First, I should probably explain just what a custody evaluation is before giving my thoughts on when you should try to get one done. A custody evaluation is a combination of psychological evaluation and parent-child relationship evaluation all rolled into one long and usually fascinating report.
The process of the evaluation is long and pretty rigorous. It needs to be done by a licensed clinical psychologist, not a social worker or other professional who is allowed to provide counseling. This is Ph.D level work. The psychologist meets with each of the parents individually and each parent submits to psychological testing and a full psychological evaluation. The psychologist also one or more sessions, meets with the children and each of the parents with the children for observation and some discussion. Each of the parents can submit the names of other people they think have important information (usually friends, relatives, individual therapists for the kids or the parents) for the evaluator to contact. Once the evaluator has completed all the tests and meetings with everyone involved, he or she creates a long and detailed report that includes the results of the psychological evaluations, the conclusions, and usually a list of recommendations.
Most people jump at the idea of a custody evaluation. Everyone feels that if they can just get an objective person to take a look at the situation and talk to the kids that the parent will be vindicated. This, however, is usually not the case. Custody evaluations are unvarnished and unsparing assessments of parents. They catalog personality disorders, mental health issues, substance abuse problems, bad parenting skills, deceptiveness and even just bad attitudes toward the other parent and the effects it has on the kids. There is usually no stone left unturned in these assessments and, let’s face it, while we may all think we’re pretty good parents and likeable people we all have our flaws. A custody evaluation takes all of your flaws and personality traits and highlights them and then dissects them in front of a courtroom. It is a tough process to go through and no one ever looks good at the end of it.
These evaluations do have an up side. They are invaluable tools when trying to get to the bottom of what is really going on in a custody case. When once parent is engaging in behavior that alienates the children, or tries to bait the other parent into losing their temper, or has mental health or substance abuse problems that are not readily apparent, a custody evaluation can usually expose those more subtle problems that are so tough to demonstrate through regular evidence. More importantly, a custody evaluation tends to expose problems that the children are having which one or both parents may be unaware of. Sometimes one parent is trying to poison the children against the other parent (alienation) or the conflict between the parents is causing the children terrible stress and anxiety that they are concealing their family.
So, should you try to get a custody evaluation in your custody case? Here are the questions that you need to ask when considering whether or not a custody evaluation is right for you:
- Who is going to pay for it? A custody evaluation typically costs between $6,000 and $10,000. That is a hefty sum on top of other legal bills associated with a custody case or a divorce case. The evaluation can be split, or once side can pay for it. Frequently, the person who asks for the evaluation ends up being ordered to pay the initial cost.
- Are there mental health or substance abuse problems involved in the case? If there are, and they are readily apparent because the other parent has been diagnosed with a mental illness or has been arrested for drug or alcohol related offenses, then you may not need an evaluator to explain to the judge that there’s a big problem. If there are these problems and they are not obvious or not diagnosed, then an evaluation may be needed.
- Do you fear that the other parent is alienating the children? Alienation is a pretty specific term when dealing with custody cases. Basically, is the other parent systematically trying to poison the children’s relationship with you by discussing inappropriate details of your relationship, details of the litigation, or placing blame on you for the breakup of the relationship? This is often tough to prove. This is often a reason to seek an evaluation.
- Is it a high conflict case? Do you continually have to go to court, fight over the meaning of a custody order, deal with calls to law enforcement, end up with visitation being withheld from you or vacations having to be cancelled? These are the hallmarks of a high conflict case. When things that most parents, even divorced parents, can agree on become pitched battles, then you have a problem with conflict.
- Are the children acting out for no obvious reason? All kids can act out, but when they undergo real personality changes and start getting into trouble at school or at home, you need to start asking whether there is something going on that you don’t understand.
If you said yes to any of these questions AND you have a way to pay for it, then a custody evaluation may be the right choice for you. Be careful, though. Evaluations are double-edged swords and they can paint you in a bad light just as much as the other parent. Talk to your attorney about it and if you have a therapist, talk to your therapist about it. Evaluations are expensive, but it could be the best thing for you.