CHILD CUSTODY EVALUATION: FAQS

The following article, written by By Robert E. Erard, Ph.D. appears at Divorce Online:

"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.

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Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings

I. Orienting Guidelines: Purpose of a Child Custody Evaluation

1. The primary purpose of the evaluation is to assess the best psychological interests of the child.

The primary consideration in a child custody evaluation is to assess the individual and family factors that affect the best psychological interests of the child. More specific questions may be raised by the court.

2. The child’s interests and well-being are paramount.

In a child custody evaluation, the child’s interests and well-being are paramount. Parents competing for custody, as well as others, may have legitimate concerns, but the child’s best interests must prevail.

3. The focus of the evaluation is on parenting capacity, the psychological and developmental needs of the child, and the resulting fit.

In considering psychological factors affecting the best interests of the child, the psychologist focuses on the parenting capacity of the prospective custodians in conjunction with the psychological and developmental needs of each involved child. This involves (a) an assessment of the adults’ capacities for parenting, including whatever knowledge, attributes, skills, and abilities, or lack thereof, are present; (b) an assessment of the psychological functioning and developmental needs of each child and of the wishes of each child where appropriate; and (c) an assessment of the functional ability of each parent to meet these needs, including an evaluation of the interaction between each adult and child.

The values of the parents relevant to parenting, ability to plan for the child’s future needs, capacity to provide a stable and loving home, and any potential for inappropriate behavior or misconduct that might negatively influence the child also are considered. Psychopathology may be relevant to such an assessment, insofar as it has impact on the child or the ability to parent, but it is not the primary focus.

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