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Child Custody Evaluations: What to Expect

David B. Clark, Ph.D.

Child custody evaluations frequently are ordered by courts when the attorneys and/or the judge believe that a detailed assessment of the family would be helpful in determining the child(ren)’s best interests. Child custody evaluations are ordered both in divorce and post-divorce cases. The child custody evaluator is appointed by a specific Court Order and works with the family as a neutral and impartial professional. The child custody evaluator is not an advocate for either parent. The evaluator’s primary responsibility is to assist the Court. Qualified child custody evaluators are mental health professionals who have specialized training and experience in family law matters in addition to their basic professional qualifications.

Child custody evaluations consist of several elements. These include interviews of each parent, interviews of each child (depending on age), observations of interactions between each parent and the child(ren), psychological testing of each parent, psychological testing of the child(ren) in certain cases, review of collateral documents such as school and health records, review of case-related documents such as pleadings and depositions, and interviews of other people who may know the family well such as teachers or physicians. Detailed questionnaires covering the parents’ personal histories and relationship with the child(ren) often are included also. Child custody evaluations are thorough, because the stakes are high. It is critical that the Court obtain relevant and reliable information to assist its determination of the child(ren)’s best interests. Comprehensive child custody evaluations take place over several weeks, sometimes even several months, and cost several thousand dollars. Costs are usually split in some fashion between the two parents. Expenses for child custody evaluations are not covered by health insurance, so they are an out-of-pocket expense.

Child custody evaluations focus on assessing the psychological and parenting strengths and weaknesses of each parent, the psychological status and needs of each child, the quality of each parent’s relationship with the child(ren), and other factors specific to the individual case. Evaluators assess factors such as the psychological health of each parent and the impact of any psychological problems on parenting ability; each parent’s ability to accurately understand and meet the child(ren)’s needs; each parent’s ability to support the child(ren)’s relationship with the other parent; the child(ren)’s perception of each parent and the quality of relationship with each parent; the presence or absence of any special needs in the child(ren) and each parent’s ability and willingness to address those needs; and how the child(ren)’s development status impacts an age appropriate parenting plan. The overall goal is to achieve an in-depth understanding of the family and to offer conclusions and recommendations to assist the Court in determining the best parenting plan for the child(ren) involved. In most cases, the child custody evaluator will offer specific recommendations to the Court for legal and physical custody of the child(ren). Judges are not required to follow evaluator’s recommendations, but usually give significant weight to their opinions. The information obtained in a comprehensive child custody evaluation usually is summarized in a detailed written report issued by the evaluator to the judge and the attorneys. Evaluators also may testify in depositions and/or court hearings to offer their conclusions and recommendations.

Parents who enter into a child custody evaluation will serve themselves, their children and the Court best by being open and honest about their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the other parent. Parents who present themselves as perfect and the other parent as perfectly awful are not convincing to evaluators or to judges. Parents should feel free to suggest to the evaluator any documents they believe are relevant for the evaluator to review and any individuals they believe the evaluator should attempt to interview. Parents also should assist the evaluator to obtain any documents or other information the evaluator requests. Parents should give their child(ren) a truthful but simple explanation of the evaluation process and should not coach or prompt the child(ren) about what to tell the evaluator. Parents also should not tell the child that their discussions with the evaluator are confidential, because they are not.

David B. Clark, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Chesterfield, Missouri. His practice includes counseling of children, adolescents and adults; psychological evaluations and child custody evaluations in family law matters; mediation; parenting coordination; and consultation to attorneys and clients in family law matters. He may be reached by telephone at 636-537-8222.