THE CUSTODY EVALUATION PROCESS: HOW TO PREPARE AND WHAT TO EXPECT
The job of a Custody Evaluator is to make a determination regarding the best interests of the child. Depending on the facts of your case, an evaluator’s determination regarding the “best interests” may include whether a party should have sole or joint legal custody, whether a party should have sole or joint residential custody, what an appropriate parenting time schedule would look like, and whether a party should be allowed to relocate with a child (either in or out of state), among other considerations. The evaluator will also consider the age of the child, and if dealing with an infant, will take into account the need for the child to have bonding time with both parents.
Courts often give considerable weight to the recommendations of the evaluator, who can explain the social sciences behind his or her recommendations. They also recognize that participants are usually extremely nervous about the process, since their children are often a driving force behind how they lead their lives. Custody evaluators expect this, and understand the stress the evaluation process can cause and it is often reflected in the results of psychological testing.
In order for the evaluator to fully understand the family dynamics, the typical custody evaluation will consist of:
- Two or three interviews with each parent;
- Two or three interviews with each child, if old enough;
- Observations of parental interaction with each child, both in the office and, potentially, in the home environment;
- Psychological testing, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-II);
- Reviewing important court filings (certifications, orders, other expert reports) or other documents (report cards, doctor reports, medical reports\notes, activities, emails, etc); and
- Interviews with various individuals involved in the child’s life, including teachers, therapists, daycare providers, pediatricians, and others that can provide insight into the child or either parent.
Once complete, the evaluator will issue a report with recommendations regarding custody, parenting time, and other issues pertinent to your case. Their decision is based on a variety of factors, including:
- The quality of each parent’s relationship to each child;
- The relationship between the parents – the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child;
- A lack of open hostility toward the other parent;
- Any evidence of domestic abuse or violence Each parent’s willingness and ability to support each child’s ongoing relationships with the other parent;
- The parenting skills and capacity of each parent;
- Each parent’s psychological health, including any drug or alcohol abuse;
- The children’s psychological health;
- The interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings;
- The needs of the child;
- The geographical proximity of the parents’ homes;
- Whether the parties have shown empathy regarding the children (the ability to understand what the children are feeling and the willingness to react appropriately);
- Whether each party sets appropriate boundaries for each child, given that child’s age and behaviors;
- Whether each party surrounds him or herself in a proper environment, with proper care providers;
- Behavior supportive of the relationship between the children and the other parent;
- Behavior which demonstrates that you are striving to keep the child insulated from the conflict; and
- the parents’ employment responsibilities.
A custody evaluator’s report will typically include the following information:
- A recommendation regarding custody and parenting time;
- A process for resolving future problems;
- Suggestions for therapy or parenting classes, as needed;
- Guidelines for dealing with special problems such as abuse, violence, or parental alienation;
- Schedules or suggestions for re-evaluation, as needed; and
- Any other issues specific to your case.
Following some basic guidelines will help to decrease your stress and thus help the evaluator get a true understanding of you and your parenting style:
- Treat the evaluation like you would a job interview. Arrive on time and dress neatly and conservatively.
- Be honest, sincere, and avoid becoming defensive. The custody evaluator will likely check out your statements with collaterals and/or other sources. They are trained to detect over embellishment and insincerity. Remember that custody evaluators may ask provocative questions that either align with you or the other side in order to get a response. Do not take the bait, even if you think the evaluator agrees with you.
- Remember that what you say to the evaluator will not be kept confidential. The entire purpose of this evaluation is for a report to be generated to be given to the Court.
- Be organized. Have any documents you wish to present organized in a coherent fashion. Make a list of your concerns so that you can be confident they have been communicated. Make a list of other important individuals in your child’s life you think the evaluator should talk to, including teachers, daycare workers, etc., and make sure you have spoken to those individuals to let them know they may be contacted. Ask them to be honest if contacted. It is important in general to communicate with your child’s educators and health care providers, and you should discuss with the evaluator how often you communicate with those individuals.
- If you are asked to provide additional documentation, do so as promptly as possible. If you have concerns about getting that information, communicate that to the evaluator immediately. Always respond promptly and calmly to evaluator requests, including requests for additional testing, documentation, and/or payment.
- Understand that it is ok to be nervous, cry, and show emotion. Doing any or all of these are normal and sometimes even expected. Try your best to stay relaxed and let the best aspects of your personality come out (patience, humor, concern for the child’s well-being, etc.).
- Pay attention to the questions asked, and answer them directly and to the point. Take your time answering the questions. If you don’t understand the question, don’t guess – ask for clarification, or for the evaluator to explain further.
- If the custody evaluator chooses to use psychological testing, you MUST answer honestly. The tests are designed to detect defensive or evasive answers as well as lies. You will not fool these tests.
- If your child is of an appropriate age, let them know in general terms that they are going to speak to someone and/or be observed by that person, and should be open and honest with that person. Let them know they will not be in trouble for anything they say or do.
- Present yourself as reasonable and placing the concerns of your child above all. Communicate your knowledge of your child’s interests, needs, and desires, and use that knowledge as a basis for your views on custody. When the evaluator is observing you with your children, be attentive to their needs. Focus on their interests and not yours. Show the priority the children have in your life.
There are also a number of things you should avoid during a custody evaluation:
- DO NOT bad mouth or give negative opinions about the other parent or his or her family. If you have concerns, limit them to factual issues (for example, “he drinks about 6 beers a night” versus “he drinks a lot”).
- DO NOT repeatedly call the evaluator to ask when the report will be complete, or harass the evaluator with phone calls.
- DO NOT ask other individuals to speak favorably or coach them on what to say. They should be as open and honest with the evaluator as you should be.
- DO NOT coach your children on how to behave or what to say. DO NOT tell them to say negative things about the other parent. The custody evaluator has ways of telling if this has happened.
- DO NOT use your children as messengers to the other parent.
- DO NOT refuse to talk to the other parent regarding the child. Keep all communications “BIFF” – Brief, Informative, Factual and Focused. Do not accept abusive communications, but an outright refusal is usually not a good thing.
- DO NOT excessively leave the child with babysitters, especially if you are not the parent of primary residence.
- DO NOT be inflexible regarding parenting time issues.
- DO NOT allow your significant other to get involve in custody disputes.
- DO NOT drop by the expert’s office without an appointment.
It is important to remember that there is no such thing at a perfect parent. Instead, evaluators direct their recommendations at determining the best parenting arrangement to meet the needs of your child. They are not here to side with you, but with your children.
Divorce can be especially stressful when children are involved. Here at Daly and Associates, we are here to help you through these issues to make sure we protect the interests of both you and your children. If you have any questions about this article or other Family Law issues, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at (973) 292-9222 or