When parents are either separating or cannot agree to a parenting plan they may attempt to resolve their dispute with the court. When parents are accused by their social services agency of child abuse or child neglect, an action may be brought in family court to protect the child.
In either case, a child custody evaluation may be conducted to determine what parenting plan or custodial situation is in the best interest of the child. A qualified evaluator may be appointed by the judge or one may be selected by agreement between the parties.
What is the “Best Interest of the Child” Standard?
Whenever child custody or support is decided by a judge, the court must use the standard called “the best interest of the child.” This standard uses multiple factors that experts agree are most important to a child’s ongoing development. The child’s interest comes first before considerations of either parent or other family members.
What Does a Child Custody Evaluator Do?
Evaluators can have multiple names such as a parental evaluator or a parent coordinator. These individuals usually possess specific degrees or specialized training in mental health, family counseling or child development. In all stages of the evaluation process, they are supposed to be guided by what is in the child’s best interest.
They gather information regarding the child and the parents from several sources including:
- Interviews with collateral contacts;
- School records;
- Health records; and/or
- Law enforcement reports, if any, from police or child protection agencies.
Who Do Child Custody Evaluators Interview?
Evaluators contact multiple people who are involved in the family’s life including professionals who have had recent or relatively little contact with the child or parents. This provides a well-rounded perspective of what is happening in the family’s life. Such contacts can include:
- Parents, step-parents, and foster parents;
- Grandparents, siblings and other involved family members;
- Childcare providers;
- Counselors and other mental health professionals who treat the parents or child;
- Friends of the family;
- Law enforcement investigators if applicable; and/or
- Employers or co-workers of the parents.
What is the Typical Process for Child Custody Evaluations?
Many courts provide guidelines for evaluations in their jurisdiction and many have a list of court-approved evaluators. Disagreeing parents can hire an evaluator themselves to make a recommendation if they feel there are serious concerns about the other parent’s ability to parent or the court may appoint one for a high-conflict case. If social services or police have been involved with allegations of abuse or neglect, the court will likely appoint one.
Once appointed, the evaluator will usually begin with obtaining a parental history survey and interviews with the parents and child. Depending on the nature of the case, the evaluator will review any relative documents and conduct interviews with collateral contacts. An evaluator may re-interview parents or the child or set up an opportunity to observe the parental and child interaction.
How Do I Prepare for My Child Custody Evaluation?
Custody evaluations can vary depending on the situation and where you live, but they typically follow the same standards and patterns. You can prepare yourself by reviewing the steps below:
- If you have a custody lawyer, speak with them first about the evaluation process and follow their advice;
- Understand the evaluator’s role;
- They are not on your side, nor are they your friend. They are an objective party only focused on what is best for your child.
- Be honest with the evaluator and answer their questions fully;.
- If you are worried about your answers, speak to your lawyer first.
- Be prepared. If the evaluator asked you to complete a survey or bring additional documentation to your meeting, do so or be ready to explain a reasonable response for failing to do so;
- Focus on parenting issues. Do not get side-tracked with complaints about your ex or other problems going on in your life; and
- Cooperate throughout the process.
What Happens if I Refuse to Cooperate with the Evaluator’s Requests?
If you fail to comply with reasonable requests of the evaluator or become hostile with their efforts, then it may negatively affect you in their evaluation. Judges frequently hold evaluators in high regard and trust their opinions. If they report that you refused to cooperate and that you were hostile when they contacted you, then the judge will likely have that impression in mind when deciding your case.
Do I Have to Pay for a Child Custody Evaluation?
Most likely, yes. If you or the other parent request an evaluation, parties typically split the costs of the evaluation. If the court appoints the evaluator, one or both party may be required to pay. If the parents are impoverished, there may be a fee waiver option available. Check with your courthouse family law clerk to apply.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Me with My Child Custody Evaluation?
If you are involved in a high conflict custody dispute or the state social services agency has raised concerns about abuse or neglect, you should hire a local family lawyer. A lawyer can evaluate your case, explain your rights and responsibilities and represent you in court. A lawyer can also prepare you for a custody evaluation and assist you in putting forth your best case.