In a bad custody fight, a parent in a tug-of-war with a former partner can count on meeting at least one mental health professional for an evaluation of his or her parenting skills. A custody evaluation includes a parental history survey, interviews of the parents and children, psychological testing, observation of parent/child interactions, collateral contact interviews, and follow-up interviews. The evaluation surrenders information about each parent’s ability to parent, and the evaluator presents a lengthy written report to the court.
The judge, who does not know the parents or children, often places great weight on the report of a custody evaluator, who is usually a psychologist. The final word on disputed custody always belongs to the judge, not the evaluator. Most judges place a lot of weight on the custody evaluator’s findings because the evaluator spends time with the family and brings a studied approach to the final recommendation. Court’s carefully consider the evaluator’s report and recommendations.
A person should be sincere and cooperative when meeting a custody evaluator, but it is a good idea to consult with an experienced family law attorney beforehand even though the evaluation is not litigation. An evaluation usually takes about four weeks, and it should be done at least two weeks before any court date. Rushing an evaluation is not in anyone’s best interests and is normally not even an option.
The parental history survey details all aspects of marriage, separation, divorce, and other information useful in determining parenting ability. Each parent should answer the questions honestly and support the answers with factual information. Answers should go beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Short explanations are appropriate, but details go a long way in allowing an evluator to get to know you as a parent.
Evaluators may rely heavily upon interviews with the parents, children and sometimes with teachers, pediatricians, babysitters and other important people in the lives of the family, such as stepparents, siblings and grandparents. The evaluator may skip those interviews with friends and family who are biased. During interviews, the evaluator questions the parents, usually for a couple of hours, together and separately. Parents prepare documentation that shows a former spouse’s faults, such as financial records, notes, pictures and records of criminal behavior. Irrelevant and inflammatory documents makes a person appear vindictive. The interview may also be recorded for the Judge.
During the interview, a parent should be fair and reasonable, remain calm and relaxed, and answer all questions honestly. During the interview, a parent should not slam or slander a former partner, tell lies in order to make him or her look bad, get angry or emotional or argue with the interviewer. It is a time for professionalism and honesty.
Parents often take a psychological or personality test as part of the evaluation. Testing is a short cut for gathering and assessing information. One of the most popular tests, the MMPI (Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory) is designed “to identify psychological disorders and to evaluate cognitive functioning…[but] this test, by itself, cannot tell an evaluator who the better parent will be.” The MNPI-2 and other tests provide what can be called an objective measure of personality. It is very important to be honest when taking this test. Due to the test’s design, no one can cheat because these tests expose inconsistency and dishonesty. The best way to test is to relax and answer the questions quickly and honestly. (Other tests include the Millon Clinical MultiAxial Inventory (MCMMI-3), the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), the Bricklin Perceptual Scales (BPS) and the Ackerman-Schoedorf Scales for Parent Evaluation of Custody (ASPECT)).
In a session of parental observation, each parent interacts with his or her child under the observation of the evlauator. Parents should play normally with their child. Moreover, this type of experience is stressful for children, so parents should try and make them feel as comfortable as possible.
Considered one of the most important steps in the evaluation, interviews with collateral contacts reveal if either spouse has behavioral patterns that make him or her an unsuitable parent. Infidelity, drug use, physical abuse, mental cruelty and financial manipulation can all be discovered through these interviews.
Follow up interviews are the last chance to make a good impression on an evaluator as well as a chance to respond to allegations made by the other spouse. If the former spouse has made false allegations, this is the time to calmly deny them and clarify. Follow-up interviews are also each parent’s last chance to provide the evaluator with any additional information or documentation that is favorable to him or her position.