In some contested custody cases, the court needs an independent expert to provide the court with information and recommendations about custody. The court appoints a child custody evaluator either on its own or pursuant to a motion filed by either parent. The key to the evaluation is that the evaluator be impartially objective. After the evaluation is completed, either parent may show bias (look for upcoming blog on showing bias.) At the end of the evaluation, the evaluator (often a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist) submits a confidential report.
Before the evaluation starts, the court must clearly set out the parameters of the evaluation. In other words, it must be spelled out exactly what questions the evaluator must answer and what issue must s/he address in the course of the evaluation. Often, the criteria is determined during the hearing for appointment of the child custody evaluation. It is a crucial part of the evaluation process and often very contentious. The criteria are then included in the order appointing the evaluator. Majority of the evaluators have their own sample orders, which are then send to the requesting party for completion and once completed send to the opposing party. The proposed order must be carefully read and analyzed ensure compliance with the oral pronouncement by the court at the time of the hearing.
Once is a clear order defining the parameters of the evaluation, the evaluation usually commences by either the evaluator or his/her assistant contacting each parent regarding scheduling of the first interview. This is important first communication and must not be overlooked. First impressions are important especially in an evaluation context. Be prepared with your schedule, appear organized, be polite and do not divulge attorney-client communications! If you have an attorney and the evaluator asks you what did the attorney tell you about the evaluation, remember to politely decline to answer.
The child custody evaluation usually consists of:
- the initial interview with each parent,
- a session where the evaluator observes each parent interact with the child,
- a conversation with the child,
- a joint session with both parents,
- sometimes a separate session with both parent and the child
- interviews with any collateral witnesses (nanny, day care providers, teachers, neighbors, family members, doctors, etc.)
- psychological testing (more on testing in an upcoming blog)
The results of a custody evaluation are given great weight by the judge. The evaluator's report does not, however, by itself decide the case. It must be considered with all the other evidence. Even if the report is "against" one parent, it is still possible to argue the case and show that the recommendations are not in the best interests of the child. It is imperative to be represented during the evaluation process and after the report is filed.