In order to help determine the most appropriate custody arrangement for your children, sometimes the court or the parties themselves may consider using a custody evaluation, in an attempt to address disputes over living arrangements, decision-making amongst the parents, or physical custody time with each parent. Oftentimes, this is a tool used in highly contested custody cases. It certainly does not work in all cases and is not the right tool for all cases.
If you are considering a custody evaluation, you need to be familiar with the two types of evaluations that can be ordered in family law cases in Missouri. (1) 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. (2) The court can order the family to 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.
How are your children’s interests represented throughout this process? In Missouri, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the children in a custody case. In certain cases, the court is required by statute, to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the children. The guardian ad litem has the responsibility of investigating and collecting information for the court to make its custody award, and the guardian ad litem may, and often does, make a specific recommendation for custody.
Even if your case involves a guardian ad litem, who has the ability to make a recommendation for custody, the courts often times choose a custody evaluator in addition, to gain more information and insight into the parties and family collectively. Keep in mind too, that a guardian ad litem is usually an attorney, whereas the custody evaluator is a mental health professional.
There is no evidence that a mental health professional is better equipped than a lawyer to make a child custody decision nor is there any scientific evidence for their custody-evaluation recommendations. In fact, as this article indicates, studies exist to show that custody evaluations may do more harm than good.
The sole advantage of a custody evaluation is that it provides the court with valuable information into the workings of a particular family, issues facing the children, and identifies concerns as well as those positive things occurring within the family dynamic.
There are disadvantages of a custody evaluation, including: (a) cost – an evaluation can costs thousands of dollars, causing additional stress on the family; economic stability is an important predictor of how well children adjust to divorce and further draining a family’s resources can prove harmful to the children; (b) an evaluation has its limits – evaluators have only a few hours of clinical time with children and the parents to gather all information necessary to formulate their evaluation; (c) the potential to increase conflict – if one or both parents was unhappy with the findings of the evaluator, they may find their own expert to attack or defend a report; and (d) the entanglement of the children and unintentional harm. Rather than keeping the children out of the court process, the children are placed in the middle of the battle between their parents and become involved in what can be a scary and stressful clinical examination where they must give opinions about their parents, which can have long-term effects on the outcome of the case.
As stated by 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 such as co-parent counseling and or therapy. The parties should certainly think about the cost-benefit analysis of utilizing a custody evaluator before asking the court to appoint one.
Should you need the advice of a child custody attorney or have questions or concerns about your situation, know that we are here to help and discuss those issues with you.