Needless to say, a custody evaluation depends on the training, skill and experience of the custody evaluator, the thoroughness of the work, and the degree to which the custody evaluator maintains his or her objectivity. Absent competence, thoroughness and objectivity, parents risk a poorly conducted custody evaluation.
Selecting an evaluator, like so many decisions in divorce, requires patience and care. Here are the steps to take when selecting a custody evaluator, according to Dr. Sommer:
- First, review the curriculum vitae (CV) of the custody evaluators proposed by the attorney handling the case. A CV, an academic resume that spells out the custody evaluator's academic and professional credentials, also identifies his or her training as a custody evaluator. A custody evaluator should have received specific training in this area. The CV lists research, conferences/workshops or lectures related to custody concerns. You want to make sure that the professional conducting your custody evaluation is well trained and experienced in that field.
- Second, find out how many custody evaluations the custody evaluator has conducted and the number of times he or she has testified in court. Searching databases identifying the specific cases can do this. This may give some indication of the type of recommendations a particular custody evaluator makes.
- Third, the attorney should include referral questions in the court order for the custody evaluation. Referral questions form the backbone of an evaluation because they deal with particular issues of parental conduct, such as addictions, mental health or parental alienation. Some attorneys fail to do this because they are not even aware of the purpose for using referral questions. Referral questions ensure the custody evaluator addresses these issues because often, open-ended orders (e.g., to determine the best interests of the children) leave the scope of the evaluation completely at the discretion of the evaluator. When this happens, issues a parent is most concerned about may not even be addressed. By including referral questions in the order, the custody evaluator is then required to answer and/or address them. An example of a typical referral question is: "How likely is it that either parent will support his or her child's relationship with the other parent?" It is not uncommon for an order for a custody evaluation to include 5-10 referral questions or more.
- Fourth, cases where questions about parental competency are raised become complicated and conflicted, particularly when the issues relate to issues of addictions, mental health, and parental alienation. Concerns about geographic mobility or a new partner also increase the need for a very thorough custody evaluation. This most often involves psychological testing conducted by a custody evaluator who is trained as a psychologist.
- Fifth, if a psychologist is conducting the custody evaluation, a parent should become familiar with the Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings. The American Psychological Association (APA) developed this document and all licensed psychologists are members of the APA. As a member, the psychologist should be familiar with, and adhere to, the policies, rules and guidelines the APA sets out. The Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings spell out the procedures that should be followed in custody evaluations.