"They said I need to go see you and take some tests or something to figure out if I’m a good parent."
Many of my first contacts with parents ordered by the court to undergo independent psychological evaluations in child custody cases begin something like this. What has over time become a fairly routine procedure for many family lawyers, judges, and mental health professionals is anything but that for parents who are facing it for the first time. The following brief article is intended to acquaint you with what a custody evaluation is, the purposes it serves, and how to approach it in a prepared and confident manner.
Why do I have to do this?
If you have been asked to participate in an independent psychological evaluation, it is because either the judge (or someone standing in for her-e.g., a court referee) ordered it or both attorneys agreed that it would be a good idea. Some court orders are very specific, offering detailed instructions to the evaluator and to the parties about who will be evaluated, for what purpose, using what kinds of information, paid for by whom, etc., whereas others are extremely vague and general. Your first order of business should be to discuss with your attorney the details of the order and what, if anything, your attorney knows about how the evaluator assigned to you usually works.
The evaluation is called "independent" because the court-appointed psychologist (or other mental health professional) is not working for one side or the other. He or she is the court’s expert, charged with the responsibility for advising the court about your children’s psychological and emotional needs, the resources offered by each parent to meet them, and how a custody or parenting time arrangement might best be devised to meet those needs.
The best evaluators are not primarily interested in a detailed public inspection of all of your personal strengths and weaknesses or deciding "which side is right" in all of your marital and post-marital conflicts. Their main concern is figuring out how to establish the best fit between your children at this point in their development and the various proposed custodial environments and arrangements.
Can’t we just go to trial and let the judge decide?
In theory, of course you can. But in reality, the vast majority of disputed custody cases never go to trial. Although trials are perhaps the best means we have in our society for separating truth from lies and fact from fiction, they are unwieldy instruments for getting at detailed understandings of complicated patterns of social and emotional interaction within a family. Judges know this and generally try to see to it that the most of their cases are resolved through a negotiated settlement. A good settlement puts the needs of the children first, and determining what will best serve the children’s needs often requires an experienced, impartial professional evaluator.
Aren’t these custody reports really just subjective opinions?
Compared to what? Deciding the best thing to do in a complicated interpersonal conflict is always a matter of opinion and always involves substantial subjective elements. The decisions of judges or juries are also subjective. The question is not, "How do we get rid of subjectivity?" We want and need judgments about such personal matters to be made by human beings, not faceless bureaucracies or computers following rigid routines. The real question is how can we do our best to assure that the process of arriving at opinions is fair and stands a good chance of getting at the truth.
It is true that there is no simple or single way to measure good parenting, personal truthfulness, or the fit between a child’s needs and a particular parent’s strengths and weaknesses. Decisions as complex as these will probably never be reducible to a simple number on a test. Even though the results of a professional custody evaluation depend significantly on the experience, insight, and skill of the evaluator, various methods are used to reduce bias and undisciplined subjectivity.
A good custody evaluation uses multiple types and methods of information gathering, usually including personal interviews; developmental histories; parent-child observations; psychological testing of the parents and children; review of school records, medical and psychiatric records, legal records (e.g., pleadings, PPOs, Protective Services records, civil and criminal histories) and records from the home (e.g., activities calendars; personal journals; photographs, home videos, or sound recordings; correspondence). It may also include interviews with neighbors, actual or prospective stepparents, teachers, babysitters, or others who know the family members well. Sometimes it will include a home visit. The evaluator tries not to place too much weight on any single source of information, instead waiting patiently until sufficient evidence from multiple sources converges to provide the framework for some well-supported opinions and conclusions.
Further, these opinions and conclusions must be presented in a detailed report that explains both the evidence and the reasoning behind them. If either side considers the evidence or the reasoning inadequate, they can challenge the report in court and subject the expert to cross-examination. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to decide whether the evaluator’s opinions are of sufficient value and weight to be considered in awarding custody and parenting time.
How should I prepare for a custody evaluation?
First, you need to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. You will be talking with a relative stranger about a great many personal matters and that stranger may have considerable influence over some very important outcomes affecting your future and that of your children. The evaluator will be interested not only in what you have to say, but how you present yourself as you say it. Your emotional preparation involves trying to gain perspective on your immediate fears, anxieties, hostilities, jealousies, or other emotional reactions, subordinating them as much as possible to the overriding goal of presenting yourself in a direct, sincere, fair-minded, and relevant fashion as someone concerned about your children and about helping the evaluator to arrive at a helpful conclusion.
In mentally preparing yourself, you should try to remind yourself of the basic elements of your position about what would be best for the children. You should have clear, well thought through ideas about matters such as: a) your personal history, the history of your marriage, and your children’s development; b) your strengths and shortcomings as a parent and how they affect your relationship with your children; c) the other parents strengths and weaknesses as a parent (what kind of mate they were should not be your main focus); d) the specific evidence supporting any fears or worries you have about the other parents’ competence or motives with regard to the children; and e) the reasons why your proposed parenting arrangement will be best for your children. Remember, though, that you will in all likelihood have several interviews. Don’t put pressure on yourself to get every point and detail covered in the first one. It also wise to check with your attorney whether your state has a statute that define the "best interest of the child" in terms of specific criteria. If so, both the evaluator and the court are likely to use these criteria as a framework for stating their opinions and making recommendations or orders. You should probably work with your attorney to consider how these criteria might apply in your case. Your attorney can also help you get physically prepared with relevant documents (e.g., a concise history summarizing pertinent events in the marriage and divorce process; children’s school and medical records; activities calendars or contemporaneous journals supporting your version of the facts; testimonial letters from people knowledgeable about you as a parent; orders and other documents setting forth the legal history of the case; correspondence showing your efforts to resolve past disputes respectfully and amicably). Early on in the evaluation, you might let the evaluator what you can provide if she would like to see it. Few evaluators are likely to object to your assistance in getting materials organized in a way that they can review them efficiently.
A final word on preparing yourself. You should have several bites at the apple. Bear in mind that a custody evaluation is not just a preliminary step on the way to "The Trial" where the REAL evidence comes out. This evaluation is probably your best chance to have your thoughts and feelings listened to patiently and in detail. Take advantage of it. Remember, too, that this is not just one more person you have to sell your story to. It is a consultation with an experienced expert on divorcing families. There is a chance to learn a great deal about yourself, about the other parent, and about your children. If you can get yourself to see the evaluation as a meaningful opportunity for learning and not just a forum for further advocacy, you are likely to show yourself at your best.