High conflict custody cases usually involve child custody evaluation. These evaluations are usually done by licensed therapists who have experience working with children in divorce and custody situations. The evaluators are usually psychologists, social workers, or family therapists who have not had prior contact with your family.
An evaluation is done to give the court the opinion of an impartial, neutral third party about the child, the child's situation, and the parenting situation and to provide a recommendation about how the parenting plan should be structured. The evaluator is charged with providing an evaluation of the psychological best interests of the child in the case.
Evaluators consider a wide variety of factors such as:
- Family structure and dynamics
- Family interactions
- The family's culture
- The child's environment
- The child's educational, psychological, and physical needs
- Each parents' parenting abilities and challenges
The evaluation takes time and can include:
- Several individual meetings with each parent, at least some of which take place in their homes
- Several meetings with the child, which can take place at the evaluator's office, as well as the parents' homes
- Psychological testing, questionnaires, and evaluations of the parents and child
- Contact with teachers, physicians, therapists, nannies, child care workers, tutors, and other people who have ongoing contact with the child
- Review of court records in the case, as well as health and educational records pertaining to the child
The evaluation is likely to be in-depth and participating in it will probably feel invasive. A custody evaluation that helps your case is invaluable. It is imperative that you, as a parent, not only cooperate but maximize this opportunity to make your case. Follow these tips when working with a child custody evaluator:
- Be honest. This is the number one rule you must follow. It's natural to want to put your best foot forward in this situation. Still, child custody evaluators are skilled at reading people, and their intuition will alert them if you are untruthful. Also, it's likely that the additional research they will do into your family will quickly expose any falsehoods you present.
- Be on time and polite. Being punctual is a small thing you can do that will reflect courtesy and respect to the evaluator. Extending politeness to the evaluator will cast you in a favorable light from the very beginning. You may feel resentful of the process, but do not communicate this to your evaluator.
- Be vulnerable. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, aren't you supposed to present a picture of strength and unstoppable parenting skills? Actually, what an evaluator is looking for is a true parent who has strengths and weaknesses. Talk with your attorney about a weakness or two that it would be strategic to expose to the evaluator. The key is to be human, and humans have flaws.
- Be yourself. You should not attempt to play a role or present a false narrative of who you are when you meet with the evaluator. Being genuine helps your case more than anything you might pretend to be.
- Control your emotions. During the evaluation, you must walk a careful line between just enough and too much emotion. Anger is something to avoid at all costs. Complete sadness and grief also should be reined in. Present an authentic version of yourself, but one that is slightly controlled.
- Have good things to say about the other parent. Do not come to the evaluation with the attitude that the other parent is completely incompetent and worthless because that is not a realistic mindset, at least in the eyes of the evaluator. Choose a few attributes of the other parent that you can offer positive assessments of.
- Present facts, not opinions. When you offer negative assessments of the other parent, do so by pointing to specific facts having to do directly with their parenting to support them. Focus only on parenting and do not comment on other aspects of your spouse's life if it is not relevant.
- Be up to date. Be certain you know all the current information about your child: their grades, friends, school, activities, and so on. No one expects you to memorize the dates of every single game and what their team scored, but, particularly if you have been unable to attend some games, showing knowledge and involvement will benefit your case.
- Come with an open mind. You clearly have a custody plan that is your identified goal, but when you meet with the evaluator, show that you have some flexibility when it comes to this. Parents who can adapt and compromise are rated more highly by evaluators.
- Support the other parent's role in your child's life. An automatic strike will be entered against you if you have an attitude that the other parent should have no part in your child's life. Joint custody is almost always the preferred option for evaluators. Make it clear that you support your child having an ongoing meaningful relationship with the other parent. Showing you can be cooperative with the other parent is a key factor that evaluators look for when deciding with whom the child should primarily live. This is the time when you should follow your temporary parenting plan to the letter.
- Make your child your first priority. In all of your interactions with the evaluator, be clear that what matters most is your child's well-being and happiness. This is not about what you want and what would make you happy. Instead, it is about creating a parenting plan that will benefit your child. Everything you propose must be couched in those terms. Keep in mind that "the best interests of the child" is the standard by which custody is judged.
- Do not coach your child. Your child is going to meet with the evaluator alone. The worst thing you can do is rehearse answers with your child or feed them responses they should parrot. Evaluators will easily spot this and will assume you are either getting your child to hide things or are attempting to get them to lie for you. Be confident in your relationship with your child and your child's feelings about you.
- Remember that the evaluator is not your therapist. They are not there to help you resolve your own feelings or improve your relationship with the other parent or your child. This isn't the place to discuss deep-seated issues. Be open and friendly, but don't get too personal.
- Follow up. The evaluator may ask you to provide documents (such as calendars, photos, medical records, school documents, and so on). Be sure to send them. Give the evaluator all of your contact information so that you can easily be reached.
The judge places a heavy emphasis on the custody report, so it's essential that you do everything you can to ensure the report is favorable to your case.