Mr. Custody Coach
Blog Talk Radio
All About Custody Evaluations
Dr. Robert A. Evans
November 18, 2009
MICHAEL: Good day, everyone. You’re here with Michael from Mr. Custody Coach.com. I have a special guest today. Dr. Robert Evans is a Licensed School Psychologist who has a private practice in Palm Harbor, Florida, and his practice consists mainly in the area of forensic psychology where he conducts child custody evaluations, parent coordination and divorce counseling, and you can visit his site at the Center for Human Potential, and that website is www.thecenterforhumanpotentialofamerica — that is all one word — .com.
Welcome, Dr. Evans. How are you today?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I am magnificent. Thank you for having me.
MICHAEL: Great. It’s a pleasure. And today, we are covering custody evaluations, which you are an expert in, and I guess we’ll just roll right into some of the questions that I have for you on this particular topic.
What is the custody evaluation and why are they used in custody disputes?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, a custody evaluation really is a mechanism for the Court to help make a decision in terms of developing a parenting plan and time-sharing schedules for children. It’s a very involved process. It’s a very comprehensive process. Generally speaking, we could say that it consists primarily of like three components: A comprehensive set of observations and interviews of the parents, the children; and then gathering any kind of documentation, archival information from third-party sources called “collateral informants.” That would be —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — basically people that are going to, you know, substantiate one side of the story or the other. In some cases, we get objective information from mental health professionals, counselors, anybody else who has had contact with the family, physicians; those would be collateral informants that would help us see which side is telling a more accurate picture, or just to get an understanding of what is happening. In many cases —
MICHAEL: Would you —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Go ahead, I’m sorry.
MICHAEL: I was going to ask, when you mentioned documentation, now, when you’re doing the collateral investigation, is there ever cause for you to, say, have time, one-on-one time or face-to-face meeting with collateral contacts?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Oh, sure. Oh, sure.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Many, many, many times. Frequently, I’ll conduct interviews over the telephone because they may be geographically dispersed. I have a case now where people are actually in Canada, and I think even some in Europe. I’m probably not going to have face-to-faces with those; I’ll — over the telephone. But yes, frequently I do face-to-face. It just depends on logistics and how much that information, you know, what weight that information is going to be given.
If it’s just a neighbor who is going to say, you know, I see the parent, you know, interacting with the child once a week, blah, blah, blah, I’m probably just going to talk to that person over the phone.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Whereas a counselor or a therapist, I would probably spend more time getting a more in-depth picture of what is happening in the family.
MICHAEL: But when you —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Besides doing that, we basically do — we sometimes do psychologically testing.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And then, also, there are not only psychological tests, but then there’s what we call specialized assessments, tests that might help us look at the family situation, parenting strengths, relationships, that kind of thing. Didn’t mean to interrupt, sorry.
MICHAEL: Okay. Oh, that’s all right. I guess my follow-up question to that would be how is it that cases come to you? I know that may seem like a superficial question, but most of the time I would assume that the cases that are referred to you, or any custody evaluator or custody evaluations organization, would be those of the high conflict variety.
Are there any situations where some other cause would have clients come to a custody evaluation organization?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: No, I mean, basically, these are families that have not been able to resolve the situation, and so they basically are, they don’t realize it, but they’re asking the Court to make a decision. These are people that cannot make a decision between the two of them and they’re saying, okay, I’m willing to, essentially, give up my parental rights, at this point, and let somebody else make the decision. I mean, that’s basically what it is.
MICHAEL: Yes, and that’s very important to — in fact, I’ll reiterate that because one of the things at Mr. Custody Coach that we suggest pretty strongly to our clients, and even if it’s — even in a high conflict situation, and it really depends upon just how conflict it is, that if you and your ex or soon-to-be ex can work that out outside of the courts, ultimately —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Oh gosh.
MICHAEL: — it’s absolutely the best way to go.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Hands down, there is no question about it. It is obviously the least expensive, unless people are —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — unless people are pro se, they’re representing themselves, but even then, you know the old saying is if you’ve got yourself as a client, you have a fool. Unless you’re a lawyer, you’re in an arena that you know nothing about.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And yes, you have people that are quick studies and that can learn how to fill out forms and they can learn how to maneuver around a courtroom, or a courthouse in general, but the bottom line is this is an arena that people are trained in and if you don’t know what you are doing, you can really, you can get hurt, and the consequences for you and your children are life long, could have a life long effect.
MICHAEL: Yes, and not always good ones. In fact, not often good ones.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, that’s true.
MICHAEL: You speak of training. How, generally how are evaluators trained? Are they psychologists, psychiatrists, a combination of the two, all of the above? How does one get trained to be a custody evaluator?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Actually, all of the above. It ranges anything from an attorney who can actually do them. There are attorneys in Florida that do custody evals. I was on the phone the other day with an attorney in California, and basically that’s what they do. So it’s basically people that are a professional, usually, typically a mental health professional. I was surprised about a year or so ago to find out that attorneys did do that, and if there was any testing that they would basically hire that testing out for a psychologist to do testing.
It could be a mental health counselor; it could be a marriage and family therapist; it could be a clinical social worker; it could be a psychologist; it could be, like I said, an attorney; it could be — I don’t know, did I leave anybody out? I don’t know.
MICHAEL: I don’t think — I think that covered everybody who is going to be evaluating how you operate within the constraints of a family situation or in life, in general.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly.
MICHAEL: Are most knowledgeable — is it part of the curriculum, for lack of a better term, that they come to be knowledgeable about high conflict individuals? And obviously those that are trained specifically in a mental health field, I know that a lot of times personality disorders — personality disorders tend to drive litigation in Family Court. So, do you find most are knowledgeable about high conflict individuals?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Gee, that’s a tough question. I think, generally speaking, I would say not most. You know, some are. Would I say many? I don’t know. It is a specific area for training; it’s not necessarily included in the, you know, basic training of the procedures of a custody evaluation. So, you know, it’s tough to say. I don’t think — I think a lot of people get exposed to that, and then, once they do, they say, wow, I’m going to get some training in this area because this is a tough area to work in with these kind of clients.
Obviously, you are working with people that can’t make — they can’t cooperate, they can’t make a decision, so they go to court and the Court has to make that decision. You are in the middle of a heated conflict; and so, training in that area is absolutely essential. And again, part of — most of it is done, usually you train through like workshops, seminars —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — that type of thing. There are some advanced degrees in forensic psychology, masters and doctoral levels. Most of the training in those areas are broader across the forensic environment; working with criminals, working with competency to stand trial, jury selection kind of things. It’s not just child custody —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — or Family Court issues. That’s a very specialized niche, if you will, within the forensic arena.
MICHAEL: What should parents ask about and be looking for when they choose a custody evaluator, particularly given that the cases are overwhelmingly of the high conflict variety?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, just so we’re really clear, most parents do not select the evaluator. It’s usually done by agreement between two attorneys.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Most cases probably are represented in this kind of conflict. Many are not; many are pro se. So, sometimes, the Court might have a list of people that do this kind of work. Attorneys generally know the people in the community that are doing this kind of work.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: So, you know, we’re looking for somebody who has basically a reputation of being fair and objective. They’re not — they don’t have a reputation of being, quote “a hired gun.”
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Keep in mind, people who can’t make — who are in this high conflict situation, they want a champion. They want somebody to champion their point of view. They want someone to champion their decision. Now, many people seek custody for a variety of reasons. Some genuinely believe that they’re the better parent. Some are out to punish the other parent. Some are out to control the situation. There’s a lot of motive —
MICHAEL: Yes, we’ve seen all of them.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes, exactly. And so, you’re looking for somebody that is going to be fair, that is going to be comprehensive; they’re going to give the Court a fair and honest recommendation in terms of what, in their opinion, is in the best interest of the child, not what is convenient or good for a parent, but what does the child need. Where will a child grow and develop and prosper, under what kind of parenting arrangement, what kind of time-sharing plan, that type of thing.
MICHAEL: Okay. Well —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And —
MICHAEL: Go ahead.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Admittedly, that’s a difficult task, especially in an arena that you don’t know anything about. So if you are represented, you probably have to trust your attorney’s judgment on who to go with.
MICHAEL: Yes, I was going to say that — actually split it in two. And there are situations, I know because I have actually been through both in my own situation, a few years back. We’ll take — I’ll actually probably ask you the same question again. Take the court appointed or court assigned custody evaluation situation out of the equation, and if you’re going to pursue — I know in my case we were given the option of hiring a private evaluator.
So, if a couple is given that opportunity or has that ability to go with a private evaluator, are there certain things that they should look for over and — well, you kind of answered that question already, but I mean the basics in searching for that person to contact. I mean, obviously, there would be maybe an interview. Would it be appropriate to have an interview or consultation discussion? Do they look at their C.V.? How does one go about that?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I — you know, both of those things. Get their résumé, get their C.V., have a — have an interview with them, with or without your attorney, if they are represented, because, you know, you’re going to — you’re looking for certain things and the attorney is looking for certain things. So maybe between the two of you, you’ll be asking the right questions of the evaluator.
There are probably books in the area, research that you could do on the internet on how to find some, how to find the right evaluator. But again, I really can’t stress the fact that it’s really a time for you to be open, for the parents to be open to say, okay, I may not like the decision but I want somebody that is going to tell me what really is going to be okay for my kids, because that’s really the bottom line. If you win, quote “win,” you know, custody of a child and you’re managing to keep another parent relatively out of that child’s life, is that really good for the child?
MICHAEL: Yes, what have we really won in that case.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly, yes, and what is the long term effect of that?
MICHAEL: Yes, because I wanted to talk — I was going to actually, as we roll through this discussion, I wanted to talk about biases both on the part of the parents or society in general, and perhaps biases that may, inherent biases that exist within all of us and how the evaluator works to overcome that.
One of the things that I wanted to ask that, in today’s Family Court systems, father’s generally receive custody, primary custody or sole custody somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 percent of the time. So, given that that’s the nature of the beast at this point, do evaluators start out with a specific custody time-share situation that is like the benchmark or the default and then it changes as the evaluation goes on? Or are they going to go in believing that one parent or the other should maybe have priority, before we even get into discussions?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, okay, let’s just back up real quickly and let’s —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — let’s agree on vocabulary. When we talk about custody, we’re talking about who has parental responsibility, making decisions about doctors, schools, religious decision making.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Okay. So, generally speaking, and this is, you know, I’m saying my experience, generally speaking, most decisions come down with parents have shared parental responsibility or shared custody.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: In the State of Florida, they did away with the word “custody,” and we now call it time-sharing. So, no longer does a parent have residential custody. Custody has totally been exercised out of the law, in Florida, and for good cause. I would have parents come in and say, “I have custody,” as if — as if they have an upper-hand, as if they’ve got some kind of a higher status of parenthood than the other parent.
MICHAEL: Well, I have to applaud Florida for moving that word out of the, out of their vernacular because it gives you the feeling of a prison warden who is watching over the prisoners, you know, the custody, they’re taking them into custody.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes, we’re talking about a piece of furniture or something, as opposed to children.
MICHAEL: Right. I’m a big fan of “parenting time.”
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Okay. And we call it “time-sharing.” It’s called a parenting plan and time-sharing.
MICHAEL: That’s wonderful.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: The parenting plan says who, you know, who is — how are we sharing holidays, how are we sharing Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays, et cetera, and then you’ve got the time-sharing which would be, basically, the routine of, you know, where are we, is it every other weekend, is it every other day, is it every other week. You know, what is the actual time-sharing in terms of when, who picks the child up, when and where, and when is the child brought back when and where to the other parent, that type of thing.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: So we’re talking about time-sharing. So, I would suspect you’re probably right that fathers probably are getting less of a percentage of a child’s time than mothers are, but I think that — I think that’s going to be changing, and I’m starting to lose your question here.
So, coming in with a preconceived notion; we shouldn’t. Evaluators shouldn’t go in with a preconceived notion. We should be looking at focusing strictly on what is in the best interest of the child. If I go in with a preconceived notion that fathers are underrepresented in the court system; therefore, here is my opportunity to balance the scales of justice —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — I’d be doing a great injustice to the children, in that particular case because maybe that father is not the better parent, maybe they are not available when that child needs a parent available. So it’s not about let’s be fair and everybody has half; that’s not the way it goes. It goes, what is this individual child’s or these children’s best interest that makes any sense, in terms of availability of the parent, the parent’s skills, the parent’s strengths, child needs, et cetera. All of that has to go into the equation, otherwise we’re making a bad — you’re making bad decisions. And I think — I had a case recently where a psychologist actually was — had a deposition and in his deposition he makes this outlandish kind of claim saying, you know, basically, there’s no good relocation, there’s no good reason for a parent to relocate, parents shouldn’t be allowed to separate geographically because it always does harm to a child. Well, first of all, that’s not true, it’s not factual.
MICHAEL: I’ve lived that and I know that not to be the case, at least in my specific instance, so.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And then, on top of that, if you’re going into an evaluation with that perspective, then that’s called confirmatory bias. Everything that you see from that point of view, from that perspective, then gets channeled in that kind of direction. The results get skewed to validate your own bias, and that’s not okay. That’s how we shouldn’t be doing.
MICHAEL: That’s interesting that you went right there. The next question on my list was going to be what would be some of the signs that an evaluator may not be impartial or may not be unbiased, and that was a really good example right there.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly. Or look at their website, look at their pages; see if there is a slant to how they’re advertising their practice. If they’re not advocating what’s in the best interest of the child, then I wonder where they are coming from.
The other, in the course of an evaluation, if an evaluator refuses to take all of your information and consider it, they don’t read it, they might take it but they don’t — all they do is list it in their report, they haven’t really read it, so they don’t — they don’t have — they don’t have what that information is pertinent to. They’re not calling collaterals. You may go in with a list of collaterals; they choose not to talk to your collaterals, but they’ll talk to the other person’s collaterals. Man, is that a red light.
MICHAEL: I see. Yes, especially about the advertising and the website was a great point, one I hadn’t previously considered. I’m going to make a note of that.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly. And because we do, we do pretty much put our personalities out there and we put our biases out there, and so we — it’s sort of a psychological test unto itself of what am I actually proposing here. So, those are some of the things. It’s really hard. You know, there should be a pretty much relatively equal amount of time spent with each parent. If you see a real disproportionate amount of time with one parent over another one, man, that’s a flag.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Why is that happening? That shouldn’t be happening. Is the person talking to the children individually? You know, if the children are, you know, let’s say the children live primarily with one parent and that parent is saying, you know, the children really belong with me and not the other parent, is there interviews of the children with the other parent. Are the children separated and spoken to individually or are they talked to collectively only in the presence of one parent? When they’re talked to, is that parent present or are they talking to the children while the parent is not in the room? You know, who brings the child to the evaluation session sometimes has an influence, so you need to talk to the children where each parent has the opportunity of bringing the child the evaluator’s office.
MICHAEL: Excellent point.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: If they don’t — it’s not just about getting information from the child and saying, well, okay, I don’t need to see the child again; it’s really seeing the child again under different situations and different circumstances.
MICHAEL: Well, that’s good. We’ve gone over pretty well the setup, the preliminaries, the what you’re looking for in a custody evaluator, the warning signs, and of course, also, the positive signs as well.
The evaluation itself, what are you or any evaluator — I know there’s probably some differences in processes and procedures depending upon where you go and who you see — typically, what is the evaluator going to be looking for during the course of an evaluation?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, we should be — we should be posing hypotheses, if you will.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And taking a look at what the facts are being brought to us, and then saying, okay, what — how can these be interpreted, how can these facts be interpreted, how can these facts be interpreted? I have a really interesting, for example, I had a case a while back and the mother said to me that the father was arrested, do you know this, the father was arrested for selling alcohol, giving alcohol to minors. Well, on the surface, that sounds like, wow, that’s a pretty serious charge, he’s an irresponsible person, this is not good parenting skills. And then you talk to the father, and he says, yes, when he — like 25 years ago, he worked in a delicatessen, some kid came in and bought a six pack of beer, he didn’t ID the kid, and when the kid got outside a copy grabbed him and sure enough, the cop brought him back in and they arrested him for selling alcohol to a minor. Okay, that’s a different context.
MICHAEL: Yes, it certainly is.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes. So, did he make a mistake, was it wrong? Sure. But it was like 25 years ago. How does that relate to his parenting skills? Was it really meant to throw the evaluator off track and kind of side, have that evaluator side with that party versus the other side?
So, basically, we’re always looking at the information understanding that there’s three sides to a story; there’s his side, there’s her side, and there’s the truth. We’re not necessarily looking for the truth; we’re looking for what’s going to be in the best interest of the child. If somebody keeps trying to pull me on one side by giving me half truths and things out of context, then, you know, what’s the motivation of that person, what is that all about; versus somebody who said, look, here’s the whole story. Now you have both sides of the story.
So we’re looking — we’re looking at posing hypotheses. We’re looking at different interpretations of psychological data.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I mean, just because the test says somebody is depressed, you sit down with them and you say, gee, the test is looking like you’re depressed, tell me about what’s going on, you answered the question this way, is there anything that particular day that may be — because testing is just a snapshot, a point in time in a person’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the way they totally are. So you have to look for other kinds of explanations for the test data.
You look for parenting strengths. You know, what is a parent bringing to the table in terms of being a parent? Are they willing to learn how to be a better parent, or is this just something that they’re just this whole activity is just really a contest and they’re looking just to win the prize.
An evaluation should also include some of the pros and cons of the evaluation process, itself. What was good about my evaluation? Where was I lacking? Why was I lacking in these areas? What didn’t I do or what could I have done better? Really being very —
MICHAEL: Is that —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Go ahead.
MICHAEL: Is that a self assessment on the part of the client you’re speaking of?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: No, assessment of the evaluator.
MICHAEL: Okay. And would you do that with — would you interact with the client on that or is that something the custody evaluator should do to keep themselves in check, say after or during an evaluation?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, I’m not sure — well, ultimately, you’re going to share that information with the client. They’re basically going to put that in their report. Where is my report strong and where is my report weak?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: You want the Court — we want — if you think about the Court being a blank slate and what you’re providing is information to that Court to make a decision, you need to say things to the Court like, you know, this is what I did and I didn’t do these other things for this other reason.
MICHAEL: I see.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Okay?
MICHAEL: Now I understand. Very good.
Is an evaluator looking for something specific? We’ve talked about assessing the needs of the children, assessing the parents’ ability. You’ve also talked about how they, you know, whether one side or the other, or both, even, are trying to unduly influence the evaluator.
Do you have — should the evaluator have a knack for picking up when the discussion of one parent, the other, or both, is not centered around what’s going to happen with the child or what their proposal is for meeting the needs of the children, going forward, and it’s more about, say, bashing the ex or soon-to-be ex?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m not sure it’s the knack. I think it’s a skill you develop as you do these things, but people keep coming in and presenting you with, you know, here’s all the dirty laundry and this is all the bad things about this other parent, and you’re constantly looking at the information that they’re giving you and you’re saying, okay, how is this related to being a parent.
You know, tell me — tell me that some person at 19 years old, you know, 35 years ago, smoked marijuana. You know, what are they doing today is more relevant than what they did —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — 35 years ago. I’m not advocating for people smoking marijuana. I don’t want anybody to misunderstand that. But the other side is what is relevant here? You know, where is this — how is this impacting this person’s ability — if you’re still involved with drugs, if you’re still doing illicit activities, well, that’s relevant, but something they did 35 years ago may not be. And again, it may not be; it doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t, it just means it may not be.
Are there other pieces of data that say that this person is, you know, anti-authoritarian, they have no respect for the law, they have no social conscience? Is there other support to that or is that the only incident? So it’s — and again, I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion on, you know, pros and cons of smoking marijuana at 19.
MICHAEL: Understood. Understood. Folks, Dr. Evans is using these as examples.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Thank you very much. Thank you. That’s the idea. And basically, what happens, what happens with me is I become a student of deception. How can I tell if somebody is telling me the truth or they’re not telling me the whole truth? And so, you basically learn those — you learn about body language, you learn about verbal expression, you learn about all kinds of things and you put that into practice.
MICHAEL: How much stress — this is almost a side question. How much stress does that bring to an evaluator’s life? I have to believe that in, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, you’re dealing with just that by, again, one or both parties. How much does that — I can’t pick the right word. How much of an impact on you performing your duties, or when you go home in the evening, dealing with that level of deception from people all the time, or am I wrong in assuming that that’s going on more often than it isn’t?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, I think it goes on a lot. It may go on more often than you want to admit it. Think about being in an energy environment where most of the energy coming from people is pretty negative. Well, energy, negative energy, energy in general is contagious. And so, if someone is coming in and doing a lot of negative dumping on the other parent, on how miserable life is, what a victim they have been and they are, how unfair the system is, and how bad the other attorney is, if people are hung up on that kind of line of thinking all the time, and many of these people are preoccupied with this stuff 24/7, that’s going to have an impact on the evaluator.
If the evaluator wants to be honest, this is very stressful work because these people are dumping a whole lot of stress in your lap and you need to learn how to deal with that and how to get rid of it, so that you’re not taking it home and you’re not expanding on it in other places. You know what it’s like to be in the presence of somebody who is very happy and jovial and very — have a lot of self confidence. It’s a joy to be around those people.
MICHAEL: Yes. Yes, it is.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And the opposite, the opposite is also true. Being in the presence of somebody who is miserable, who just sees life as another opportunity of being a victim, who everything is going wrong for them and how dangerous life is, and you’ve got to constantly look over your shoulder and — when you’re in the presence of somebody like that, that has — that can bring you down.
MICHAEL: I imagine it takes a high level of skill to get them redirected.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, you know, your job is not even to redirect them. Your job is to evaluate the situation.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Evaluators are not there to be a therapist, are not there to fix the situation. We’re not there to give advice or recommendations; we’re simply there to make an assessment of people’s strengths, weaknesses, and how that interacts with their being a parent. It would be wrong for an evaluator to even make recommendations to people, face-to-face, about getting therapy or help or anything like that. It’s not really the job. Does it happen from time to time in some severe cases where people are like really distraught over it? Yes, I suppose it does, but, generally speaking, this is not a therapeutic environment. This is a forensic environment and we’re just simply there to take an x-ray.
MICHAEL: Okay. That’s very important for people to remember, that it’s an assessment, it’s not —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: No.
MICHAEL: It’s not psychoanalysis. You’re not going there to have something cured or something taken care of.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: No.
MICHAEL: You are just going to be assessing how they’re able to — making an assessment of how they’re able to cope in day-to-day life, at least based on the limited time that you have with them, and their parenting skills; would that be accurate?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Pretty much. Pretty much. Now, I do not give recommendations, other than in my report. I mean —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — I might recommend somebody for therapy in my report.
MICHAEL: Thank you for clarifying that.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: But I’m not going to — I’m not going to sit there and hold their hand. That would be inappropriate. And even making a recommendation, go see Dr. So-and-so, in the community, they can really help you; that would really be inappropriate.
There’s a — there’s an authority that kind of comes with somebody who is court ordered to do a custody evaluation.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: And you can abuse that authority by saying, you know, you ought to go see Dr. So-and-so about, you know, your depression. I think that would be inappropriate.
MICHAEL: Okay. How long does a custody evaluation, with the understanding that it, again, it may vary from place to place and state to state, how long does a custody evaluation usually take? I mean, there’s the broad view from, okay, it’s going to start on one date and I have to have my report in by some later date down the road. How much time do you actually spend with the family, how many sessions do you have, and who do they include?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, over all, generally speaking, it probably takes upwards of 70-something hours to do a full evaluation, in that I see pretty much every parent around 12 hours, I see the children for four or five hours, and then how many collaterals, I talk to them on the phone, and depending on their role in this case, you know whether it’s a relatively brief telephone conversation or if it’s an hour meeting with face-to-face with a physician or a therapist or whatever. So, but generally speaking, it’s a very comprehensive process. It probably takes me — it probably takes me around 30-something hours just to do my report.
MICHAEL: That’s a lot more than I had anticipated. Again, and my only gauge is, and I’ve gone through several of them, my own experiences, and usually, in my own experience, I found that there were typically six sessions at an hour apiece with various individuals, myself alone, my ex alone, us together, with the kids individually and together.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes.
MICHAEL: So, you know, I — my, obviously mistaken, belief is that, or maybe it was the case in my situation, that it was less time than that. So that’s good to know, as well.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, some courts have either people on contract or, in some cases, they actually have employees that will do what, in Florida, we call them social investigations. Now, typically, they’re a shorter, less comprehensive process. There’s usually no testing of any of the parties or the children. It’s simply a one-time interview with each parent, an interview with the children, and then observations of a child or children interacting with the parent. It’s a much shorter process, a much more economical process; it’s a lot less comprehensive. Jon Arbuckle said something like, “You get what you pay for,” so.
MICHAEL: Okay. If, during the course of an evaluation, a parent is expressing genuine concerns about the other parent’s ability to care for the child, how do they bring up these issues without looking like they’re doing that deceptive influence routine? How do they do that without looking vindictive or controlling?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, again, if you’ve got some genuine concerns and there’s documentation to show that there’s a basis for your concerns, you might have emails, people talking the way they talk, I suggest showing both sides of an email string, not just one side taken out of context.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: If there’s a therapist involved, any collateral informants are there basically to substantiate what you’re saying is your side of the case, and so you’re looking for those folks to reinforce it.
Now, many times, people pick people like parents or older siblings, and so they kind of come in, you know, somewhat suspicious in terms of, well, are they really going to give you — are they really going to give you a, you know, an accurate perspective of the situation or are they going to give you a more biased one. So you’re looking for as much objective data to tell you, you know, what really is going on here, what really is the situation. So, again, police reports, doctors’ reports, medical doctors, psychologists, therapists, people bring in tape recordings, people bring in other documentation, letters, emails, videos. I have people showing me videos. I — you can — whatever you can imagine in terms of the type of media that people can bring in, they’ll bring in.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: A good place to start is with your attorney, talking that over with your attorney to say, okay, what kind of information should be providing this evaluator, and they know where the case is going, they know the strong points, the weak points. They don’t necessarily have the children’s best interests in mind; they have their clients case in mind. An attorney’s job is totally different from an evaluator’s job. An attorney is out to win the case.
MICHAEL: For their client.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly. Exactly. And there may be a secondary concern for the children; although, my experience has been not that frequent. Most people — well, attorneys are out to win the case for their client, and that’s what they’re paid to do. If they fail to do that, then that person could take them to their State Bar and file a complaint. So an attorney has a very hard job. I know they’re not probably the most popular people on the planet, but they have a very hard job. Their job is to win a case for their client, and they’ve got to do everything that they can do to win that case.
Our job, as evaluators, is to give a Court an objective perspective on what’s in the best interest of the child, what kind of time-sharing and parenting plan would be in the child’s best interest, not looking to favor one side or the other, if anybody. We’re going to favor the children.
MICHAEL: Dr. Evans, as our discussion has progressed, I’m actually snickering quietly here to myself because as I’m — I prepared a bunch of questions to discuss with you and I’m going to keep going on, but as I read the questions, I’m suddenly, as you’re speaking back to me, thinking to myself, I feel like I’m asking him — I feel like I’m asking Dr. Bob what to tell people, how to get people out of doing the wrong thing, and that’s not necessarily the case. So I just want to be clear about that.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Oh no, no. I don’t think that, either. I mean, I’m not taking it that way.
MICHAEL: More for the — I mention that more for the listeners than for you because you’re clearly taking me at face value, and I don’t want people to mistake these questions to think that, hey, you know, you want to be normal, you want to be natural. So these questions are predicated on getting the people who I’m helping, the people who you’re helping, and anybody else who happens to be listening today, focused on what’s best for the kids.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly.
MICHAEL: And with that in mind, my next question, the way it’s written is, what should parents avoid doing during an evaluation, and that’s not — listeners, that’s not asked to suggest that you should be hiding something from the evaluator; it’s how — the question, more or less, is how does it — how should a parent present their issues without — you know, one of the things that I have a tendency to do is I get — I tend to get animated, especially when I’m excited or passionate about a particular topic. So, with that in mind, what should parents avoid doing during an evaluation, aside from the obvious?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, interestingly enough, I mean, there’s two sides to this. Number one, as a parent — as an evaluator, I have a perspective, but I also do divorce coaching and that’s kind of interesting job because that’s the place where I’m now working for one side. I’m working for one parent and I’m helping them go through the process. And I would say to men, you know, this is not a good time to get a DUI. This is really not a good time to do that. This is not a good time to be seen coming out of a strip club. This is not a good time to get arrested for disorderly conduct. And many times, as a divorce coach, I’ll look at them and I’ll say that to them, and I’ll say this to them, I’ll say, I can see by the expression on your face my advice is too late, and they will have already done those things.
MICHAEL: How about if the look on their face is, I would never dream of doing that?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes, yes, right.
MICHAEL: There’s two sides to that coin, because — and the reason that I suggest that is that I know that, and this advice would have come from an attorney, not necessarily a divorce coach, is that, hey, I said — it — you are being absolutely truthful with me, but I would be remiss in not suggesting these things to you.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Right, right, right.
MICHAEL: Just by some chance you had the opportunity, your best buddy wanted you to, just this one night and you never again did it, you didn’t do it before and you have no intention of doing it after, just avoid it altogether when you’re going through this situation, is your advice.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Right, exactly. Now, that’s from, that’s from the coaching perspective, if you will, or a divorce counseling perspective. From, in talking to an evaluator, again, if you can genuinely come from your heart and communicate what you think is in the best interest of the child, and presenting that side of it — look, at one point in time, these two people at least slept in the same bed, at least once, to create a child. So there must have been something of redeeming value in the other parent for them to want to go on for some amount of time with that person.
So, painting a person, the other parent, as all bad is probably not a good idea. Now, the caveat in that, unless, unless it’s true. You know, I mean, like there’s something really horrible, terrible that that person has done. They’re physically abusive, they were sexually abusive; well, that’s got to — that’s got to be shared, that’s got to be told, but just to come in and just paint a, you know, a very stark contrast between you and the other parent and how much better you are as a parent, I think that creates more of a suspicion than it does in terms of convincing anybody.
Understand that most evaluators are pretty experienced and they’re going to see through a lot of that. Again, I think it’s really important for the people to understand that the children need both parents, in most cases. Yes, there are exceptions, but I don’t want to go down there right now. But for most cases, you know, children look at their father and they see what it’s like to be a man, a father and a husband, and they look at their mother and they see what it’s like to be a woman, a wife, and a mother, and those images that we have of our parents stay with us for the rest of our lives.
And some people say, well, what if — what if we — what if they were abusive parents or something like that. The point is, those people we call our mother and our father have a tremendous influence on us, and it helps form the foundation of any relationships that we’re going to get into in the future. It is absolutely —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: — critical that we give our kids that opportunity to see both sides of that coin, and I think if you can, if you can work with a custody evaluator and say, you know, I’m generally interested in what’s going to be in my kid’s best interest, not try to get caught up in the high conflict of this whole thing, but at the same time you’re doing it because you’re disagreeing. If you could agree, you wouldn’t be in that person’s office to begin with.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: So, it’s —
MICHAEL: And yet, people — I was going to say, and yet, people like you and I are imploring the people who come to us for help, to try to work out an agreement with your high conflict ex before you have somebody else make a life-altering decision for you.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Exactly.
MICHAEL: That’s so hard to deal with. All right. To a person, they — everyone with whom I’ve spoken to, whether they’re a part of Mr. Custody Coach or not, when they’re going through or about to embark on a custody evaluation, almost to a person, tells me the attorney said that, you know what, the Judges almost always rubber stamp these things, they put a great deal of stock in the evaluator’s report, and they almost, almost exclusively do whatever it is that’s reported, recommended in the report.
In your experience, from the custody evaluator seat, how much stock — how much experience do you have with how much stock Judges put into your recommendations or those of your colleagues?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: They put a lot of stock in them.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I think I can count on one hand, literally, where a Court has said I’m not buying anything that Dr. Evans is saying. In fact, I only know of one case where that happened, and I was kind of flabbergasted, actually, but most times Courts take these reports very, very seriously. So much of it depends on how you present in your report, how you present in testimony.
If your — if your report is pretty well structured and comprehensive and pretty fair, in terms of giving both sides a fair hearing, the Court is probably going to pay serious attention to it. If it’s obviously bias, and you can frequently tell, then the Court is going to discount it, and they may just give you lip service, they’ll take the report, put it into evidence, but they’re not going to give much weight to it.
MICHAEL: Well, it’s interesting, it’s interesting that you say that, and this is a point where I know that you and I had some email discussions about the custody evaluations. I actually went through three separate custody evaluations; two of them court — well, all of them were court ordered, but two were through our, I guess, they might be the contracted organization with the court system, and one was private, and I’d like to draw on a little of that experience to ask you some opinions, generally speaking.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Sure.
MICHAEL: Based on some of the things. If you have — one of the things that I had experienced was that an evaluator asks each of the parties to come to a particular future session with a parenting plan that they think would work for everybody.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Okay.
MICHAEL: What would your opinion be if one side came with plans and the other side didn’t?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I’d want to find out why they chose not to come with a plan. What was — the request was I need to understand what it is that you — what are you asking for, what is your position in this case.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: If your position in this case is you don’t care, then that’s a pretty significant factor, I think.
MICHAEL: Interesting, okay.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: If they — if they didn’t understand the request, the request infringed on some time constraints that they had. What was the rationale for them to show up without a plan, even if it was a rudimentary one? In my assessments, I have a questionnaire, and I ask in detail, you know, if you could — if you had the — if you had decision-making power, what would — how would this case get resolved, what would it look like? Be specific. Tell me.
And it’s interesting because I get varying degrees of detail. Some people give me a three sentence thing of, he should have every other weekend and one —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: You know, that kind of thing. And then some people give me like three pages of what holidays —
MICHAEL: All the holidays worked out, they’ve got extra time when they’re off from school, the whole bit.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes, exactly. So, you know, what does that tell you? I mean, it basically gives you somebody is really putting some thought into it versus somebody who is blowing it off, thinking that somehow or other they’ve got a winning hand in this thing and it doesn’t really make any difference, they don’t need to put the energy into it.
So, but again, see, there’s a — you have to look for the — you have to pose the hypothesis of why does somebody behave that way, given the request, and there could be a variety of reasons, and you do some probing to find out what possibly could have happened here that you didn’t do what I asked you to do.
MICHAEL: Okay. One of the things that we had discussed via email, based on your reply it took you a little bit by surprise. I’ve been doing research on this for a little while, and there’s a couple different organizations out there. And again, I’m just going to — I wanted to engage you in some discussion on this with the understanding —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Sure.
MICHAEL: — that you have no idea about this organization or my county or the arrangement with the Court, but I did at least give — I did at least offer you the evidence that what I’m about to present you is reality, and that is the Court, when people don’t elect to go via a private evaluation, you go the organization that is hooked up with the court system, and in my particular case, with the first two custody evaluations, you go through just one organization, it’s not several, so it’s not like there’s a couple different places you could choose from. You actually sign a waiver that prohibits you from calling the evaluator in to testify about the report that they present to the Court.
As you know from the email discussion that we had, I have — that really is very alarming to me, and when you’re in the throws of a situation like this, you don’t think twice. You’ve been — the Court said you’re going to go, so you go and you sign pretty much whatever it is that they put in front of you. So I only really came to find about this later, and the combination of the attorney telling you that, hey, the Judge puts a lot of weight on the custody report, things did not go very well for me the first time through, so I ended up coming to an agreement for lesser time with my kids, based on the fact that I wasn’t going to throw good money after bad. I was out of money at that point.
But how do you feel, from my perspective, and I think for many rational, reasonable-thinking human beings, given the nature of what’s going on here, and that is there is going to be a recommendation that is going to, potentially, forever alter the lives of parents and their relationship with their children, that there is no accountability, there is no justification for whatever it is that they write in the report. How — just your opinion, because I know you can’t explain why the situation was set up the way it is. Good; bad?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I think it’s terrible. I mean, if you want a one-word answer. I don’t — I don’t — can I ask what state we’re talking about?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: See, what I don’t understand, and it’s really funny because I just had a case where I worked with an attorney and I said — I reviewed a court’s — a court conducted assessment, and I really wrote a very strong critique of it, a negative critique, and I wrote up a paper on it, and the attorney says, well, I can’t use the paper without your testimony, because without my testimony the paper is hearsay. I said, oh, that’s interesting. And then you came along and asked me this question about submitting evaluations without testimony.
We have an interesting situation in Florida. There’s a position called Parenting Coordinator. Some places call them Parenting Facilitators.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Now, many times, a Parenting Coordinator or a Facilitator will have an agreement with the parties. They also are appointed by the Court, but they have an agreement that says we’re going to work together and if this — however this goes down, you are not going to call me to testify. But that’s different from a person who has been appointed by the Court to actually do an assessment of a family and give the Court recommendations on how this parenting plan and time-sharing should go down.
I — I mean I think it’s a terrible practice. I can’t — I do not — I’m not an attorney, I do not know how legal — how that meets any — how that meets any rules of evidence in terms of producing a piece of paper. So what you have is an attorney walking in with a piece of paper that says, here, Your Honor, here is the evaluation, or the evaluator is giving it directly to the Court without the attorneys looking at it and arguing whether or not it should even be admitted into evidence.
What if this person who did that evaluation, hopefully it’s unlikely, but what if they did a really horrible, terrible, biased job and destroyed a family? Well, that’s going to go into evidence and there is not going to be any discussion or argument? The whole adversarial system, for better or for worse, is basically designed to argue both sides of an issue. This is not even arguing. Why even bother going? Basically, then, the Court will just simply award this evaluator and let him, he or she write a report, and then that’s the end of it.
MICHAEL: And the thing that’s alarming to me is, and I’d almost like to try, and I may someday initiate maybe a local news, an investigative reporter, something like that. What’s interesting is that if — and a lot of people just don’t have the resources to, between attorney’s fees and evaluator’s fees, to be able to afford to go anywhere but wherever it is that the Court tells them to. So, if you’re paying two to three thousand dollars per evaluation and the default, almost everybody who passes through this courtroom with a custody dispute is ordered into a custody evaluation with this organization.
So without making any accusations, you may be able to read between the lines and see where I’m going with this, and the thing that disappoints me in the way the system is set up in that particular jurisdiction is that without accountability, literally, and I know this is probably the due side of the equation, is that, literally, the evaluator can do nothing, listen to you for six sessions, or however many sessions, write whatever it is they want, and they don’t have to come account for what it is that they put in the report. They might even make a mistake, maybe they get a file —
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Absolutely.
MICHAEL: Maybe they get two files confused or they cross over their reports and, you know, maybe the header is already prepared for Michael and Jane, and they type in the template, and they wrote a report that’s based on somebody else’s evaluation, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.
I guess the unfortunate, and I use that term loosely, is that I was so — it really was my first evaluation, it was seriously one-sided, and based on my attorney’s advice and the warning ahead of time that, hey, they put a lot of stock in this, the custody evaluator made a recommendation for less time than I actually had prior to the hearing. So I just gave in and said, well, how much more time — this was initially, I am now in a shared parenting situation, this was five years ago. I just said how much time — how much more time — I gave up. I said how much more time than what the evaluator recommended are you going to give me, and I’ll sign off on it, and I ended up with ten days, as opposed to six days or five days, whatever it was that was in the recommendation, but that was — that really — that had me shaken up for some time.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, I would imagine. I — I would — I think it would be — you’re in an interesting position. I would be having an interview with an attorney to understand how that procedure, how that process conforms to the rules of evidence.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I don’t — again, I’m not an attorney, I’m not a legal scholar. It just seems weird to me that you can take somebody’s piece of paper and not even ask them about it. I mean, we do that with — we do this with DUI’s.
MICHAEL: Well, I’m still learning. Dr. Bob, you might be surprised to find that, and I’m still researching this and learning this stuff on my own, that the rules of evidence, as we know them to exist in Criminal Court, don’t actually apply to Family Court. I’m not sure if you’re aware of that, or not, but I’ll follow up with you with some information. We’re right up against the end now.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Oh, okay.
MICHAEL: I do want to thank you. I do want to thank you for coming on and talking with us.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Well, you’re very welcome. This was good.
MICHAEL: And I will stay in touch. As I find more information, I’ll pass it along to you, for your own edification, and maybe we’ll have another discussion somewhere down the road.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Very good.
MICHAEL: Thanks so much.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: I —
MICHAEL: Again — go on.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Oh, go ahead, I’m sorry. You’re down to, what, a minute here, less than?
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: Yes, very good. No, I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
MICHAEL: Okay, Dr. Bob, have a great day.
DR. ROBERT A. EVANS: You too. Thank you very much. Good luck to you guys.
MICHAEL: Bye-bye. Okay.
That was Dr. Robert Evans. Again, he is a Licensed School Psychologist who has a private practice in Palm Harbor, Florida. His practice consists mainly in the area of forensic psychology, where he conducts child custody evaluations, parental coordination, and divorce counseling, and I think he added quite a bit of information and insight into custody evaluations, something we talk about on the blog, and hopefully he’ll visit us there. Mr. Custody Coach.com. You can by our custody agreement e-book for a special introductory price of $19.95. And stop by and sign up today. Thank you very much.
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