There is a certain mystery about custody evaluations and how to prepare for them. This mystery is caused in part through media portrayal, rumors, and sometimes through impressions offered by various legal parties. For example, I’ve heard some attorneys say, “That evaluator always goes for the mom” or similarly biased statements. Although there’s always exceptions, many of these perceptions are generally not true. Custody evaluators have a commitment to neutrality.
Basics About Custody Evaluators:
A competent custody evaluator is a forensic psychologist or similarly qualified professional. Be careful not to go to a “generalist” who does this work “on the side”. Some psychologists join organizations that have the word "forensic" in it, or use the title like "diplomat in forensic psychology" and "forensic academy member". The fact of the matter is that many of these organizations are vanity clubs with no peer-review of credentials or experience. I challenge you to review them yourself.
Custody Evaluators hold the role of being a neutral professional, unlike therapists whose role is to advocate for their client. Basically, the role of a custody evaluator is to conduct a psychological evaluation in which the evaluator collects data, analyzes it, and offers opinions in The Best Interests of the Children about each parent's functioning and a parenting plan.
Custody Evaluation Components:
Here are the main components of a child custody evaluation:
1. The DEBRIEFING: The parents meet separately for an intake with the evaluator. You will be explained the procedures of the custody evaluation, and asked to sign releases of information, consent to participate, and payment arrangements are finalized.
2. Your INDIVIDUAL EVALUATION: This consists of a) an interview and b) psychological testing to assess your psychological functioning and your parenting skills.
3. PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIP: This is either a semi-structured or structured (or both) observation of you and your child. It may be at your home or at the doctor’s office. The evaluator observes and takes notes.
4. INTERVIEW WITH CHILDREN: The children will be interviewed, and depending on their age and the requests of the evaluation, they may partake in some psychological testing.
5. COLLATERAL CONTACT INTERVIEWS: This refers to all other third-party professionals and extended family members who are involved with your children, yourself or the family. Here’s a list of such people:
Children’s Preschool Staff
Children’s Teachers or Principal
Parent’s Medical Doctor
Parent’s Mental Health Provider
6. RECORD REVIEW: This refers to any of the records involved with #5, but also includes e-mails between parents, past mental health treatment, past criminal records, employment records, bank records, and legal records. Usually, the more complicated the case, more records will be requested.
How To Prepare For A Custody Evaluation:
This is the most frequently asked question from parents. There is some general advice I will list below, but each case is unique in its challenges, complexity, and the conflict involved, making preparation a process and not a one-time rehearsal. Don’t Lie. It will be to your own advantage if you are honest. Few things are worse for an evaluator than hearing story after story that turns out to be untrue after corroboration from additional sources. Lying will reflect poorly on you, at least to some degree.
Organize all of your information: records, phone numbers, fax numbers of any records as well as professional or other collateral contacts you think may be requested. This has two advantages: a) It prevents wasting time and b) it saves you money because the evaluator does not have to do it. Organize everything in a binder and take it to a copy center; then you can simply hand it to the evaluator.
Take Time For Yourself
Find something to deal with the stress-engage in a sport, hobby, or some form of entertainment that helps you relax. Being yourself is critically important on the days you go to court or have your evaluation. You need to unwind from the tension the whole process creates for you. Sitting at home worrying about the events and thier outcome is not at all helpful or productive.