The Custody Evaluation Process
Referrals may come from a parent, the child's or a parent's attorney, the judge, the judge's clerk, or a family relations officer. Before accepting the referral, the evaluator clarifies the exact questions and determines whether he or she can provide an answer or opinion. Children are never evaluated without the permission of the custodial parent or the authorization of the court. Arrangements for the fee should be established at the outset of the evaluation.
A complete evaluation can be accomplished only when the evaluator interviews both parties of the custody dispute. The evaluator should consider meeting with the parents together at least once if the parents consent to it. Each parent should be interviewed individually as well, to allow sufficient time to express his or her point of view. At the start of every first session, the legal nature of the process should be explained, including the fact that privilege and confidentiality are waived.
In the parent interviews, each should be asked to address the following:
Each parent should be given the opportunity to respond to allegations raised about him or her by the other parent, and the evaluator should explore any allegations parents make against each other, particularly the subjects the parent focuses on and those he or she ignores. In most cases, psychological testing of the parents is not required.
The evaluator should conduct a psychiatric evaluation of each child, with diagnoses when appropriate. Children as young as 3 years old can, usually, be interviewed alone. Siblings can be seen together at the outset, to allow them to be supportive of each other. Each child is usually seen twice since he or she should be brought to one appointment by the mother and to another appointment by the father.
During the interview with the child, the clinician explains the purpose of the evaluation and his or her purpose in it. The evaluator explores the child's perception of the family situation and what he or she thinks is going to happen. The quality of the child's attachment with the parents is assessed. Depending on the circumstances it may or may not be appropriate to ask about the child's preference. Any custodial preference is explored, including the child's reasons for the preference, the child's fantasies about what life would be like with a particular parent, and any indications that the child has been coached.
The interview with parent and child may occur in the office or be one part of a home visit. Some evaluators have each parent and the child perform a task together, which illuminates how they work together, whether the parent is responsive to the child's lead, and the parent's patterns of discipline.
Other information should be gathered as relevant. All pertinent legal documents, such as court orders, affidavits, and motions, should be obtained. It may be desirable to interview other individuals who figure prominently in the child's or family's life, either in person or by telephone: a stepparent, a potential stepparent, grandparents, babysitters, extended family, friends, neighbors, school personnel. These interviews may or may not be helpful. Sometimes evaluators make a visit to one or both of the childs homes and talk with current and former psychotherapists of the children or the parents.
The evaluators written report, an important communication to the court, should be free of technical jargon. It should be concise but detailed enough to provide necessary information and to hold the interest of those who read it. In addition to the written report, clinicians who agree to perform a child custody evaluation also implicitly agree to be available to testify in depositions and in court if requested. Custody trials can take place a year or more after the evaluation. The evaluator should save clinical notes, since either attorney may want to see the primary data that formed the basis of conclusions and recommendations.
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THE DON’Ts – Good parenting through divorce has a dimension that is negatively defined. Good divorced parents do not speak badly or make accusations about the other parent in front of a child. They do not force a child to choose sides, or use a child as a messenger or go-between, or pump a child for information about the other parent, or argue or discuss child support issues in front of a child. In short, they do not use a child as a pawn to hurt the other parent.
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