When parents are unable to reach an agreement regarding child custody, the family court judge deciding the case may order a child custody evaluation according to Rule 68 of the Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure. Either party may request that a child custody evaluator be assigned, or the court may order the evaluation on its own initiative.
After the evaluation, a mental health professional, after thorough inquiry and investigation, makes custody and parenting time recommendations to the court. Custody evaluations are serious matters — the courts tend to give considerable weight to evaluator recommendations.
For the purpose of making a custody and parenting time recommendation in the best interests of the child, the evaluator interviews each parent and observes the parent-child dynamic. These evaluations can take three to five months to complete, so the process is quite in-depth.
Unless the evaluator believes it is necessary to a successful assessment, the parties’ attorneys do not attend the evaluation sessions. The evaluator must remain neutral and should not have a patient-therapist relationship with anyone in the family, either before or after the evaluation. Although neutrality in the process must be maintained, nothing the parents communicate to the evaluator is confidential or privileged.
Custody evaluators often interview other family members and review documents and records involving the children. Note that a fiancé or significant other in a party’s life would be an important component of the evaluation. For the evaluator to fully understand the family dynamics, the typical custody evaluation may consist of:
- Two or three interviews with each parent
- Two or three interviews with each child
- Interviews with teachers, pediatricians, daycare providers, and the like
- Observation of parental interaction with each child in the office and possibly at the child’s home
- Psychological testing
- Review of important court papers
Preparing for Evaluation
The evaluator is working to make a custody determination in the best interests of the child. He or she fully understands the stress that the assessment process can cause the parents and anticipates that the parties will be somewhat anxious. By following some basic guidelines, stress levels can be reduced. When parents remain calm and focused, the evaluator gets a true picture of each party’s parenting style. As a parent, here’s what you should keep in mind during the evaluation process:
- Your parenting ability is being assessed, so treat the evaluation like a job interview. Be on time and dress neatly and appropriately. Be honest and sincere, but avoid being defensive. The evaluator must make important recommendations about your child’s best interests, so cooperate and give the evaluator the information he or she needs. Remember that what is said to the evaluator is not in confidence
- Be organized and have your supporting documentation prepared and ready. Make a list of your parenting concerns in advance. By doing so, you’ll be confident knowing that your concerns have been fully communicated to the evaluator
- Show the priority your children have in your life. You accomplish this by communicating your knowledge of their interests, needs, and desires. Use that knowledge as a basis for your views on custody
- Pay attention to the questions posed and answer them directly and to the point. Ask for an explanation if you don’t understand the question. But don’t be evasive, as you could appear to be a parent who is untrustworthy or hiding something significant to the evaluator’s assessment
- Avoid negative or belittling comments about the other parent and his or her family. The evaluator wouldn’t be assigned to your case if there wasn’t significant conflict over custody matters. Don’t make the situation worse. Stick to providing factual answers to the evaluator’s questions about the other parent
- Give the evaluator advance notice when you plan to provide a list of teachers or individuals who you believe should be included in the evaluator’s assessment
- Help your children understand what to expect at the evaluator’s interview of them, but do not coach the children on any answers they should give to the evaluator
- Respond promptly and calmly to the evaluator’s requests, including requests for additional testing, documentation, or payment
- Let the evaluator do the job of assessing custody unimpeded. Do not make repeated calls to the evaluator, or call to learn when the report will be finished
Evaluator as Witness
If court appointed, the evaluator is the court’s expert and may be deposed and called as a witness. If you hire an independent expert, you must comply with all expert witness requirements.
Cost of Evaluation
Depending on where you reside, a custody evaluation may cost up to several thousand dollars. And, although court-ordered, the parents usually pay for the evaluation. The court may assign an evaluator to the case or, in some instances, the parties may choose from a list of evaluators who meet specific standards of education and experience.
Once the assessment is complete, the evaluator will issue a detailed written report with recommendations to the court regarding legal custody, physical custody, and parenting time. Should a trial become necessary, the child custody evaluator’s report will be very influential to the judge on those issues. In the report, most evaluators will specifically address concerns raised by each parent. The final recommendation is based on factors such as the following:
- Recommendations regarding custody and visitation
- A parenting plan to help the parents carry out the recommended schedule and a process for resolving future problems
- The parenting skills and capacity of each parent
- Suggestions for therapy or parenting classes
- The quality of each parent’s relationship to each child
- Each child’s psychological health
- Each parent’s psychological health, and any drug or alcohol abuse
- Guidelines for dealing with special problems like abuse, domestic violence, or parental alienation
- Schedules or suggestions for reevaluation
- The relationship between the parents and their ability or willingness to support their children’s ongoing relationship with the other parent
In a custody evaluation, the evaluator reports his or her recommendations on legal custody and parenting time to the court. While the court is not required to automatically follow the recommendations in the evaluator’s report, the report will carry great weight. When comparing confidential mediation with evaluation of child custody issues, mediators hear each parent’s case and attempt to assist them in reaching a voluntary agreement. When a mediated agreement is not forthcoming, the court is simply advised that no agreement was reached. That’s a significant difference between the two forms of alternative dispute resolution.