If you and your spouse are contesting custody as part of your divorce, and the judge has decided that a custody evaluation is in order, you need to prepare yourself for a bit of a process. The evaluation is intended to help the judge determine the custody arrangement that is best for your children. These evaluations typically take several months and during that time, you'll probably lose sleep worrying about the outcome. It often helps to know what to expect, steps you can take to help move the process along and missteps to avoid.
The Evaluation Process
Custody evaluations tend to vary by state and even by jurisdiction, but often share common components. The evaluation will almost certainly include interviews with you, your spouse and your children, and it may include interviews with those who know you and your child, such as teachers, physicians, other family members or friends. The evaluation might include psychological testing. The evaluator – a trained psychologist – will very likely visit your home and that of your spouse, if you've already separated. At the end of the process, he will submit written findings to you and your spouse, your attorneys and the court. State laws can differ, but you typically have an opportunity to object to the contents of the report and solicit testimony from the evaluator at trial.
When you meet with the evaluator, you have the right to bring with you any documentation you think might help him get an understanding of the dynamics of your family. For example, your child's school records might show that her homework is always done – and done well – on those occasions when she's with you. If you keep a calendar detailing your time with your child, you can correlate her school performance with your custody time or visitation. Make a list of all individuals who have knowledge of your relationship with your child, as well as her relationship with your spouse. You can supply this to the evaluator, along with their contact information – but make sure you mention it to them so a call from the evaluator doesn't catch them by surprise. You should have a pretty good idea of what they'll say before you hand over their names. If your spouse has a history of drug or alcohol use or domestic violence, gather any related police reports so the evaluator doesn't have to take your word for it that there's a problem.
Your meetings with the evaluator may be pivotal to your case, so it's very important to put any anger you have towards your spouse aside. Consider speaking with a counselor or therapist first to help you put your feelings in perspective. The evaluation is about custody and what's best for your children, not trying to prove what a heel your spouse is. If you're seething with anger, the evaluator will pick up on this and might wonder if you're capable of successfully co-parenting post-divorce. One factor the courts in many states consider when deciding custody issues is which parent is most likely to facilitate an ongoing, healthy relationship between the children and their other parent. If your hard feelings are such that the evaluator doesn't think you can do this, it could hurt your chances for sole or joint custody.
The Home Visit
You'll want to prepare your home as well as possible. The evaluator's home visit gives him an idea of the environment your child will live in if you're granted custody. The evaluator won't just be checking to see if you have liquor bottles or dirty ashtrays strewn about. Although you don't necessarily need a maid to clean the place from top to bottom, you'll want to make sure your home is neat and clean. He'll be looking for a caring, healthy environment -- like children's art on the walls, family photos proudly displayed and healthy food in the kitchen. All appliances should be in working order, not to mention heating, plumbing and electrical systems.
If the evaluator will visit while your child is home, you'll want to let your child know what to expect. Above all, don't coach your child regarding what to say during her time with the evaluator. Don't rehearse with her. If she parrots your feelings, the evaluator will notice.
- American Bar Association: Client Preparation for Custody Evaluations and Court-Ordered Mediation
- Swerdlow-Freed Psychology: Preparing for a Child Custody Evaluation
- Meriwether and Tharp: Tips on Preparing for a Georgia Custody Evaluation
- Virginia General Assembly Legislative Information System: Code of Virginia, Section 20-124.3, Best Interests of the Child; Visitation
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images