Child Custody Evaluation FAQ's by Dr. Mary Connell, Ed.D.
Dr. Connell was gracious enough to allow us to reproduce her writing in the hope that it can be of benefit of both children and parents.
Our publication and use of this article should not be construed to imply endorsement or support of the SPARC site by the author, Dr. Mary Connell. Dr. Connell was gracious enough to allow us to reproduce her writing in the hope that it can be of benefit of both children and parents.
Will my insurance cover part of the cost of the evaluations?
Health insurance rarely covers any part of the cost of court related work. If there is a medically related issue, some part of the cost might be covered, but it is safe to assume that most of the cost will not be covered.
An evaluator has said that I must pay for the assessment in advance. Is that standard, and if so, why?
Usually it is necessary to provide funds in advance of appointments, because the evaluator attempts to avoid being vulnerable to allegations of bias. It is helpful, in assuring both parties of objectivity, to be free to render one's opinion or recommendation without fear of difficulty collecting fees.
I think my child's other parent has psychological problems. Will the court ask for a psychological evaluation?
Sometimes an evaluation of one party is ordered, when the other party requests it or when the court sees that it might be useful, but a custody evaluation normally involves the evaluation of all parties to the matter, including parents, children, and any other significant figures.
I believe a custody evaluation would help the judge make a good decision regarding our family. Should I begin by finding a forensic psychologist to do an assessment of my children and me, or should I wait for the court to order it?
Clearly there are advantages to each approach. The privately obtained expert opinion may be useful in court, and each party may obtain an evaluation and then offer the results, by way of calling the evaluator as a witness. One advantage is that one can research the experts in the geographic area or, if resources permit, locate a nationally known expert so as to be reasonably sure of the level of expertise of the expert. A second advantage is that if the evaluation is unfavorable, a second one can be sought. On the other hand, seeking court appointment of an expert evaluator assures that:
The court may be expected to listen to the expert with receptivity to the opinion, so that the time and money will not have been wasted
The expert will have had the opportunity to see all parties to the suit, a prerequisite for making responsible custody or visitation recommendations
A court appointed expert will likely have access to a broad range of information from each side, so that a more thorough assessment may be accomplished
If my expert testifies on my behalf and my child's other parent also presents expert testimony affirming good parenting skills, how will the court know whom to believe?
In fact, both experts may be correct, in that both of you may have a great deal to offer your child(ren). Your point is well taken, however, in that if the testimony of the two experts is contradictory, the judge may then find it necessary to appoint a third expert to evaluate both parties, a further expense of time, money, and energy. This is one good reason to seek court appointment of one expert at the outset.
Will the evaluator be able to see through my child's other parent's presentation? This person is very good at charming people, at least on first blush.
A competent assessment will include skilled clinical interview and history-taking, objective measures of personality and parenting characteristics, and some "collateral checking." That is, the evaluator will likely review previous treatment records, talk with some people in the community who know of the issues first hand and who can comment on your parenting skills, and finally, observe each of you in interaction with the child(ren). By interviewing each member of the family several times, attempting to clarify apparent contradictions in the data, and exercising good clinical judgment, it is generally possible for the evaluator to arrive at a fairly clear impression of the family dynamics, the needs and wishes of the children, and the strengths and weaknesses of each parent in meeting the needs of the children.
If I lose custody as a result of the evaluation, will I be able to try to correct my shortcomings and then get reevaluated, to try to regain custody?
Generally one parent does not win and the other parent lose custody. Rather, each parent's role with the children may be outlined, and one may as a result get to spend more time or less time with the children. Rarely is the decision of the court based wholly upon the custody evaluation. Instead, the court may consider the custody evaluation along with a social study of the parties, testimony presented by each party, and other factors, including the law in the state in which you live. Finally, if the results of the evaluation are not positive, there will surely be some recommendations for intervention, so that you may have some direction about how to work toward positive change. Your attorney can advise you about seeking reevaluation.
Should I try to put my best foot forward when I meet with the custody evaluator, or is it best to be open and forthcoming, assuming the evaluator is going to hear about my faults from my child's other parent or from my child directly?
It is by far preferable to be open, honest, and direct. The evaluator knows that no one is perfect, and it is expected that you might be somewhat defensive and might tend to gloss over or attempt to minimize shortcomings. However, the evaluator will be positively impressed by openness, a willingness to look at yourself squarely and honestly, and an acknowledgment of errors in judgment you have made. Such openness and acceptance of responsibility for your part in the dissolution of your marriage suggests fair-mindedness, balance in your perceptions, and emotional maturity. You should try to be the first to tell the evaluator of these shortcomings, and then explain how you want to improve your functioning and what you are doing to accomplish these changes.
What should I tell my children before the evaluator interviews them? Will the evaluator upset them? Will they have to state their preference regarding where to live?
Generally it is good to tell the children very little about what to say--urge them to be open and honest. Do not promise them that their talk with the evaluator will be kept confidential, as it likely will not. The evaluator may talk with you about the interviews before they occur, and give you direction about how to prepare the child. Most evaluators make a great effort not to distress the child and not to place the child in the position of having to state a preference or tell anything about either parent which might be negative. Rather, the child will be interviewed about general issues such as school, friends, activities and interests, and about family constellation.
In the course of the interview, the issue of the separation will arise. The child will tell a great deal about how the separation is affecting him or her, how the situation might be improved, and so forth, in the course of this discussion, and you should trust that the child will do this best without your help. When a child is coached or over-prepared, it is rather obvious that this has occurred and it is not considered a positive action on the part of the parent. Do not instruct the child to say certain things or to not say certain things. Do not indicate that the evaluator is your friend, nor that the evaluator might take the child away from you. Remain matter-of-fact, neutral, and brief in what you do say. Something like, "This woman/man is going to help us make the best arrangement for how you will spend time with both your [other parent] and me."
Why would the evaluator give intelligence and achievement tests to my children? Wouldn't personality and behavioral assessment be more relevant?
Actually, a full assessment should include intelligence and achievement testing in order to determine your children's raw potential, their actual performance, and whether they are hampered by emotional distress in their school work or whether learning difficulties need special attention. If your children perform well in school, this may be the result of good support for education at home and good parenting in general, or it could reflect over-achievement because of excessively high expectations for a child of average or low average raw intellectual ability, at great cost to the children. Full assessment helps the evaluator make an accurate assessment of the child's needs and how best to meet them.
Why does the custody evaluation cost so much?
The cost of the evaluation should be based upon the hourly fee of the evaluator and the hours spent completing it. At an hourly fee of $150 to $200 per hour, the usual fee for doctoral level psychologists, the evaluation may be expected to cost from $750 to $1500 per person, if the following activities are included:
Two or three interviews
Scoring and interpretation of several standardized personality and parenting measures
Reading background information
Telephone consultation with attorneys, social workers, collateral sources of information
Observation of interaction between parent and child
Court testimony may or may not be required, since the written reports of the evaluations may lead to agreement between the parties. If it is required, the cost per hour may be greater because of the disruption in the practice operation. You will likely be asked to provide retainer funds, and the time billed will likely be portal to portal and may also include review time, since the case material must be reviewed in order for the evaluator to testify competently.
This is indeed expensive, but the issues are critically important and the court will be able to make better decisions for your family if there is data upon which the decisions can be based. Nevertheless, if you and the child's other parent can work out suitable arrangements on your own for sharing the responsibility of rearing your children, this would no doubt be a considerable savings and might well result in less stress and conflict, and even likely in better decisions.