Nowadays, custody evaluations are a significant part of many child custody events. The custody evaluator very often has a good measure of influence over the ultimate custody order that the court will issue. While their recommendations won’t likely cover every conceivable category that govern the lives of your children, basic rules and guidelines will be laid out touching on most of the basics including residence, schooling, religion, and then some.
If your situation is high-conflict, it is unlikely that you’ll ever come to a reasonable agreement regarding child custody. Therefore, you can expect to be directed by the court to enter into a child custody evaluation. You’ll need to be as calm and well-prepared as you can be prior to and throughout what is usually a lengthy process. The custody evaluation process will typically involve both parents meeting with the evaluator. Expect to attend a session or two individually. Expect to attend at least 2 sessions jointly with your ex-partner. Expect that the children will be involved in 1 session which may include the parents in session (usually with younger children) or the children may attend a session along with the custody evaluator. Expect that there may be individual sessions with people called “collateral contacts.” The collateral contacts may include a significant other (most commonly) or any other person(s) who are actively involved in the children’s lives.
Discussions will center around your own parenting philosophies and practices. Additionally, discussions will cover:
- Concerns you may have about the other parent’s parenting skills
- Future expectations for your children
- Residential issues
- Education, including involvement with schools and kids’ results
- Observations of collateral contacts including caregivers, grandparents, school counselors, therapists, etc.
The goal of the custody evaluator is to try and steer parents towards a reasonable co-parenting arrangement and avoid unnecessary litigation. That’s a lofty goal and not one often realized in high-conflict matters.
The custody evaluator will review facts and opinions in order to try their best to form an objective opinion themselves about the parenting knowledge, skills, and abilities of each party and their report should reflect their opinions accordingly. Remember, they are only opinions and it’s important that you’re always putting your best foot forward – remaining truthful and emotionally in control within reason.
The custody evaluator will spend at least 20 hours, usually 40 or more, working on your specific child custody issues. It’s more than just the 6 – 8 (or more) hourly sessions that are part of the process. They’ll be reviewing any requested documentation. They’ll have discussions with pertinent parties that may have additional information. They’ll write and review their own notes. They will prepare what will hopefully be a comprehensive report and recommendation for the court. While this may seem like an extensive amount of time, understand that so few face-to-face sessions, often with no observation of actual parent-child interaction beyond the office environment, is very little when it comes to making such life-altering decisions in the family court system. Presenting the most critical issues/concerns in conjunction with conveying your willingness and ability to be an involved parent is your goal. Prepare to present these matters with maximum impact, clearly and concisely with the limited time you have available.
Once the evaluation has concluded, the custody evaluator crafts their report for the family court along with their recommendations for how the child custody arrangement should be ordered. It may prove to be in your favor, neutral, or in your ex’s favor. Typically, if there is anything to which you object, you will need to present your objections during the course of the child custody hearing. Oftentimes, the court will typically only consider items which are factually inaccurate. However, if you present a convincing enough case with evidence that would cause doubt as to the formulation of the evaluator’s opinion, a judge would be inclined to take that into consideration. Always keep in mind that, despite what an attorney may tell you, a custody evaluator’s recommendation is not guaranteed to be “rubber-stamped” and approved by the court in its entirety. In addition to the behaviors of the parents in court, testimony and evidence can play a role in shaping the judge’s final order, which may meet with the recommendation in whole, in part, and in rare cases – not at all.
As always, any matters which you are able to settle without a judge’s ruling should be communicated by you and the evaluator so that those issues are not decided differently than you have agreed. The judge will then be able to focus only on the issues that remain opposed by each party.