What is a Custody Evaluation?

A custody evaluation should be a very thorough examination of all family members and a recommendation to the court about a parenting plan in the best interests of the children. Unless specified by a court order, a custody evaluation may or may not include a psychological evaluation. In general, a custody evaluation considers the past and present relationships between the parents and children, the abilities of the parents to provide for their children physically, emotionally and financially, and deficits and/or impediments that might interfere with a parent's ability to care for their children and/or maintain a healthy relationship with their children.

The scope of the custody evaluation can also vary. The scope depends on the wording of the court order, the choice of professional who will be conducting the custody evaluation, and the cost involved. Although it seems reasonable to expect that the more trained and experienced an evaluator is, the better the quality the custody evaluation should be, this is not always the case. As in other matters, it is very important to make sure that the custody evaluator doing the assessment is properly trained and experienced.

According to Dr. Sommer, a comprehensive custody evaluation should include the following elements:

  • Detailed interviews of both parents and/or stepparents/new partners;
  • Detailed interviews of children four years old and over;
  • Psychological testing of both parents and/or stepparents/new partners;
  • Observation sessions between the children and each parent in a neutral setting;
  • Home visits at each parent's residence with the children present;
  • Collateral interviews of individuals who have knowledge of the children and of the parents and their parenting capacity;
  • A review of all of the relevant court documents and materials related to the case;
  • A review of report cards and attendance records during the current and previous years, 
 if the children are school aged;
  • A criminal record check of parents, stepparents or any other adult who is considered a party to the custody dispute:
  • A review of driver's record abstracts of parents, stepparents or any other adult who is considered a party to the custody dispute

A custody evaluation following this routine is labor intensive, time consuming, expensive and stressful. Depending on the case, a custody evaluator spends anywhere from 20-40+ hours on the evaluation and report. A custody evaluation of this type can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 or more.

A parent who is properly informed about the structure and purpose of a custody evaluation is in a much better position to select the right custody evaluator and has the best chance that the evaluation will be done properly and comprehensively.

In conclusion, a child custody evaluation, if approached correctly, can be an opportunity for both spouses to learn to work together for the children. A child custody evaluation should guide parents toward a healthier resolution. According to Dr. Sommer, “if there weren’t so many contested custody cases, there would be fewer custody evaluations going bad.”



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