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Child Custody Evaluations: What You Need to Know

Custody Evaluation

Child Custody Evaluations: What You Need to Know

In divorce cases that involve children, custody evaluations are frequent occurrences. The ideal situation is one where both parents can communicate and agree on the custody arrangements. Unfortunately, the ideal situation is rather challenging to come by and so other efforts like mediation or settlement are made to help parents come to an agreement about custody of the children. When parents are unable to agree on the custody arrangement and visitation plan after other efforts are exhausted, an outside custody evaluation can be arranged.

What is a custody evaluation?

A custody evaluation is an assessment completed by a professional who will look at all of the family dynamics and make recommendations as to a custody arrangement that will serve in the best interest of the children. A custody evaluation is typically used in one of two ways; it either serves as a guide to aid parents in coming to a custody agreement or it is a reference used by the court to order an arrangement for the family. If a judge uses the custody evaluation to help him/her identify a plan and custody order, he/she will also collect testimony from all interested parties.

Who is the custody evaluator?

The custody evaluator is typically a trained mental health professional, most commonly a psychologist. The evaluator is often recommended by the court or your attorney based on the specific details of your case. For example, there are custody evaluators trained to manage domestic violence or substance abuse matters. You should always take an active role in the situation and be sure to ask the evaluator about their experience and specialization. This person will be interviewing your children and you want to ensure that their discussion with this individual will be a beneficial experience for them.

Custody evaluations are not typically free and can vary in cost. Be sure to speak with your attorney about these options and don’t jump straight to the cheapest evaluator. Your custody evaluation will be very significant and will have a substantial impact on the outcome of your case. Be thorough about who you choose as the evaluator.

What does the custody evaluation entail?

Each custody evaluation may vary based on the case and the evaluator’s process. All evaluations will include at least two (possibly more) interviews with both parents and each child. The evaluator may request or complete psychological testing to determine the mental and emotional states of the parents and the children. Parenting style will be evaluated and parent/child interactions will be observed. The evaluator will also take the time to review all of the court proceedings, as well as any prior legal issues. Contact with other professional parties like teachers, counselors and doctors may also be made. Home visits are an option and are found to be especially helpful to families with young children that are under the age of 6.

Who sees the custody evaluation?

The child custody evaluation is not confidential and may be seen by both parties’ attorneys, as well as by the court should the case go to trial. Many people assume that as psychologists, custody evaluators are bound by the limits of confidentiality. This is not the case. The custody evaluator is working on behalf of the court, who is their client. The custody evaluator is therefore obligated to report all findings to the court. While the custody evaluator has the credentials of a psychologist, he/she is not your therapist, and all discussion with the evaluator should be had with this information in mind.

How to deal with your custody evaluation.

Many parents become very nervous and stressed about an impending evaluation. It’s important to discuss this with your attorney and to be prepared for what is to come. Understand that the evaluator’s goal is to gain as much information as possible about you, your children, your ex-spouse and the family’s dynamics. Don’t try to be super-parent when the evaluator is around. Be yourself and be honest. You are not perfect and have both strengths and weaknesses as a parent. Don’t be afraid to admit this to the evaluator if he/she asks.

Keep in mind that the entire purpose of a custody evaluation is to determine what is best for the kids. Try to remain focused about the most important element in this equation, your children. In a custody evaluation, it is common to feel the need to point out all of the bad things about the other parent. This strategy simply isn’t effective. Your ex-spouse has weaknesses and strengths, just as you do. Be honest about these to the evaluator but don’t be critical or condescending. Honesty will help him/her get a larger picture of the entire situation.

Refrain from asking your evaluator for solutions to your problems. He/she is not a problem solver – they’re an evaluator. They’re being paid to serve as an objective set of eyes, to use their professional expertise to examine a situation and recommend a solution to meet the needs of all parties involved. He/she isn’t going to tell you how to better manage your child with ADHD, as that is not the evaluator’s job.

What your kids should know.

You may be concerned about the best way to explain the custody evaluation to your children. This discussion will vary by situation. The children’s ages, as well as their understanding of the divorce and marital conflict, should be taken into consideration prior to explaining anything to them.

Be honest with the kids and explain that a professional is going to come and help mom and dad figure out the best way to raise them. Tell the children that the psychologist will be asking them a lot of questions about their family and that they should answer them honestly and openly. Do not attempt to prepare your kids to respond to the questions to your liking. That is entirely inappropriate and defeats the purpose of the evaluation. And, the psychologist will likely be able to determine when a child has been prompted. The custody evaluator is trained in dealing with children. He/she will be sensitive to the fact that this may be a difficult topic of discussion for your child and will proceed cautiously.

What happens with the results?

The custody evaluation can be used as a suggestion to parents to help them facilitate their own custody arrangement. If they are still unable to identify an arrangement, the custody evaluation is often utilized by the court in which case a custody arrangement is ordered.

The results will make recommendations in various areas including both the physical and legal custody of the children as well as the visitation recommendations. A parenting plan often accompanies the evaluation and can provide a guide to help parents manage sharing their children’s’ time and how to manage future disagreements. Treatment recommendations like case management or counseling are often included in a custody evaluation, both for parents and children. Cases that include specialized concerns like domestic violence or drug abuse will contain specific recommendations for treatment as well as for a follow-up assessment in order to address progress.

Many evaluators will discuss the results directly with the parents, which is ideal. It is much more helpful to parents to hear the results from the evaluator as opposed to hearing them from their attorney.

Moving forward.

A custody evaluation is a really great opportunity for both parents to learn about themselves and how they can work together to co-parent their children. Instead of viewing the evaluation as a test on who is the better parent, it should be approached as an assessment of what the strengths and weakness are of the current situation.

Try to approach the situation with an open mind. Learn from the experience and use it to grow as a person and a parent. If approached with the right attitude, a custody evaluation is a great tool to aid divorced parents in learning the best methods to co-parent their children into the future. The two of you have at least one thing in common; your children. Figuring out how to communicate about them, for them, is the first step.