When you’re dividing assets during a divorce, there will be things you want and things you can probably live without.
However, when it comes to the issue of child custody, parents can become fierce combatants. Even those who want the very best for their kids may have different ideas about which parent should provide what, or they may simply be heartbroken at the prospect of losing time with their children.
The heightened emotions that naturally accompany child custody arrangements can make parents behave in ways they normally wouldn’t. But bad behavior, no matter how seemingly justifiable, will not help you get the level of custody you seek. Even worse, it can be harmful to your children — at the very least, it doesn’t set a great example.
If parents can’t agree on a custody arrangement and exhibit contentious behavior, or if there are questions about the health, safety, or welfare of their children, the court may order a custody evaluation. What is a custody evaluation, and how can you prepare for it?
What Is a Parenting Time or Custody Evaluation?
In a family court custody case, a custody evaluation or parenting time evaluation (the terms are interchangeable) may be ordered to investigate parents, households, and the overall welfare of children. This process is designed to determine the best interests of children, both physically and psychologically, in order to create a custody arrangement that ensures the greatest safety, stability, and support.
A typical evaluation could take several weeks to a few months to complete, with more complex cases (such as those involving allegations of child neglect, endangerment, or abuse) requiring a more thorough and extensive approach.
The process may include a range of professionals, such as evaluators, psychologists and therapists, social workers, and subject matter experts. An attorney may be appointed as child counsel to represent the best interests of children in cases of suspected conflict, abuse, neglect, or substance abuse.
In some cases, faster mini-evaluations or issue-focused evaluations are carried out. These may last anywhere from just a few hours to about a month. Such evaluations feature shorter interviews and only brief visits to the home, and they are common when no major issues are present or when a specific issue, such as the impact of one parent moving out of state, is under review.
What to Expect During a Custody Evaluation
There are several steps involved in a typical custody evaluation. Interviews with parents and children are always a part of such an evaluation. Home visits may also be part of the process to assess living arrangements and to observe how parents and children interact in their homes. There may also be psychological testing by a psychologist for an overall assessment of psychological and emotional functioning of both parents and children.
Evaluators are likely to interview other involved parties, such as extended family members, teachers, daycare professionals, and doctors who know the children or the family well. Evaluators may also contact mental health professionals such as therapists or social workers.
The process will also typically include reviewing pertinent documents like school and medical records, police reports, or prior court records. Either you or your attorney may be asked to provide these documents. The evaluator will give you instructions on how they wish to receive these records and what records in which they are most interested.
When the process is complete, the evaluator will submit a report to the court and your attorney will receive a copy. This document typically includes an overview of the evaluator’s findings, along with recommendations for custody and a parenting plan.
Why Is It Important to Prepare?
The custody court order issued by a judge will determine the course of your family’s future and should be taken seriously in order to ensure the best outcome for your kids. As the saying goes, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
There’s much more to getting ready for a home visit than cleaning your house, bathing your kids, and making sure everyone is well-dressed and smiling. Your goal is to honestly convey that you are providing a healthy, safe, supportive, and loving environment for your kids.
It is critical that you understand the goals of the evaluator and the process that they follow. Allowing the evaluator see that your priority lies in what is best for your children will allow you to put your best foot forward.
How to Prepare for Evaluation
The important thing to remember when you start preparing for an evaluation required for custody court is that you don’t have to go it alone. There is a process, and although it may vary somewhat based on the particulars of your case, you can find experienced professionals who will guide you through it and help you make informed decisions.
You’ll want to start by setting goals for the process and outcomes, as well as conducting an honest self-assessment of how you’re doing as a parent. From there, it’s important to find the right lawyer to advise and support you.
It takes time and effort to ensure that you have everything you need to meet court requirements and, ultimately, reach your goals where child custody is concerned. Start with these seven steps:
1. Consider Your Parenting Goals
You might think the only thing you need to decide when it comes to custody is whether you’ll seek joint or full custody. This is certainly a big decision, and it will require you to think long and hard about what’s really best for your kids.
However, custody is not the only goal for parents trying to envision life after divorce. Most parents want to amicably co-parent with their ex-spouse. They want to provide a safe and supportive environment for their children, with the least amount of stress possible for parents and kids alike.
One option to pinpoint your goals for the custody process is to speak with a trained professional, such as a life and divorce coach, who can help you clarify your goals and create a plan to reach them.
2. Perform an Honest Self-Assessment
Looking at yourself and your situation objectively is never easy, and it may require outside help from a professional like a custody attorney or a therapist.
An honest self-assessment regarding the current state of your relationships with your ex and your kids is an important place to start. A reasonable degree of self- awareness and insight, not perfection, is one of the things that evaluators look for. Any attempts to present yourself as a perfect parent will not go over well.
If you want the best chance to get some form of custody — and to create a stable and healthy environment for your kids — you need to not only recognize your strengths but also be honest about your weaknesses (and everyone has them) when it comes to parenting.
3. Seek Help when Necessary
When going through a traumatic situation like divorce, it’s not unusual to find yourself dealing with issues like anxiety, depression, anger, and grief that can impact your whole household.
It’s okay to seek help so that you can work toward becoming the best possible parent and the best version of yourself. Showing that your children and their best interests are your priority is an essential part of the evaluation process. Evaluators value parents taking initiative to identify and address their issues, not a perfect parent!
4. Choose an Experienced Child Custody Attorney
There’s no way to overstate the importance of finding the right legal professional to help you through this complex and harrowing process. You need an experienced custody attorney who has a good track record with cases like yours, but you’ll also want to find someone who shares your core values and sensibilities.
Your attorney should help you fight for child custody and prepare for the evaluation, but they should do it in a way you feel comfortable with.
5. How to Conduct Yourself During Evaluations
Professional evaluators are trained to assess family situations and deliver recommendations for custody and parenting to the court. The judge will make the ultimate decision, but the evaluation will likely factor in heavily.
In other words, you need to take the process seriously. This means being on time for appointments, dressing and behaving appropriately, and providing whatever is requested, including information and documents.
It’s fine to acknowledge if you feel nervous. Such feelings are understandable and expected. Many parents find it helpful to make a few notes before meetings to aid in remembering major points.
Always answer the evaluator’s questions honestly and behave respectfully. Arguing, threatening, or bargaining with the evaluator is unwise.
It’s especially crucial that you not malign your ex in front of your children or the evaluator. These professionals are attuned to evidence of parental alienation, a term that is used when one parent tries to ruin a child’s relationship with the other parent.
If you want your ex to get custody, attempting to turn your children against them is a great way to do it. Even worse, parental alienation is incredibly harmful to your children.
This is not to say that you cannot share reasonable concerns in a calm and rational manner, and it is helpful if you have corroborating documentation for them. Try to avoid extensive “he said/she said” information sharing.
6. Prepare Your Kids for the Evaluation
As a parent, you want to do all you can to protect your children from harm. While the evaluation process is designed with their best interests in mind, children already coping with divorce may naturally be anxious about interacting with strangers and feel as though they’re under a microscope.
For this reason, it’s just as important to prepare your kids for the process as it is to prepare yourself. This doesn’t mean coaching them on what to say, which is a major no-no. Experienced evaluators are trained to recognize the signs of undue parental influence.
You never want to put your children in a position of having to memorize talking points and perform, or worse, lie. This is harmful to them, and if a custody evaluator discovers the deception, it will not work out in your favor.
However, you can help kids understand what to expect, put their minds at ease and let them know everything will be okay, and even encourage them to think about what they might want to say (without coaching them) so that they feel prepared.
A seasoned attorney or a child therapist can help you figure out how best to approach this process with the happiness and well-being of your children in mind. It’s also a good idea to ask the evaluator during your first meeting if you are not sure.
7. Understanding Evaluation Fees
Unfortunately, custody evaluations can be expensive, and the cost will fall to the parents, not the court. Hourly fees could be hundreds of dollars, which could amount to tens of thousands for complex cases that take months to complete.
Brief assessments may come with a flat fee ranging from just a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The court will determine who is responsible for paying the fees or, in some cases, order that the costs be split between parties.
Make Informed Decisions that Will Help You Succeed
Preparing for a custody evaluation can allow you to see your situation clearly and put the best interests of your children first, but you may need assistance. With the right informative resources and professional services to guide you, you have the best opportunity to make decisions that will help you reach your child custody goals.
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