Frankly, if you are in the middle of a hotly contested child custody dispute, you may already be ordered to participate in a forensic child custody evaluation (or you may like to request that one be performed in your case) and most likely, you have questions about this process. You may even be anxious about the following: What will happen next? What does the process entail? Why use such a process? What will happen afterwards? Will my child have to undergo a stressful psychological testing?
This article will place your mind at ease by explaining what a custody forensic evaluation is, why it is performed and what to expect during the process.
What Is A Forensic Child Custody Evaluation?
A forensic child custody evaluation is an in-depth analysis and report from a licensed mental health professional that provides detailed psychological information about each member of the family as it relates to their respective roles in the parent/child relationship. Forensic child custody evaluations are used in situations where parents cannot agree to the legal or residential custody of a child or if there are credible allegations of abuse (physical or sexual), neglect, mental health issues, unfitness or substance abuse. While parties can agree to have such evaluations of their own accord, often these evaluations are ordered by judges to be used as evidence in complex child custody cases when the parents cannot come to agreement about custodial arrangements. However, a judge may order a forensic child custody evaluation on his or her own volition during the litigation process, or a parent may request that an evaluation be ordered.
Typically, the evaluation begins with the appointment of a neutral psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health expert to evaluate the family through the review of various documents, a series of psychological tests, parent and child interviews, and information gathered from various third parties. Generally, the evaluator will have a significant portion of their practice dedicated to this type of work and they operate independently from both parents. The evaluator’s purpose is to provide accurate information to the parents, and the court, that can be used to determine the custody arrangement that is in the best interest of the child — at the time the evaluation is performed.
What Is The Forensic Evaluation Process?
Forensic child custody evaluators will make a recommendation as to which parent should be afforded legal or physical custody. Specifically, the results of a forensic evaluation will result in a detailed report that offers recommendation, direction and guidance relative to the parent that the evaluator believes should be afforded legal and/or residential custody of a child. During the evaluation process, the evaluator will meet with each parent individually (on a number of occasions), each parent along with the child, and with the child individually (if age appropriate).
During these meetings, the evaluator will ask each parent a number of questions about the history of the family unit as well as inquiring about the relative (and often subjective) parenting skills and parent-child relationship of each parent. The evaluator will also administer a series of psychological tests designed to examine each parents’ personality and emotional well-being, as well as the parents’ respective attitudes toward each other.
Throughout the process of the evaluation it is critical not to hide information being sought by the evaluator. Keep in mind that an evaluator is likely going to speak to third parties such as the child’s pediatrician, therapists, any current or former marriage or family counselor(s), and any childcare providers. If there is information that you believe could be viewed as unflattering to you, the evaluator is likely to come across it from the other parent, the children, or other collateral sources. Therefore, it is better to be prepared to explain and deal with “unflattering claims” directly rather than trying to hide from such claims (whether they are real or imagined).
If a forensic child custody evaluation has been ordered in your case, you need to participate in that evaluation. Non-participation will be a critical strike against you in the eyes of the court.
Here are a few specifics you should know about the forensic child custody evaluation process:
- Interviews. Parents, stepparents, children and any new partners or fiancé’s will be asked to participate in the evaluation. Evaluations are generally conducted in person, not virtually or by phone. While there may be some telephone follow up, most meetings will be face to face (excluding third-party collateral interviews addressed below).
Initial Meetings. Everyone primarily involved in the case – parents, stepparents, partners/fiancé’s and children will meet with the evaluator alone. These meetings are used to gather general background information and sometimes include psychological testing beyond the parent and child.
Joint Child-Parent Meetings. After the initial interview, a second interview with you and your child(ren) will be arranged. This will give the evaluator opportunity to observe you and your child interacting together and to interview you both at the same time. Remember, the other parent will also have a joint parent-child meeting. Sometimes, other meetings will be required and requested by the evaluator.
Children’s Interviews. Make no mistake; children will be interviewed during this evaluation process. If there is a forensic child custody evaluation ordered, the children must be a part of that process. In addition to the joint meetings with the parents, the evaluator will meet with your children as a group as well as individually, depending on their respective ages and levels of maturity.
Home Visits. The evaluator will arrange for one, if not more, extended home observations with each parent. These visits are designed to give the evaluator an opportunity to see the appropriateness of the home and observe how the parent and child interact with each other within the home. Often these visits last 3-5 hours (sometimes longer) and include a mealtime.
- Psychological Testing. Various psychological or personality tests are often administered during a forensic child custody evaluation, and most evaluations would be considered lacking if no such tests were performed. Although psychological tests can be valuable tools to help assess a parent in terms of general mental health, these tests alone cannot be determinative of custody. Psychological or personality testing is only one aspect of a custody evaluation, just as a custody evaluation is only one aspect of a custody dispute. However, both can have a significant effect on the court‘s ultimate decision on custody.
- Payment. The court will order the evaluator to be paid and this amount will likely be significant. The parents should generally be prepared for a pro-rated fee based upon their respective incomes. The non-payment of the court ordered expert is considered non-compliance by the court.
- Time Period. Forensic evaluations take time, sometimes as long as 3-5 months from start to finish. There is a lot of information to gather and it is in your child’s best interests that it is done correctly.
- The Evaluator’s Report. Once complete, the forensic child custody evaluator’s report will be shared with the parents (or their counsel) and will likely be offered as evidence in a court proceeding if the matter does not settle. If the report is old, or the court deems that significant circumstances have changed, an updated report may be ordered.
Should I Bring Anything To Meetings With The Custody Evaluator?
Yes, it helps to come prepared. Aside from having the information the evaluator needs to complete the report, collecting this data and bringing it with you can give you a sense of control over a process that may seem overwhelming. Even if you do not bring information to your first meeting with the evaluator, you will likely be asked to provide at some future point:
- Collateral Evidence. This information is similar to a reference check. It consists of documentation and interviews with people outside of the immediate family who are involved in the child’s life or have detailed information of past behavior of parent or child—or both. The list may include teachers, pediatricians, coaches, neighbors, friends, babysitters, therapists or possibly social services if the agency has been involved with your family at any time. Accordingly, you will need to provide the evaluator with this information and a list of names, contact information, and the individual’s relative sphere of knowledge so that the evaluator can conduct meaningful review of documentation and interviews with these collateral sources.
- Documentation. The evaluator may request paper documents detailing information about various aspects of the children’s lives. Reports cards, emails, prior neurological assessments, and medical records are all examples of materials that may be requested to be produced.
- Completed Paperwork. If you have been asked to complete any paperwork or submit a questionnaire by the evaluator, do so and bring it with you to your meeting. It is extremely important to complete all paperwork in a timely manner.
- Notes. Often times, people find it helpful to make notes or write thoughts down ahead of the meetings with the evaluator so they do not forget to address critical issues during these conversations. This is an excellent practice, but do not leave these written notes with the evaluator unless you are comfortable having them shared with your spouse (or your spouse’s attorney). Everything you give or share with the evaluator will ultimately be available to the other parent (or the attorney for the other parent), so be mindful. If you only want to use your notes as your own individual reference points, and you are simply creating them in anticipation of litigation, do not leave your notes at the end of the meeting with the evaluator.
What Will The Evaluator’s Meeting With My Child Be Like?
Generally, a meeting with a parent and child involves the evaluator’s observation of the parent and child engaging in an everyday activity such as reading or playing. If the child is of an age where he or she can speak, the evaluator will privately ask the child general, non-threatening questions about “mom and dad” and about his or her home life, daily routines, and relationships with siblings. The evaluator may also ask the child to draw pictures of his or her family, house, etc. These techniques allow the evaluator to determine the strength and nature of the child’s relationship with each parent and to ensure that the child is emotionally healthy and progressing intellectually.
Many parents are uncertain what to say, if anything, to the children to prepare them for the interviews with the evaluator. While it may be tempting, do not coach children on what to say, or not to say, to the evaluator. This will usually be transparent to the evaluator and this can present you in the worst light possible. Part of the evaluator’s job is to determine if one of the parents manipulates the child—obviously telling a child what to say (or not to say) to the evaluator would be evidence of such behavior.
Instead, explain to your children that they will be talking to a doctor. You could use the term psychologist or therapist if the child is familiar with these terms. If the children are old enough to understand what is happening, explain that this doctor is here to help mom and dad figure out the best way for the children to spend time with each parent. Explain to the children that they can feel comfortable answering the doctor’s questions as honestly as possible. To ease their concerns, you can also explain that you and their other parent will each be talking to the doctor and that you are comfortable answering the doctors’ questions too.
What Is The Final Custody Evaluation Report?
Ultimately, the evaluator uses the test results and all of the information gathered to prepare and provide a detailed written report. This report will outline the process used for evaluation, the psychological testing results of each parent and child, the child’s relationship with each parent, the respective relationship between the parents, the ability of each parent to make appropriate decisions for the child, a recommended time-sharing arrangement, a recommended decision-making process and any risk factors that may impact child custody or parenting time.
Armed with this information, the parties have a final opportunity to craft a thoughtful solution to custody before the matter is finally resolved by the judge at trial. However, it is important to understand that the court is by no means required to render a decision that comports with the forensic child custody report or the forensic child custody evaluator’s opinion. Rather, the evaluation is simply a piece of data that the court may consider in rendering its final decision. Although the evaluations may be influential in a judge’s decision-making process, they are by no means the final word. The judge will take the report and opinions of the evaluator into consideration, along with many other pieces of evidence, when rendering a custody decision.
It is important to remember that the entire point of a forensic child custody evaluation is to help a judge determine what is in the best interests of the child when the parents cannot determine this for themselves (which is certainly a factor the court will consider as well). Therefore, when participating in a forensic child custody evaluation, give an accurate and balanced view of both yourself and your spouse. Be respectful of the evaluator and be cooperative during the process. Hostile behaviors (toward the evaluator or the other spouse) will likely reflect poorly on you. Remember, this is an evaluation about parenting abilities and your children’s needs – it is not an evaluation about the failure of your marriage. Try to separate your marital problems from parenting issues and always keep your children’s best interests in mind.