Details Regarding Custody Evaluations

Custody evaluations can be frightening.

There is no doubt that you want what is best for your child. Unfortunately, often the anger that can occur when going through a contentious divorce makes many parents lose their objectivity regarding what is really in their child’s best interests.  As a result, the child is often put into the middle of the parents’ arguments. In this case, no one wins.

Depending on the age of your child, there are different things to consider. For example, a young child needs a sense of security and stability.  Changing schools and friends is probably not in his or her best interests.  An older child might need some ability to have a voice in what will happen to him or her. Visitation with the non custodial parent may be different depending on the age of a child. Very young children may need more time in the custodial home, while older children do fine with more equalized visitation.  Every situation is different so a thorough evaluation of the situation is required.

Regardless of the age, divorce takes a toll on children.  So the more that parents can decide together, the easier (and less costly) it will be for everyone. Remember, that often children feel that they are responsible for their parents’ divorce.  They think that they weren’t good enough, that the parent couldn’t love them enough, and that they are responsible for their parents’ happiness or unhappiness.  It is really important to assure your child that you still love him or her. It is also important to make certain that your child is never caught in the middle of an argument or is forced to chose sides between the parents.  In that regard, arguments in front of the children should be avoided.

In addition, don’t use the child as the go between or message carrier. Parents should talk with each other. Never say negative things about the other parent in front of the child. This will force the child to chose one parent or the other—a situation that no child should be forced into.

A custody evaluation is a court ordered evaluation. It is often called a 604.b evaluation because that is the portion of the laws pertaining to divorce that deal with custody evaluations.  Generally, the custody evaluator will be a mental health professional with many years of experience doing evaluations.  Either the attorneys or the judge will be familiar with the custody evaluator’s work and will recommend him or her to do the evaluation.

Once the court has ordered the evaluation you must comply with the custody process. However, if you are not happy with the outcome, you may request a 604.5 evaluation which is another custody evaluation that is paid for by whoever asks for the additional evaluation.  Most evaluators charge by the hour and since many hours are involved this is a costly process. What to expect:  Most custody evaluators will want to meet with both parents and the children. Generally this is done individually with each parent and then the child or children are brought by each parent for an evaluation.

The evaluation will include interviews as well as psychological tests.  Often if there are significant others who are also involved in the children’s lives, those people are also evaluated.  The interview will delve into all aspects of each person’s life.  The evaluator will ask questions about your childhood, your relationship with the other parent, what caused the divorce, and your relationship with your children.  The psychological tests are used to get a sense of your psychological well being as well as to assess your ability to parent your children.  The evaluator will also spend some time in observing each parent with the  children.  Sometimes the evaluator will ask you to bring toys or games to the office or the evaluator might ask you to plan an event with your child. This is done so that the evaluator can see how you and your children interact.

Most custody evaluators will also conduct home visits. During the home visit, the evaluator looks at the home to see whether the home is a safe and comfortable environment for the children.  The evaluator also tries to gauge the children’s comfort level within each parental home. You will also be asked to provide any collateral information that might help the evaluator get a better sense of the situation. This might include doctor’s reports, school records, copies of emails, letters of support from friends and relatives, and any additional legal documents which were not made available by the attorneys.

Some evaluators will ask for a release to speak with the doctors (both yours and your children’s) and your children’s teachers.  Some evaluators might simply want a report from the doctor’s and the teachers. Once all of the interviews, assessments, and observations are complete, the evaluator will write an extensive report detailing the information and conclusions and recommendations.  Recommendations are generally made regarding joint or sole decision making custody, residential custody, parenting plans, and any other factors that the evaluator believes are in the best interests of the children.

Some things to keep in mind:  The custody evaluator is impartial. He or she is not the enemy. Their sole purpose is to make certain that decisions regarding your children are really in their best interests.  If you don’t understand something that is happening, ask questions.  A good evaluator will be happy to answer them. Many people assume that a custody evaluator conducting a 604.5 evaluator is actually a “hired gun” for the person who is paying for his or her services.  A good custody evaluator will be impartial and will use his or her expertise to come to an impartial conclusion regardless of who is paying the bill. Because this is a court ordered evaluation, nothing you say will be confidential.

Try to be as honest as possible with the evaluator, but remember that what you say will most likely be in the evaluator’s report. Custody evaluations tend to be expensive. Most evaluators will ask for a retainer before beginning this process.  Payment in full will be expected before the report is released to the attorneys.  Generally both parties pay equally for the 604.b evaluation.

However, only the party requesting the 604.5 evaluation is responsible for paying that evaluation.  The court will generally address issues of payment in the court order for the evaluation.