When divorcing parents disagree over custody, visitation, and decision-making, they frequently turn to the courts to help them decide. To make this decision, judges frequently seek the input of a trained mental health professional who can provide them with guidance as to what is in the best interest of the children. In order to come to this conclusion, the appointed mental health professional will interview and evaluate all parties and gather all relevant information during what is called a custody evaluation. Once the process is complete, the mental health professional will have an understanding of how each adult might parent the children post-divorce. The custody evaluator will then submit a report to the court that may help guide the judge’s decision.
Who conducts custody evaluations?
Custody evaluations should be conducted by mental health professionals who have knowledge and experience in child development, child and adult psychopathology, interviewing techniques, and family systems. They must also be trained in this specific field. There are numerous concerns related specifically to divorcing and divorced parents, and it’s important that evaluators understand these situations. Some of the topics they should be familiar with include:
- psychological and developmental needs of children
- variety of dynamics that can occur between individuals and families
- relevant legal issues to divorce and post-divorce parenting
- potential decision-making issues
- how different cultures and religions may impact the lives of parties
- general mental health, medication use, and learning or physical disabilities
- psychological and developmental effects of domestic violence, substance abuse, problematic parent-child relationships, child mistreatment, and more on children and adolescents
Regardless of the years of experience, all evaluators should continue to stay up-to-date regarding the latest research and advances in this specific area.
What happens during a custody evaluation?
While there are differing standards and guidelines for custody evaluations based upon the mental health professional’s license and area of practice, all custody evaluators will conduct interviews with each party. It’s recommended that evaluators use multiple and different methods to gather data, which may include psychological testing, gathering relevant information and speaking with collateral sources.
All custody evaluations will include:
- an evaluation of each parent so the evaluator can understand the parenting capacities and abilities of each person.
- an evaluation of each child so the evaluator can best understand the unique needs, wants and developmental issues of each child
- interaction sessions between each child with each parent, unless there is a valid concern for the child’s safety with the location of a parent makes it impossible to do so
Once the custody evaluator has gathered as much information possible from as many different and relevant sources as possible, they should have an understanding as to how each person might parent the children, based upon a variety of post-divorce parenting arrangements. They will then write a report that provides the court with guidance as to what’s in the best interests of the children. This may help the judge steer the parties towards a settlement or guide the judge’s custody decision.
Custody evaluators strive to be accurate, objective, fair, and independent. However, there are no guarantees that any particular methodology will guarantee that the “truth” is derived and the right understandings, conclusions, and even recommendations are made. Clinical judgment always involves the interplay between science and the “art” of the profession.
Custody evaluators attempt to be as helpful as possible for families who are going through a divorce. Their goal is to enable parents and children to move forward in a healthy manner.