Child custody is one of the most hotly contested issues in family law cases. If parents cannot agree upon how they will each spend their respective time with their children, or how they will make important decisions for their children after separation or divorce, the court must make that determination for them. Any time a court needs to make a decision regarding a child, that decision must be guided by what the court believes is in the best interest of the child. Judges take this obligation quite seriously. For the court to make an informed decision regarding child custody matters, a judge may order—or the parties may agree to—a forensic child custody evaluation to provide the court with detailed knowledge and information about the family situation.
The prospect of a forensic child custody evaluation can be alarming to many parents. Understanding what to expect of a forensic child custody evaluation in your case can relieve some of those concerns.
A forensic child custody evaluation is an in-depth analysis and report prepared by a licensed mental health professional, usually in situations where parents are unable to agree regarding custody or if there are credible allegations of neglect, physical or sexual abuse, mental illness, substance abuse, or other specific allegations of unfitness by a parent.
Sometimes a forensic child custody evaluation may be warranted because of similar concerns regarding one or more of the children, including health, emotional, developmental, attachment, or behavioral issues and their resultant special needs. While typically ordered by a judge, parties can agree upon an evaluation on their own and select a specific evaluator. If the parents fail to agree, one parent may request of the court that an evaluation be ordered.
The evaluation is performed by a neutral mental health professional (generally a licensed psychologist) who gathers detailed psychological information about the various family members and assesses family roles, dynamics and family functions. The evaluation process may involve review of documents, administration of psychological testing, and interviews with parents, children, and often third parties. The goal of the process is to provide the parents and court with detailed, unbiased information for use during a custody determination. Generally, this information is a great resource to the court during the process of determining child custody; while the court is not obligated to adopt the evaluator’s recommendations, the recommendations are typically given great weight.
The goal of a forensic child custody evaluation is to gather accurate information and make a recommendation that will have a significant and predictable impact upon a child’s life. Accordingly, it is not a brief or cursory procedure; such an evaluation typically takes from three to five months to complete. If the judge in your case has ordered a forensic custody evaluation, you should take it seriously, participate fully, and have the sage advice of your attorney—failing to do so may reflect unfavorably upon you.
During the process, the evaluator will have multiple meetings with each parent individually and each parent with the child or children. Sometimes an evaluator will meet with the parents jointly in order to gauge the level of toxicity and conflict between the parents. If appropriate based on the children’s ages, the evaluator will also meet individually with each of the children and with the children as a group. During these meetings, the evaluator will ask questions and administer psychological tests to learn about the parties’ personalities, emotional health, mental health, parenting styles and skills, and family dynamics. In addition to meeting with the parents and children, the evaluator may also meet or talk with other adults in the children’s lives, including teachers, pediatricians, therapists, stepparents and/or parents’ live-in partners.
It’s natural to be anxious about the evaluation process and to want to put your best foot forward. However, it generally is counterproductive to try and conceal unflattering information. Negative information probably will be revealed by other collateral sources anyway. It is much better to be straightforward about your own perceived shortcomings, thereby showing insight and accepting responsibility for them. The evaluator does not expect you to be perfect! This is one area, however, where an experienced attorney can make a difference by helping determine, and preparing you to follow, a conscious and focused strategy during the child custody evaluation process.
In addition to individual and group interviews, the evaluator will probably also perform at least one home visit to each parent’s home. These visits may last for several hours, including a mealtime, and give the evaluator the opportunity to assess the suitability of the respective home environments, as well as how family members interact with each other in their “natural habitat.”
The evaluator will also seek information about the family from others who have the opportunity to work closely with the children or to observe the family dynamic. While this may feel intrusive at first blush, remember the goal is to obtain a full and accurate impression of the family, and the observations of these individuals contribute to that overall impression.
As with any important interview, it helps to be fully prepared for interviews during a custody evaluation. Not only will this help you to make a good impression, but it will help you feel more in control of the process. Some items and information you may want to gather and have ready to present include:
It also is helpful to prepare for yourself notes of issues you wish to address with the evaluator. However, you are not obligated to turn over your personal notes to the evaluator, and if you do, you should be aware that they may become available to the other parent or that parent’s attorney. Remember, the evaluator is a neutral and is not there to answer your questions about parenting or make suggestions as how best to parent. The evaluator is looking to judge your skill set without providing guidance.
If you are anxious about the custody evaluation, you may assume that your child is as well. However, your child will generally take their cues from you. The best way to prepare your child for meeting the evaluator is to keep your explanation simple, straightforward, positive, and age-appropriate. For example, you could explain to a young child that you will be meeting with a doctor who helps figure out the best way for children to spend time with each parent. If the child knows what a therapist or counselor is, you could use one of those terms.
Encourage your child to answer the evaluator’s questions honestly; to put them at ease, you can explain that you have met with the evaluator and that you are comfortable answering their questions. Do NOT coach your child as to what to say. Doing so is likely to backfire; therapists can tell when children have been coached and efforts to manipulate your child will reflect poorly on you in the final report.
The meeting may involve the evaluator observing you and your child in an everyday activity like reading a book or playing. The evaluator may also meet alone with your child to ask general questions about family life, and perhaps to ask your child to draw pictures of their family or house. The evaluator is mindful of your child’s comfort; it is not an interrogation. The techniques used allow the evaluator to learn about the child’s emotional health and relationship with parents in a non-threatening way.
The final custody evaluation report issued will describe the processes used during the evaluation, the psychological testing results and interpretations of parents and children, and the children’s current relationships with each parent. The report will also contain an assessment of the parents’ relationship with each other as well as each parent’s ability to make appropriate decisions for the children. The report will make recommendations regarding custody, time-sharing, and decision-making for the children. The final report will be shared with you and your counsel and, if your case does not settle, will likely be offered as evidence at trial.
The forensic child custody evaluation is not a complimentary service of the court (although many courts provide a significantly less involved process which does not offer the thoroughness of a forensic custody evaluation). The cost of the forensic evaluation process is borne solely by the parents, often in proportion to their incomes. As you might expect given the extensive time that goes into preparing a forensic child custody evaluation, the cost is significant. However, if it is necessary to reach a decision that is best for your children in a custody case with serious complicating issues, it is well worth it.
When faced with whether to request a forensic custody evaluation in your specific situation, consult with an experienced family law attorney to see if he or she recommends requesting this process. Be mindful that such evaluations are serious business; psychological testing used during this process may not prove helpful, and may even identify parenting issues in you. If you have further questions about forensic child custody evaluations, the attorneys of Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield have successfully guided countless clients and their children through the process. We invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.