Anatomy of a Child Custody Evaluation
Dr. Philip M. Stahl, who is the author of Conducting Child Custody Evaluations: From Basic to Complex Issues, notes that unlike mediation or other settlement techniques, in which spouses are encouraged to reach an agreement about custody and visitation and develop a parenting plan for the children, in a child custody evaluation, the evaluator recommends a particular plan to the court. It is not a settlement process like mediation. Rather, it is a process in which the evaluator gathers information about the family and makes a recommendation based on that information. In an ideal situation, the spouses use that recommendation to reach a settlement, but if not, the judge can use the evaluation, along with all other testimony, to make an order.
Stahl says that not all evaluators utilize the same process, but there are certain things that are common in all evaluations, including interviews and observations of the parents and the children, a review of the case papers, and contact with some collateral sources (e.g. therapists, teachers, day-care personnel, pediatricians). The evaluation includes [a] written report with specific recommendations about custody/visitation, and which addresses all of the major concerns raised by you and your ex-spouse.
Many parents worry about the cost of a child custody evaluation. Depending on the jurisdiction, the size of your family, and the types of issues causing your disagreement, the evaluation might cost from $2000 - $6000. Normally in smaller communities, there might be only a few available evaluators, but in larger metropolitan communities, there are usually a number of evaluators from which to choose.
Typically, the attorney or the judge selects an evaluator. Normally, the parent wants to ask the potential evaluator about his/her experience as a child custody evaluator, if he/she has taken any specific training about your issues of concern, and how he/she conducts the evaluation. This is especially true when there are special problems such as domestic violence, substance abuse problems, alienation of children, or relocation. In addition, the evaluator might do psychological testing or use questionnaires that help provide additional information about a parents emotional functioning or parenting style. Psychologists, especially in more complicated evaluations, commonly use these additional techniques and they are designed to provide further information that will help in his/her recommendations. The evaluator might also include a home visit at each parent's home. This is designed to give the evaluator an observation in a more natural setting. Home visits are particularly useful with very young children, especially those under age 6.
An evaluation is not confidential because neither the parents nor the children are the clients of the evaluator; the court is. Normally, when a person sees a psychologist, the information shared with the psychologist is confidential. However, in a court-ordered child custody evaluation, the court is the client and holds the privilege. All material gathered by the evaluator is potentially discoverable by attorneys and the evaluator is subject to examination and cross-examination if the case goes to trial.
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