Child custody is one of the most contentious issues that can arise during a divorce. Parents have strong opinions on what is best for their children, and often while going through a divorce, those opinions are opposed to one another. Accordingly, it can be difficult for parents to reach agreement on issues related to child custody and visitation, especially if one parent has concerns about the other’s fitness or there are credible allegations of neglect or abuse.
In many cases where parents struggle to agree upon legal or residential custody, a court-ordered child custody evaluation may be appropriate. A child custody evaluation is an analysis of the current family situation and dynamic that culminates in a report to the court containing specific recommendations regarding an appropriate custody arrangement. Either parent can request the court to consider ordering an evaluation, or the court may order an evaluation on its own.
If the judge or family magistrate in your case orders or recommends a court custody evaluation, it is not necessarily a sign that they think you or your spouse are bad parents. While child custody evaluations are not ordered in all cases, they may be called for if there are factors suggesting that the case could be especially complex. Those factors might include credible allegations of child abuse, neglect, or substance abuse by a parent. But a court may also order an evaluation if it is clear the parents are unable to reach agreement on their own, and the court wants assistance in determining what is in the best interest of the child.
Child custody evaluations are conducted by trained mental health professionals, typically licensed clinical social workers perform the court custody evaluations. In more extreme situations, a private, forensic custody evaluation can be ordered and performed by a forensic psychologist. Regardless of whether the evaluator is a clinical social worker or a forensic psychologist, custody evaluators are neutral parties whose function is to gather information about all members of the family and the family environment to assist the court make an appropriate custody determination.
These evaluations are intended to investigate a family’s circumstances and relationships to determine what custody arrangements are best for the child. As such, they are not brief or cursory. An in-depth evaluation may take as long as three to five months, or even longer.
If a judge or family magistrate thinks that an evaluation would be helpful in resolving custody issues, an evaluator will be appointed. The custody evaluation process begins with initial meetings in which parents, children, and other adults involved in the case (such as a parent’s fiancé) meet with the evaluator to provide background information.
As the case progresses, the evaluator will likely meet with each parent and the children to observe their interactions and will conduct visits to observe the homes where the children spend time. Home visits often last from one to five hours, and may include a mealtime, so that the evaluator can get a real sense of what the home environment is like if the evaluation is forensic in nature.
If utilizing a psychologist for the child custody evaluation, the evaluator may also perform psychological tests of both parents and children. Additionally, they will often request school and medical records and may interview other adults in the children’s lives, such as teachers, caregivers, and counselors to get a more complete picture of the children’s lives and their relationships with the parents.
After the child custody evaluator has completed this process, he or she will prepare a written report with custody recommendations that will be submitted to the parties and sometimes directly to the court.
The court does not have to follow the recommendations of a child custody evaluator. However, because the evaluator is a trained mental health professional with a neutral role in the case, and because the custody evaluator has spent much more time with the family than the judge, courts usually give these recommendations great weight.
However, like any expert utilized during litigation, child custody evaluators, and their work, can be examined, challenged and rebutted at trial. Oftentimes in these situations, a party who does not agree with the child custody evaluator’s determination will utilize their own child custody expert to try and neutralize the recommendations.
Generally, the mental health professional conducting the evaluation is paid for his or her time. If the evaluation is one that is performed by the court’s own in-house child custody evaluators, then there is no charge for these types of evaluations. However, if a private, forensic custody evaluation is ordered, then the parties are required to pay for these services directly.
As you can imagine, given the in-depth nature of such evaluations, the evaluator puts in many hours interviewing parties and children, reviewing documents, and preparing their report. Accordingly, private, forensic child custody evaluations often cost tens of thousands of dollars. When ordering a private child custody evaluation, courts typically order parents to share the cost of the evaluation in proportion to their respective incomes, but may order one parent to bear a greater (or lesser) share of the expense depending upon the particular circumstances.
If you have been ordered to participate in a child custody evaluation in Maryland, you should be working with an experienced family law attorney. Your attorney will not be with you when you meet with the custody evaluator, but he or she can help you to be prepared for the evaluation process and help you to convey the best possible impression and information.
In general, you should be on time for all meetings with your custody evaluator, and be clean, neat, and appropriately dressed. Always be honest and straightforward; never be less than truthful in an attempt to make a good impression. These experts are experienced, and it is likely that your evaluator will discover the truth, and your dishonesty will make you seem untrustworthy.
Remember, the child custody evaluator does not expect you to be a perfect parent—just one who puts your child’s needs before your own. If you have more detailed and specific questions about child custody evaluations occurring in Maryland, please contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.