A custody evaluation, sometimes called a "parenting evaluation," is a formal court-ordered investigation of a parent that attempts to determine who is best suited to care for minor children.

A custody evaluation is typically done at the request of one of the parties during a divorce, although it may also be court ordered in the event of child neglect, an arrest for a drug crime, an investigation by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), or other similar event where a parent’s fitness is called into question.

What is a Child Custody Evaluation Process?

It is important for parents to fully understand that the evaluation is just to determine what would be in the best interest of your child. In order for the professional who is making the evaluation to make this determination they will use the following guidelines during the evaluation process:

  1. Court orders a custody evaluation of both co-parents
  2. Conduct interview of the child
  3. Interviews with parents and children
  4. Psychological testing (such as the MMPI)
  5. Observation of parent/child interactions with one another
  6. Review previous court and legal case involving the divorce and custody
  7. Follow-up interviews

Do I Need to Prepare for a Custody Evaluation?

Yes. Custody evaluations are expensive, thorough, and carry serious consequences. Understanding the process and knowing the best way to conduct oneself during each step can drastically improve the chances of being awarded favorable child custody or visitation rights.

How Can I Prepare for a Custody Evaluation?

In order to prepare for a custody evaluation, it is essential to understand the process itself. Generally, a custody evaluation will include the following steps:

  1. Be cooperative with the evaluator;
  2. Be honest and open with your evaluator;
  3. Be prepared and organized for the interview;
  4. Make sure that you are holding the best interest of the child at all times;
  5. Dress appropriately and be courteous to the evaluator; and
  6. contact the person or agency who is conducting it to find out the  procedure.

How Do I Handle Each Step of the Custody Evaluation?

Below is a layout of the general steps involved in custody evaluations, and things parents may wish to consider.

1) Parental History Survey

The parental history survey is essentially a long questionnaire that covers all aspects of marriage, separation, divorce, and other information that may be useful in determining parenting ability. Each parent should answer the questions honestly, and support answers with facts. When permitted, parents should go beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers and elaborate with short explanations. Whenever possible, typing answers is one easy way to make a good first impression.

2) Personal Interviews

During this step, a trained evaluator who is usually a psychologist will interview parents. The interview typically lasts a couple of hours. 

Before the interview, parents should prepare any documents that may show their ex-spouse’s faults. Things like financial records, notes, pictures and documents of criminal behavior can all be used to give credibility and weight to an interview. However, it is important to only provide useful and relevant documents, as offering irrelevant and inflammatory documents can make that spouse appear vindictive. 

3) Psychological Testing

Parents will likely be asked to take a psychological or personality test as part of the custody evaluation. The MMPI (Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory) is an example of a commonly used test. These tests are designed to provide an objective measure of personality. It is very important to be honest when taking this test.

Due to the test’s design, it is nearly impossible to "cheat" the test. Attempting to show yourself in a good light, perhaps by selecting the answers that the person believes will make them look like a good parent, is a bad idea. These tests are designed to expose inconsistency and dishonesty. The best way to test is to relax and answer the questions quickly and honestly.

4) Observed Parent/Child Interaction

Each parent will be asked to interact with his or her child while under the observation of a trained professional. Parents should attempt to play normally with their child. Moreover, this type of experience is stressful for children, so parents should try and make them feel as comfortable as possible. Play, talk, have fun – but most importantly, don’t try to "fake-it." It will show.  

5) Collateral Contact Interviews

This is considered one of the most important steps in the process. Through interviews with collateral contacts, an evaluator can discover if either spouse has behavioral patterns that make them unsuitable parents. Things like infidelity, drug use, physical abuse, mental cruelty and financial manipulation can all be discovered through these interviews. Thus, it is important to choose good collateral contacts.

6) Follow-up Interviews

This is the last chance to make a good impression on an evaluator. More importantly, it is also an opportunity to respond to allegations made by the other party. Again, as always, honesty is key. If the ex-spouse has made false allegations, calmly deny them and clarify. Follow-up interviews are also each parent’s last chance to provide the evaluator with any additional information or documentation that is favorable to their position.

Who Pays for a Custody Evaluation?

Custody evaluations are expensive, generally ranging from $1,800 – $6,000. Courts usually assign this cost to the divorcing parents who have requested the evaluation. Understanding this service may not be a plausible option for everyone, courts may offer some lower cost alternatives.  

What Should I do During the Custody Evaluation?

Custody evaluations are very important and each co-parent should make sure that they act appropriately professionally, and cooperatively. During the Interview, a parent SHOULD:

  • Attempt to be fair and reasonable
  • Remain calm and relaxed
  • Answer all questions honestly
  • Put the best interest of the child first

During the Interview, a parent SHOULD NOT:

  • Trash-talk or slander their ex
  • Tell lies in order to make their ex look bad
  • Get angry or emotional
  • Argue with the interviewer

Should I Talk to my Children About Custody Evaluation?

There will be a lot of confusion from your children during the child custody evaluation process and you should talk to your children about the situation in order for them to understand. Explain to them that all the evaluator is doing is talking to your family to understand and learn about your family. You should never coach your children on what to do or say especially if it is in the negative about the other parent. 

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Getting custody of your children is one of the most important battles you will ever fight. If you are in a custody dispute, you should contact a child custody lawyer as quickly as possible. Your attorney will guide you through the custody evaluation process and can help you make a favorable impression on the court and evaluators.