What You Need to Know About Child Custody Evaluations

In an ideal world, when a family goes through a divorce or child custody case, the parents would both have a willingness to co-parent and would both provide suitable living environments for the children. In some cases, parents do follow this script, agreeing to a particular custody plan together and having two fine homes for raising the children. In cases that do not follow the script, the court will need more information to assist it in crafting the best Parenting Plan for the family. That additional information usually consists of a custody evaluation.

Recall that in Missouri, the court has to decide legal custody (who makes decisions for the children) and physical custody (who has the children during the year and at what times). Joint legal custody means parents share the decision-making, while sole legal custody means only one parent makes the decisions concerning the welfare of the children. Joint physical custody means parents have equal or close to equal time with the children in their respective custody. Sole physical custody means one parent has the bulk of the custodial time with the other parent having designated periods of visitation.

Where two parents have a significant conflict that suggests joint parenting will not work, and each parent claims the ability to be the sole custodian, the court will need more information than just the testimony of the parents. The court will look for outside help. This will come in two forms. First, the court will likely appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the interests of the children and gather information from both parents to bring a child-centered point of view to the court. Second, the court might seek a custody evaluation, particularly if the parents seem particularly heated in the litigation or if one or both have raised issues of abuse or neglect.

What is a custody evaluation?

A custody evaluation involves a professional, usually a psychologist, with particular training and expertise in the area of divorced households. The court may choose the evaluator alone or allow each parent to have input in the selection of the evaluator. Once appointed, the evaluator will begin by interviewing each parent alone, gathering information about themselves, the marriage, the children, and the household. The evaluator may choose to administer various psychological examinations if certain concerns are present during the interview or the litigation. Most psychological examinations involve a mixture of clinical observation with standard tests in the field, usually responses to survey questionnaires. The evaluator will also interview the children, both alone and with a parent, to get a sense of how the child interacts with the parent. The evaluator may also interview other key people, from teachers to family members. Finally, the evaluator may conduct an unscheduled home visit to see what each parent’s home environment looks like and how the children do in this environment.

After the evaluator has completed all of the data gathering, the evaluator will prepare a written report for the attorneys and ultimately the court. The report will contain all of the data, any test results or psychological evaluations, a summary of interviews, and finally an answer to the questions that caused the evaluation in the first place – what custody arrangement would best suit this family and why.

Who pays for the custody evaluation?

The court will order one or both parents to pay for the evaluation, based in part on the parents’ incomes and in part on who may have necessitated the evaluation.

What happens with the custody evaluation in helping to reach a final outcome in a case?

When parents have a high conflict disagreement over custody, the custody evaluation can help the parents reach an agreement without going to trial and letting the court decide. The evaluation may give both sides a window into parenting styles, individual parent issues, individual child issues, and other information that allows the parents to see that the preferred custody arrangement may not work and they should consider the alternative suggested by the evaluator as in the best interests of the children. By putting all of this information on the table for the parties and before going the court, the parties have a good idea of what the evaluator would say in court, thereby encouraging both parents to work toward a settlement.

Let’s use an example. Two parents both believe joint custody cannot work because both parents refuse to work with one another, and each parent believes the other parent is not suitable for sole custody. After an evaluation, the evaluator brings to light the children’s point of view, heavily focused on concerns about whether their parents love them, blame them for the divorce, and will continue to care for them. They complain about the fighting and that it is negatively impacting their daily lives. All this information about the children and how the parents behave could actually move the parents toward joint custody, some counseling for the children, and some parenting classes for themselves.

Custody evaluations also shed light on an important question for physical custody: which parent is more likely to ensure frequent and meaningful contact between the children and the other parent? Often both parents may make statements that appear to be respectful of the time scheduled for the other parent, but in a custody evaluation, the evaluator may find that one or both parents do not practice what they preach and take every opportunity to restrict or interfere with the other parent’s custody time.

Some parents will not settle and will insist on going to trial. In this situation, the custody evaluator will become a key witness in the case, offering all of the data collected in the evaluation and opinions on different custody options. In court, the attorneys will try and take parts of the evaluation to favor their clients, but the court will look to the whole report for a sense of a more neutral take on this particular family. As such, the custody evaluation can take on a great deal of weight, more than what the parties may have imagined when they filed for divorce or agreed to the custody evaluation.

If you ask someone who has been part of a custody evaluation how it helped or hurt his or her case, that person is more likely will give a negative rather than a positive answer, because evaluators rarely favor one side, so someone feels hurt or slighted, and the stakes are so high. Evaluations can be very personal and dig into parts of private lives in ways that feel invasive. A negative evaluation makes a parent feel like they have been branded unfit in some manner.

So, as you can see, custody evaluations are not for everyone and come with risks and rewards. If a parent approaches the whole process as a game to win, the evaluator will spot this and expose that parent in an unfavorable light. If both parents approach the process openly and honestly, the parents could get insight into what could make post-divorce life much more bearable. In the end, only the parents and the advice of their attorneys will determine whether a custody evaluation would be best in their case.

Should you need the assistance of an experienced divorce attorney or child custody attorney in Creve Coeur and O’Fallon or have questions about your divorce situation, know that we are here to help and ready to discuss those questions with you.

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