When a couple with children separate or seek divorce, there are a number of ways to determine how custody of the children will be decided. Custody means three things: (i) legal custody or decision making; (ii) physical custody or a schedule of when the children will be with either parents; and (iii) all other aspects of raising the children (such as, religion, education, medical, mental health issues). So, how do you deal with these issues if you and the other parent cannot agree?
One way is to retain a psychological custody or forensic expert or custody evaluator to perform a custody evaluation. Custody evaluations can be agreed to by the parties or ordered by a court.
Who is a custody evaluator? A mental health professional who evaluates the parents and children and makes recommendations as to what is in the children's best interests in terms of custody and other related matters. The evaluator must collect data by various means to assess the child-parent bonding, relationships between parents and children and between the parents, mental health of the parties and children, needs of the children in terms of cognitive, psychological, intellectual, and social development.
What is a custody evaluation? The custody evaluator will investigate the children and parents. The objective is to provide an objective opinion as to what is in the children's best interests in terms of custody and other related issues and specific needs of the children and parents, such as family or individual counseling for the children and the parents, additional testing, alcohol and substance abuse issues, parenting capacity, relationship between the parents and the children, the children's preferences,
Evaluators use different methods. They will meet with the parent for numerous sessions; meet with the children individually, with siblings, with parents; observe the children and each parent interact in the evaluator's office (even the waiting room before entering the evaluator's office); children and parents perform structured and unstructured tasks using one-way mirrors; communication between parents and children; make a home visit with the parent and the children such as having a dinner at the parent's home; administer a variety of psychological tests to the parents and the children; obtain and review medical and mental health records of the parties and children; review of legal documents if the case is in court; speak to collaterals, such as the stepparents, children's and parent's therapists, doctors, teachers, day care providers, other family members, and family friends.
The evaluator will also perform or send you to another professional to have a series of psychological and personality testing. You and your children may undergo testing. These tests are used to assess mental health, personality traits and disorders, parenting capacity, child-parent bonding, parental skills, discipline. Drug and substance abuse testing may also be administered.
In a future Blog, I will discuss how to best approach custody evaluations.