A custody evaluator is a mental health professional who performs written recommendations to the court regarding the custody-visitation arrangement and how it will serve the best interests of the children involved. Custody evaluations are typically often utilized in highly contested custody disputes.
In the course of an investigation, a custody evaluator will:
- Interview both parents, observe the children with each of the parents
- Conduct age-appropriate interviews with the children, and
- Interview other significant people such as teachers, daycare providers, healthcare providers, extended family members, and friends.
Furthermore, the professionals will administer some standard psychological tests. It may also be helpful to the evaluator to visit the child’s home or to visit any other place where the child may reside. In the interest of objectivity, the professional selected to conduct the custody evaluation should not be a person who has previously treated any member of the family. It is also suggested that each party pay one-half the costs of the custody evaluation, to avoid the appearance that the professional may be biased towards the parent who paid the fee.
Moreover, a well-drafted report will contain a summary of the information collected, an assessment of the family, and the needs of the children and will also recommend a custody or visitation arrangement. The custody evaluator’s recommendation is just one factor that the court will take into consideration when deciding what custody/visitation arrangement is in the children’s long-range best interests.
Lastly, members will be mailed a full-sized certificate consisting of all the relevant information and attesting to the fact that the named recipient has:
- Satisfied the requirements for education, training, and experience
- Met the necessary criteria, and
- Is therefore recognized as a Nationally Certified Custody Evaluator
What are the Basic Steps in Custody Or Visitation Evaluations?
Each state can have its unique guidelines when it comes to doing evaluations for child custody and visitation. For example, in the Maryland Courts, at a court hearing called the Scheduling Hearing, a Family Magistrate will order an evaluation or assessment if he or she ascertains that the court and the parties would benefit from the input of the evaluative process.
If the case is a Post-Judgment case, a motion must be made for an evaluation or assessment to be ordered, which includes the reason(s) for the order. A judge or magistrate may also order a custody evaluation in a Post-Judgement case if they decide that it is necessary.
Once an evaluation is ordered (at a scheduling hearing or later on the motion of a party), the parties are directed to Family Division Services (each will be different depending on which state you reside in) to meet with an evaluator for separate intake interviews. Moreover, a custody or visitation evaluation is an in-depth process that concludes with oral testimony by the Evaluator at the Settlement or Status Hearing.
Before this hearing, the Court Evaluator will observe the children with each respective parent in their respective homes or at the court depending on geographical distance from the court. The children may be interviewed at the court if mature enough. Additionally, at the Settlement or Status Hearing, the Evaluator’s oral testimony will include a psychosocial history and generally extensive collateral contacts with school personnel, therapists, governmental agencies, and litigant references. Keep in mind that this transcript of the proceeding will serve as the official record of the Evaluator’s testimony.
What are the Licensing Requirements for a Professional Child Custody Evaluator?
The licensing requirements will differ based on the state you reside in. However, in general, the private child custody evaluators must either be licensed as a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, clinical social worker, physician who is board-certified as a psychiatrist, or licensed physician who has completed a residency in psychiatry.
But, these criteria do not apply in cases where the court determines that there are no evaluators who meet the licensing requirements and who are willing and available within a reasonable period, to perform child custody evaluations. In those cases, the parties to the custody dispute must agree to have the evaluations performed by non-licensed providers and the prospective evaluators are subject to approval by the court.
For instance, according to the California Courts, the initial training for private child custody evaluators is 40 hours of education and training from an eligible provider. Eligible providers include the Administrative Office of the Court and may include educational institutions, professional associations, professional continuing education groups, public or private for-profit or non-profit groups, and court-connected groups.
Furthermore, the necessary hours can be completed by attending and participating in an approved course or by serving as an instructor for an approved course. Before the appointment, an evaluator must complete hours of education and training which include the following topics:
- The psychological and developmental needs of children, especially as those needs relate to decisions about child custody and visitation;
- Family dynamics, including, but not limited to, parent-child relationships, blended families, and extended family relationships;
- The effects of separation, divorce, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, child physical or emotional abuse or neglect, substance abuse, and interparental conflict on the psychological and developmental needs of children and adults;
- The assessments of child sexual abuse issues.
- The importance of addressing issues such as general mental health, medication use, and learning or physical disabilities;
- Staying current with relevant literature and research in the area;
- Learning how to apply comparable interview, assessment, and testing procedures that meet generally accepted clinical, forensic, scientific, diagnostic, or medical standards to all parties;
- When it is considered the right time to consult with or involve additional experts or other appropriate persons;
- How to inform each adult party of the purpose, nature, and method of the evaluation;
- How to assess parenting capacity and construct effective parenting plans;
- Ethical requirements;
- The legal context within which child custody and visitation issues are decided and additional legal and ethical standards to consider when serving as a child custody evaluator;
- The importance of understanding relevant distinctions among the roles of evaluator, mediator, and therapist;
- How to draft reports and recommendations, where appropriate;
- Understanding the mandatory reporting requirements and limitations on confidentiality;
- How to prepare for and provide court testimony;
- How to maintain professional neutrality and objectivity when conducting child custody evaluations and;
- The importance of assessing the health, safety, welfare, and best interest of the child or children involved in the proceedings.
In addition to the requirements outlined above, child custody evaluators must comply with basic and advanced domestic violence training requirements as described in the California Rule of Court. Moreover, a total of sixteen hours of advanced training must be completed within 12 months.
The hours must be in the appropriate structuring of the child custody evaluation process, and the relevant sections of local, state, and federal laws or rules. Furthermore the understanding of the range, availability, and applicability of domestic violence resources available to victims and methods of domestic violence interventions.
When Do I Need to Contact A Lawyer?
As discussed above, being a professional child custody evaluator requires extensive knowledge and experience in the particular area. Therefore, if you are ever in need of one, it is highly recommended to reach out to your local child custody lawyer to help you connect with one in your case.