What to Know About Child Custody Evaluations
The components of a child custody evaluation and how to prepare for them.
Divorce can be a complex process—especially if child custody needs to be negotiated.
Parents who are in a position to navigate child custody and parenting time amicably may be able to rely on tools like mediation to establish their plans. However, in some cases, parents’ competing beliefs about what may be in the best interest of their children may require extra analysis. In these situations, something called a child custody evaluation may be used.
What is a child custody evaluation?
A child custody evaluation, sometimes referred to as a psychological or “best interests” evaluation, is diagnostic or forensic in nature. Often, a judge will call for a child custody evaluation if parents cannot reach an agreement. However, a co-parent may also request one if they are concerned about their child’s well-being.
Depending on the reason for the evaluation, the focus can be different. In custody evaluations, the interviewer often interviews and observes you, your child, and sometimes your co-parent. These evaluations are performed by a qualified mental health professional and are used by judges to make custody decisions that reflect the child’s best interests.
While the subject of the evaluation will likely be your child, co-parent, or yourself, other parties may be called to participate. Anyone the court feels could provide valuable information—parents, children, extended family members, friends, teachers—could be required by court order to weigh in during child custody evaluations.
Are there different types of psychological evaluations?
The idea of a psychological evaluation might evoke concern, but it’s vital to remember that the purpose of these assessments is to determine what is in the best interest of your child, not to restrict parenting time or infringe on your rights.
Child custody psychological evaluations also differ from other types of psychological evaluations, which have their own set of impacts:
- Psychological evaluation: assessment intended to provide information on a parent's mental health, whether they meet diagnostic criteria for one or more psychological disorders, and if so, how that would impact their ability to parent.
- Child psychological evaluation: evaluation to determine whether a child meets the diagnostic criteria for one or more psychological disorders. This may happen if parents disagree on whether a child is showing symptoms of mental health or neurological conditions (e.g., ADHD, autism, etc.).
- Substance abuse evaluation: assessment (often court-ordered) designed to identify frequent or continual illegal use of drugs or alcohol by a parent.
- Parental capacity evaluation/risk assessments: comprehensive evaluation designed to determine if a child is at risk for abuse or neglect while under a parent's care.
When should I request a child custody evaluation?
During a child custody matter, a judge may order a custody evaluation, but this isn’t the only type that can be requested. If you have concerns regarding your ex’s history of criminal behavior, substance abuse, questionable parenting decisions, mental health conditions, or neglect, you and your attorney may ask the court to order different types of evaluations, like risk assessments, substance abuse evaluations, or psychological evaluations.
Note, however, that you should never use custody or psychological evaluations as a weapon against your former spouse—and keep in mind that if you ask to have one parent’s mental health evaluated, the court could order that you both submit to one. With custody evaluations, depending on who the evaluator deems crucial to its process, your entire family could be involved. Third parties, such as doctors, teachers, or therapists, may also be asked to provide information.
It’s critical to have honest conversations with your family law attorney if you’re considering asking for any evaluation, as they can help you assess the need for one, which specific one to request, how it might impact your goals, and what to expect from the process.
Who conducts the child custody evaluation?
Mental health professionals usually conduct child custody psychology evaluations. Typically, these are psychologists, psychiatrists, or appropriately licensed social workers. These professionals can either be hired by one parent, agreed upon as a joint expert, or appointed by the court. While the mental health professionals are typically paid by the parents, they are meant to be neutral observers even when hired directly by either party.
During the testing process, the evaluator will likely observe family interactions and interview both parents and the child or children. The testing can be done individually, as a family group, or using a combination of both methodologies.
The evaluator may interview doctors, friends, teachers, childcare providers, coaches, and other relevant parties if they feel useful information can be gained from those individuals. Evaluators may also access medical and mental health records, schoolwork and records, and legal records for the immediate family if they are relevant to the matter.
Once the evaluation is complete, the evaluator uses the findings to write a report with recommendations that may inform the court’s custody determinations.
How will the findings of an evaluation impact final custody arrangements?
Identifying issues in a child custody evaluation will not necessarily affect custody decisions negatively. Suppose, for example, during a child custody evaluation, the evaluating professional suggests that your partner may be experiencing untreated anxiety. Even if this suggestion results in a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, this won’t necessarily affect child custody arrangements.
If an evaluation uncovers patterns of abuse, neglect, or inconsistent parenting styles that negatively affect the child’s emotional, mental, and physical development, those findings are likely to be heavily factored into custody decisions.
How should I prepare for a child custody psychological evaluation?
Whether you requested an evaluation or the court has ordered that you undergo one, don’t panic. Instead, recognize that the court is interested in your child’s well-being and working hard to understand the issues that impact custody and parenting time.
Your attorney can be a good resource as you prepare for a child custody psychological evaluation and can work with you to develop an effective strategy.
Remember the following tips as you get ready for your evaluation, but make sure to discuss them with your attorney and how to convey the information best:
- Organize documentation that supports your claims.
- Prepare a list of references for people who can attest to your strengths as a parent.
- Arrive on time and dress appropriately.
- Be honest while avoiding making deeply negative remarks about your former partner.
- Treat the evaluator with respect.
If your child is concerned about their interview, reassure them that everyone involved is trying to ensure they are safe and well-cared for. If your child has an individual therapist, you might seek their advice on how to approach the issue with your child.
How do I request a psychological evaluation for custody?
Your lawyer can help you submit the paperwork needed to request a custody evaluation. Your role will likely be to help your counsel document how mental illness, criminality, abuse, addiction, or other dangerous parenting behaviors have affected your children.
What if I disagree with the final findings?
It is possible to dispute an evaluator’s findings at a trial. If the expert testifies, that individual will be subject to cross-examination by your lawyer. During that examination, you have a chance to show that the expert may not have considered everything or maybe would change their recommendations based on certain circumstances. You may also be able to submit additional information to the court that either calls into question the expert’s recommendations or supplements them. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to interpret the evidence and make a final determination regarding child custody.
Child custody evaluations can be a valuable tool
A child custody evaluation could be a source of worry for you or your child, but the process is intended to gather information so that custody decisions reflect the best interests of your child. When done for the right reasons, these studies can help ensure that your rights and the rights and safety of your child are protected in a contentious custody dispute.