Most divorcing parents don't have to worry about child custody evaluations. They typically only become an issue in hotly contested proceedings, when spouses can't agree on custody terms and their inability to do so forces the court to decide. Parents can request an evaluation or the court may order one, particularly when allegations of abuse or lack of fitness are involved. It's the evaluator's job to determine a custody arrangement that's in the best interests of the children.
Who Performs the Evaluation
A custody evaluator is typically a psychologist with experience in family law. He should be neutral and unbiased. This means he has never treated you, your spouse or any of your children. He must approach your family dynamics without any preconceived notions or opinions. You and your spouse might agree to hire one together, or you may each want to retain a professional of your own. If you hire your own, the court will want to know that the evaluator is not your advocate – he's not on your side and he won't attempt to skew his findings so his opinion is more favorable to you. In some cases, the judge will appoint an evaluator, either in lieu of or in addition to those hired by the parents.
Components of an Evaluation
The components of a custody evaluation can vary according to family dynamics, specific issues, or at the option of the evaluator, but most cover similar ground. The evaluation may begin with each parent completing a detailed questionnaire so the evaluator can get a feel for the issues in dispute. Psychological testing of both parents is common. The tests assess each spouse's emotional, psychological and mental states as they relate to parenting. Sometimes the children may be tested as well. The professional may interview each parent separately and both parents together, with or without the children present. He may observe each parent's interactions with the children and gather a variety of information from third-party "collateral" sources, such as teachers, pediatricians, child care providers and other family members. If allegations of abuse or neglect are involved, the evaluator can interview or gather information from social services or law enforcement agencies.
The Evaluator's Recommendations
At the conclusion of the evaluation, the professional submits a written report to the court, detailing his findings and -- in some cases -- making recommendations for custody based on what he finds to be in your children's best interests. Who actually gets to see this report or know its contents varies depending on state law. If parents are represented by attorneys, their lawyers may receive a copy. Sometimes, however, the report is sealed – it's available only to court personnel unless the judge decides there is some merit in making it available to the parents or their lawyers.
At the Trial
Evaluators are typically trained to facilitate a settlement between parents, either during or immediately after the evaluation process is completed. Parents may also negotiate an agreement when and if they learn of the evaluator's custody recommendations to the court. If you and your spouse don't reach an agreement, trial becomes necessary. Either of you or your attorneys can call the evaluator as a witness to substantiate his report or question his findings.