Courts order custody evaluations when parents cannot, or will not, resolve after-divorce parenting on their own or with the help of attorneys. Parents who must choose a custody evaluator should consider a number of factors in making the decision.
Attorneys often suggest evaluators, but the client normally makes the decision. Parents want to make sure that the professional conducting the custody evaluation is well trained and experienced. The evaluator’s curriculum vitae (CV) spells out his or her academic and professional credentials and lists his or her training as a custody evaluator. A custody evaluator should have specific training in this area. Any research, conferences/workshops or given lectures related to custody considerations should be listed in the CV.
However, the CV may not list how many custody evaluations he or she has conducted, nor the number of times he or she has testified in court. Searching databases should reveal the specific cases a particular custody evaluator was involved in when the case went to trial. In these cases, a judge may make reference to the custody evaluation. This may give some indication of the type of recommendations the custody evaluator makes and how he or she handles referral questions.
Referral questions form the backbone of a custody evaluation; they insure that these issues are explored in the evaluation. Referral questions may deal with addictions, mental health or parental alienation. The attorney should include referral questions in the court order for the custody evaluation, but many attorneys rarely do this.
Referral questions are important because they are pointed. By comparison, open-ended orders for custody evaluations (e.g., determine “the best interests of the children”) leave the scope of the evaluation completely at the discretion of the custody evaluator. When this happens, issues that most concern a parent may not even be explored. Referral questions in the court order demand the custody evaluator answer and/or address key issues. A typical referral question is: “How likely is it that either parent will support his or her child’s relationship with the other parent?” Some court orders for a custody evaluation include 5-10 referral questions or more.
A complicated case with questions about parental competency due to issues relating to addictions, mental health, parental alienation, concerns about geographic mobility, or a new partner, often require a very thorough custody evaluation, which may involve psychological testing conducted by a psychologist.
When a psychologist conducts the custody evaluation, the parent should read “The Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings,” a pamphlet prepared by the American Psychological Association (APA), an organization that all licensed psychologists are members of. The psychologist should be familiar with, and adhere to, the policies, rules and guidelines of the APA. “The Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings” spells out the APA-approved procedures for custody evaluations. Both client and attorney should become familiar with these because many custody evaluators do not follow them.
Being properly informed about custody evaluations, a parent is in a much better position to select the right custody evaluator and have the best chance that the evaluation is conducted properly and comprehensively.