The following, written by psychologist Dr. Gitu Bhatia, was originally published as an article in our Children and Divorce Guide.
Children usually do best when parents make the decisions about their lives. However, a custody evaluation is sometimes the only option left for parents caught in a custody battle.
Parents are generally the best people to decide what is in the best interest of their children. When parents and their lawyers are unable to agree about a custody plan for the children, there are options such as therapy and mediation that are available to parents to help put aside differences and work out plans that will help families get through the emotional journey of divorce in a mutually agreeable manner.
However, when these conflict resolution methods fail and parents continue to have strong opposition to each other, a custody evaluator is often another person who enters into the divorce team. The custody evaluation process typically happens after one or more court appearances where there is no progress on deciding a custody plan for the children. Please remember that in most cases it is preferable for the parents to decide where their children should spend time, but a professional evaluator is there when that cannot happen.
What Is a Custody Evaluator?
A child custody evaluator is someone who is typically a psychologist, although other mental health professionals also serve as evaluators. They generally take special training every year in best practices in conducting evaluations and they are often appointed by the court to serve in this role.
How Long Does a Custody Evaluation Take?
Depending on the situation and urgency, child custody evalu- ation can be rapid or extensive. For example, some fast-track evaluations happen at the courthouse, while others may take months to be completed. Each parent meets with the evalu- ator and the children meet with the evaluator. In the case of a brief evaluation, the evaluator gives verbal findings to the judge to assist the judge in making a custody ruling. This can happen in one day.
In other cases, an evaluation may happen outside of the court, but with the evaluator meeting with the family in an office. In a full-blown evaluation, the custody evaluator will typically conduct psychological assessments of both parents, meet with each member of the family individually, and meet with the parent and children in each home. The evaluator may also consult with teachers, therapists, tutors, friends, or other people who have knowledge of the dynamics of the family and each parent’s capacity to be an effective parent in a post-divorce, contentious situation.
There is a written report that may be issued within a few weeks. A full child custody evaluation can take months and may cost upwards of $25,000. The focus of any child custody evaluation is to find what is best for the children and to be very child-focused.
How to Deal with Your Children During the Evaluation Process
It is important to note that it is typical that everybody has some degree of unhappiness when a child custody evaluation is ordered. Nobody will get exactly what they desire, because sharing custody of children necessarily means that there will be compromise by everyone.
If you are going through a child custody evaluation, it is important to be truthful with your children, and to encourage them to be truthful. For example, you may say, “Mom and Dad can’t figure out how to share you because we both love you so much. Someone is going to come and talk with our family and help us make those decisions. When you speak with them, please be honest and say what you want.”
It is also important to let them know that the evaluator will listen to everyone and then they will write a report to help the judge make the final decision. A child should never feel the burden of any custody decision on their shoulders.
Children often do best when parents make the decisions about their lives. The parents are often more committed to making things work out if they feel they have some level of autonomy in the lives of their children. Unfortunately, there can be many emotional costs to a child custody evaluation along with the financial consequences of divorce.
An unsatisfying judgment based on the evaluation can set up a lifetime of non-compliance and a sense of injustice, which is unfair to the children. Ultimately, the ongoing con- flict, hurt, and anger between parents is more detrimental to children than the actual time-sharing arrangement between them. Children do better when they know that their parents can help solve problems together and communicate as co-parents.
Dr. Gitu Bhatia (Psy.D.), a former family mediator for the Los Angeles Superior Court, is a psychologist in private practice and adjunct faculty at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. www.gitubhatia.com