One of the more contentious, gut-wrenching, and complex parts of Divorce is child-custody. When parents are unable to come to an agreement on their own, the court may appoint a custody evaluator to assess the situation and make recommendations. The court can do this on their own (which rarely happens), or the court can do this at the request of one of the parents (which is usually the case). Most people have never been through a custody evaluation, so they don’t know what to expect. This article will detail what parents can anticipate as they go through a custody evaluation.
What is a custody evaluator?
A custody evaluator is a neutral third party who is appointed by the court to evaluate the circumstances surrounding a child custody dispute. The evaluator’s job is to gather information about the family, assess the child’s relationship with each parent, see each parent’s living arrangements, interview the child and the people that know the child best, and explore any other factor the evaluator deems is relevant and may impact the child’s well-being.
What qualifications does a custody evaluator have?
Custody evaluators typically have backgrounds in psychology or social work, and they have extensive training and experience in child development, family dynamics, and the legal system. They often have advanced degrees, such as a Ph.D. in psychology or a Master’s in Social Work.
In addition to their education and training, custody evaluators must adhere to ethical standards set forth by their profession and by the court. They must be unbiased and objective in their evaluations and recommendations, and they must always prioritize the best interests of the child.
What does a custody evaluation actually involve?
A custody evaluation typically involves several steps:
- Initial meeting: The evaluator will meet with each parent to discuss the case, gather basic information, explain the evaluation process, and generally allow for time to become familiar with one another.
- Interviews: The evaluator will conduct interviews with each parent, caregivers, the child’s therapist, doctors and teachers if relevant and necessary, and anyone else who may have valuable information. The evaluator will ask each parent what their biggest concerns are, issues they feel need to be addressed, and may confront the parents about allegations that need to be sorted out.
- Speak to the Child: They evaluator almost always speaks with the child directly. In custody battles, children are often telling their parents different things. This can be a good opportunity for the evaluator to hear directly from the child.
- Home visits: The evaluator will visit each parent’s home to assess the living environment and see how the parents interact with the child in their own space. This can help them see how the parent and child are bonded with each other. During this visit, it’s important for you to do something natural and interactive with your child. Don’t think of this meeting as one where you’re hosting and entertaining a guest, but one where the evaluator is a fly on the wall and wants to observe you interacting with your child as you would in everyday activities.
- Psychological testing: The evaluator may administer psychological tests to the parents and child to gain further insight into their personalities, emotional states, and mental health.
- Evidence gathering: While all these aforementioned steps are taking place, the custody evaluator will be gathering evidence. Parents are permitted to send the evaluator information that supports their position. This can include documented communications, criminal charges, medical records, photographs, school records, and anything else a parent feels is relevant. Your attorney should help you put together a packet of information for the custody evaluator.
What factors do custody evaluators consider?
Just like the courts, custody evaluators consider factors that are designed to help assess what is in a child’s best interests. This can include:
- The child’s age, gender, and developmental stage
- Each parent’s relationship/bond with the child
- Each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, and medical care
- The child’s emotional and physical well-being
- The child’s relationship with any siblings or other family members that the child has access to through one of the parents
- Each parent’s ability to provide a stable and consistent environment for the child
- Any history of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence in the family
- The child’s preferences, if they are old enough to express them.
What happens after the evaluation is complete?
After the evaluation is complete, you will schedule a 4-903 conference. This is a meeting attended by you, your ex, both of your attorneys, the custody evaluator, and a mediator. At this meeting, the evaluator will provide their recommendation for custody and parent-time. This will typically include a list of areas where the parents are succeeding, areas where the parents need work, concerns about the child, resources the evaluator thinks will be helpful, and parenting plan provisions the evaluator believes should be included in the final Decree of Divorce or Custody Agreement.
After the evaluator has provided their report, the parties will mediate in an attempt to resolve the case and come to an agreement on what custody and parent-time should look like. If they can’t come to an agreement, the parties will need to request a written report from the evaluator and schedule a trial where the judge will make a final determination.
A custody evaluation can be a long, drawn-out process. Don’t expect the process to move quickly. However, having an expert on the case that can use their expertise to make recommendations is sometimes the only option you have left to resolve a custody dispute. If you find yourself going through a custody evaluation, work closely with your attorney to strategize and prepare evidence for the evaluator that substantiates your version of events. The evaluator can only make conclusions based on the evidence they’re presented, so don’t delay or be casual about the information you provide.