ordered sealed by the court. If the case goes to trial, the judge or the lawyers may ask the evaluator to be present to explain the report and its findings.
If the evaluation is being conducted by a court-connected program, the fees for the evaluation are determined by the court’s policy. You can inquire about fees from the program administrator. Private evaluators usually charge by the hour. The fee for an evaluation by a psychologist can be several thousands of dollars. Additional fees may be charged if the evaluator appears in court. The full fee or a substantial retainer may be required before the evaluation begins.
The fee for an evaluation may be divided between the parents, or one party may be required to pay the complete fee. Ask your attorney or the judge about your responsibility to pay for the evaluation.