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Child Custody Evaluations

Factors for Determining Child Custody


What is a Child Custody Evaluation?

Given the limited time a court has to evaluate the factors regarding child custody, a neutral custody evaluator may play a critical role in investigating the matter on a deeper level and providing a summary of findings and recommendations to the court. The parties may agree, or the court may order a child custody evaluation, if they believe the findings would aid in determining what is in the best interest of the child(ren).

The primary consideration in a child custody evaluation is to assess the individual and family factors which affect the child(ren)'s best psychological and developmental interests. Following an investigation, a custody evaluator's responsibility is to advise the court regarding the child(ren)'s psychological and emotional needs, the resources offered by each parent to meet those needs, and which custody or visitation arrangement would best meet those needs.

Types of Child Custody Evaluations

The judge, Guardian Ad Litem ("GAL"), or the parties themselves, may request an evaluation be conducted to assist the court in determining custody. The court-appointed evaluator performs the assessment as a neutral, remaining impartial to each party. The evaluation may be comprehensive, covering all aspects of family functioning, or problem focused, examining a particular issue (psychological, parental fitness, addiction, anger management, etc.).

A Psychological Evaluation is an independent evaluation conducted by a court-appointed psychologist or other mental health professional to assess a person's mental health functioning. A Parental Fitness Evaluation is used to determine whether a parent has the capability to raise their child(ren). An Addiction Evaluation assesses whether a parent struggles with abuse of alcohol or other controlled substances. An Anger Management Evaluation gauges how a parent with a history of violence responds in high-stress situations.

What Happens During a Custody Evaluation?

During their evaluation, custody evaluators will typically interview each parent several times, administer psychological tests which assess the parent's personality and parenting approach, observe parents interacting with their children in various situations, and administer psychological tests which evaluate the well-being of the child or children involved. Additionally, parents who have been ordered to undergo an evaluation should expect the evaluator to:

  • Interview the child(ren) involved;
  • Conduct interviews with individuals who have relevant information about parenting or child issues. These individuals often include therapists, teachers, neighbors, extended family members, step-parents or prospective stepparents, babysitters, and other individuals involved with the family;
  • Compile developmental histories for the child(ren) involved;
  • Review school records, medical and psychiatric records, legal records, and records from home, like activities calendars, personal journals, photographs, home videos, or sound recordings;
  • Conduct home visits; and
  • Make assessments regarding the parents' capacity for parenting, the child(ren)'s psychological and developmental needs, the desires of the child(ren), when appropriate, and the ability of each parent to meet those needs and desires.

What’s in a Custody Evaluation Report?

Rather than place too much weight on a single source of information, a good custody evaluator will wait patiently until they collect sufficient evidence from multiple sources before coming to any conclusions. As a result, the Custody Evaluation can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete. Remember, an evaluator's goal is to make recommendations in the best interests of the child(ren) involved.

If a GAL has also been appointed to the case, the GAL and custody evaluator will likely communicate to coordinate efforts and share information. Similar to a GAL, custody evaluators must reduce their findings to a report which explains the evidence relied upon by the evaluator and the reasoning behind their decisions. Once completed, the evaluator will submit an oral or written report to the court.

How is a Custody Evaluation used in Court?

Unlike communications with a privately retained psychologist, communication with a court-appointed custody evaluator is NOT confidential among the parents, attorneys, judges, and GAL. The evaluator's report can help the parents to reach agreements about custody, visitation, and parental decision-making concerning the child(ren).

If the parties do not reach an agreement before trial, either party may request the evaluator to appear at trial and testify on behalf of that party. As with any other professional, the parties involved in the case will be responsible for compensating the evaluator.

How Much Does a Custody Evaluation Cost?

The cost of a child custody evaluation varies depending on case circumstances and may cost anywhere between $3,000.00 and $15,000.00. Typically, the court will order both parties share this cost equally. However, if one party does choose to have the evaluator testify on their behalf, that party would be responsible for compensating the evaluator for his or her court appearance.

What if the Custody Evaluation is Wrong?

After the case evaluation is completed, either parent may challenge the validity of the evaluator's report in court if that parent considers the evidence or the reasoning relied upon by the evaluator to be inadequate. Ultimately, the judge will decide whether the evaluator's opinions are of sufficient value and weight to be considered in awarding custody and visitation.

Is a Custody Evaluation Right for my Case?

To discuss how a custody evaluation may benefit your case or what you should do to prepare for an upcoming custody evaluation in your case, contact Meriwether & Tharp, LLC to speak with one of our knowledgeable child custody attorneys.

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