In highly contested custody cases, either the parties or the court might consider using a custody evaluation to help determine the most appropriate custody arrangement. Is this a good idea? Does it work?
In Missouri, courts in family law cases can order two types of evaluations. First, the court can order that the parties undergo psychological evaluations by a medical expert to address the general psychological well-being of each party and their fitness as a parent. Second, the court can order the family undergo a custody evaluation, where a medical expert may look at a wide range of information and conduct interviews or clinical evaluations to assist in making an actual recommendation for custody.
Missouri also allows the court to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the children in a custody case. By statute, the guardian ad litem has the responsibility of investigating and collecting data for the court to make its custody award, and the guardian ad litem may, and often does, make a specific recommendation for custody.
If the guardian ad litem can make a recommendation for custody, why do courts need to additionally choose a custody evaluator? Good question. Sometimes the court will not appoint a guardian ad litem but still order a custody evaluation; more often, both will be utilized in an effort to gain more input. Also, a guardian ad litem typically is a lawyer, while the custody evaluator is a mental health professional.
Is there any evidence that a psychologist is better equipped than a lawyer to make a custody evaluation and recommendation? No. In fact, as this article indicates, studies exist to show that custody evaluations do more harm than good.
The singular advantage of a custody evaluation is that it provides the court with valuable insights into the workings of a particular family, any issues facing the children and red flags or gold stars for the parents.
The disadvantages of custody evaluations include their cost (in the thousands of dollars), their limits (evaluators have only a few hours of clinical time with children and the parents), their tendency to increase conflict (parents who do not like the evaluator’s conclusions will find their own expert to testify), and their entanglement of the children (rather than remain on the outside of the legal process, the children become part of what can be a frightening clinical examination where they must give opinions about their parents, knowing that it could impact how much of that parent they could see in the future).
Like the author of the aforementioned article, some family court experts believe courts should no longer utilize custody evaluations because the harm outweighs the good. Given their expense, parties tend not to ask for them as frequently as a guardian ad litem or other forms of assistance. But parties should certainly think about the cost-benefit analysis of utilizing a custody evaluator before asking the court to appoint one.
If you have questions about custody evaluations, contact us – we can help.