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What do I do if a custody evaluation has been ordered in my case?

If you or the other parent wish to relocate with your child(ren) and you are seeking a move-away order, or if you and the other parent are in the process of a child custody battle, you may have been ordered to undergo a custody evaluation as part of the court process. There are two parts to this process - (1) the evaluation itself, during which you and the other parent and the children meet with the evaluator and the evaluator then comes up with her opinion regarding a parenting plan that is in the best interests of your child(ren); and (2) court room testimony.

Custody Evaluation

As you proceed through the evaluation, there are some important things to remember:

  • Acknowledge both your strengths and your weaknesses as a parent.

  • Be truthful in answering questions about your history and current situation.

  • Answer only the question that’s asked, rather than using it as a jumping-off point to state your case.

  • Acknowledge the benefits to your children of having positive relationships with both of their parents.

  • Express your willingness to consider different custody and visitation arrangements, but clearly explain (once, not over and over again) why you prefer one over another.

  • Keep your focus on your children’s well-being and what’s best for them.

  • Follow up promptly and thoroughly if you’re asked to provide paperwork or information—for example, verification of employment or medical information about your children.

  • Avoid saying any negative things about your spouse or the other parent. If you are asked about the other parent's strengths and weaknesses as a parent, be as evenhanded as you can, and don’t dwell on either.

  • Never ask the evaluator to advise you on how to deal with the other parent or with your children.

  • Avoid coaching your kids about what to say or do. The evaluator will know.

  • Absolutely do not be late or miss your appointment(s) with the evaluator.

  • Never try to manipulate the evaluator.

  • Remember, if there are custody orders already in place, they remain in effect and must be complied with while the evaluation is pending.

  • Look at the evaluator as the person who may actually be able to help you and your spouse come to a better understanding of your children’s needs and your family’s best course of action.

What do you tell your kids before they meet with the evaluator?

I always tell my clients that if they are the parent who will be bringing the child(ren) to the evaluator (i.e. if that day happens to fall on my client's custodial day), to make sure 1. They got a decent night's sleep the night before; 2. They eat a good breakfast; 3. They are bathed, well-groomed and appropriately dressed. I also tend to advise parents to start the day with a happy and uplifting attitude. Your children may be frightened, nervous and/or confused by the evaluation process, and will wonder whether the decision will hinge on what they say. It isn't necessary or helpful to tell your kids that you and the other parent are fighting over them, or that you and the other parent have a disagreement about how to care for them. But you can explain to them that the evaluator is trying to learn about the family, in order to help you and the other parent learn to parent together in a way that works.

Never coach your children about what to say, and especially don’t tell them to speak negatively about their other parent. Reassure them that all they need to do is to tell the truth.

Parents should always present themselves as reasonable, articulate, and flexible. They should cooperate with the evaluator, tell the truth, and focus on the children's best interests. They should not interrupt, get angry or hostile, raise their voice, or cry. Try not to exhibit a negative attitude. Don't fail to recognize any positive qualities in the other parent or perceive no room for improvement by the other parent. When it comes time to develop a parenting plan, there may be a range of choices from the best-case scenario and maximum time with the child down to what could be deemed a “nightmare the parent can live with.” If you are asked to come up with a proposal, think it through. Red flags in the parenting proposals include:

• Plans that are not well thought-out or fail to recognize the realities of their lifestyles • Plans that don't take into perspective the child's point of view and developmental needs • Plans that aren't based in reality, like starting parenting duties at 3:00 pm when the parent works until 6:00 pm.

It is important that parents stick with the present, and not discuss a drinking history when the person has stopped drinking. They should list present facts, like attending AA, parenting classes or going to anger-management therapy.

And they should be prepared for what the other parent might claim is their weakness – and then give examples of how this has been dealt with.

The Custody Hearing

When it comes to seeking a move-away order, or the case is high conflict where custody is concerned, my first piece of advice is to not go it alone. Get an attorney. Period. If you must or otherwise insist on representing yourself, be aware you have the right to examine and cross-examine the custody evaluator on the stand after she has presented her opinions. If you are going to be your own lawyer, then you will need to think and act like one. Prepare your questions in advance and be sure to really listen to the responses that are given before you move on to the next question. Don't get bogged down with sticking to your list of questions. An answer given, may raise a new question for you to ask.

Question the evaluator first about his or her background, education and training. Ask about whether he/she has a clinical practice and any practical experience - i.e. what percentage of her practice is devoted to providing therapy to children, to couples, to adolescents, and what percentage of the practice is devoted to conducting custody evaluations. How many evaluations are performed each year by this evaluator? Each month?

There are different types of custody evaluations. Depending on what the parties can

afford, the court may order a full evaluation or a less than ideal one-day or half-day study. In that case, I recommend you question the evaluator regarding the value of her opinions in light of the limited time she had with the family before testifying in court about what parenting plan would be in the best interests of your child(ren). Find out what the evaluator relied on for her opinions - i.e. did the other parent provide character references from third parties? Did the evaluator conduct any testing? For example, if the evaluator used the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2), you may want to ask her if it is reasonably probable that results can be tainted or affected by the fact that the individual taking the exam knows they are being evaluated and/or judged and in this particular case, knows they are being evaluated for determining custody of their children?

Each case is different. Each family is different and the dynamics of each case are different. Being prepared for the evaluation, having the appropriate attitude and asking the right questions will engender an effective and hopefully insightful custody evaluation. And remember; make sure the parenting plan you want is realistic and in the best interests of your children.

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