There are many types of evaluations that can be used in a family court custody case, each yielding a different type of information. In this article we describe the most common evaluations used in custody cases, and discuss what you can expect to get out of each one.
Some couples decide voluntarily they want an evaluation to help determine what is in the best interests of the child regarding the custody schedule, but for most who have a custody evaluation it has been court ordered. Psychologists who, in addition to their expertise in mental health, are also knowledgeable in the areas of child development, family relationships, and custody can be very helpful to parents in deciding what might be the best parenting plan for their child. A Custody Evaluation includes a diagnostic interview with both parents and all children, a parenting interview with both parents, psychological testing of the parents and children, parent-child observations, and collateral contacts and records review. The evaluator assesses the mental health functioning of all family members, and the parenting skills of both parents. The evaluator looks at the child’s psychosocial needs, which are related to developmental age and the unique personality and temperament of the child, then looks at each parent’s strengths in meeting that child’s needs and at the unique needs of the family as a whole, and also considers how well the social environments of each parent (school, neighborhood, social supports, community, etc.) meet the current needs of the child. Lastly the evaluator factors in empirical data on psychosocial needs and on various custody and visitation arrangements at different ages. With that the evaluator generates an opinion as to what would likely be the best custody and visitation arrangement possibilities at this time. The evaluator provides a wealth of information and a professional opinion but does not make the final decision. The parents may utilize the expert opinion provided by the evaluator and make the final decision, and the parenting plan agreement is then written into the divorce or separation agreement. Or, if the parents cannot come to an agreement, the written report can be used in court, where the judge will make the decision.
OTHER EVALUATIONS FOR USE IN DETERMINING CUSTODY
There are times when instead of evaluating the whole family, we may be asked to evaluate just one of the parents. Occasionally but less often we may be asked to evaluate just a child. For example, if the other party won’t agree to a custody evaluation and the court won’t order one, and/or you want to showcase that you have good mental health and parenting abilities, you can proactively choose to have yourself evaluated. Conversely, if there are only possible mental health concerns regarding one parent, that parent may agree to be evaluated or the court may order an evaluation of one parent. In these evaluations we can provide information on one parent’s mental health functioning and/or parenting abilities, but we cannot provide recommendations for a specific custody schedule as we have not evaluated the whole family as is done in a custody evaluation.
A Psychological Evaluation of one parent provides information on that person’s mental health functioning, such as if they meet criteria for diagnosis of any psychological disorder, and if so how that impacts their daily functioning. Inferences can be made by the reader then, such as the judge, as to how this might affect the person’s parenting, but this is not an evaluation of parenting abilities. A Psychological Evaluation includes a diagnostic interview with the parent, psychological testing of the parent, and collateral contacts and records review. If abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs, or misuse of prescription medication is a concern, the psychological evaluation can include a Substance Abuse Evaluation. Given substance abuse is a DSM-5 mental health disorder, all psychological evaluations should screen for this, but you should be sure to mention substances specifically to your evaluator if they are a concern so they can pay close attention to that area.
If you want mental health functioning and parenting abilities assessed, you would use a Parental Capacity Evaluation. You can think of this as ‘half’ of a custody evaluation as we are only assessing one parent. A Parental Capacity Evaluation includes a diagnostic interview with the parent, an interview with the child if the child is old enough, psychological testing of the parent, parent-child observation, and collateral contacts and records review. Results provide in-depth information on the parent’s psychological functioning and parenting abilities and functioning. Note a Parental Capacity Evaluation is not in any way an evaluation of the child, and the child is not the client. The child is involved to add context to assessing parenting abilities by an interview with the child as a first-hand reporter of the parent-child relationship, and by observing the parent with the child. Specific custody (i.e., time-sharing) recommendations cannot be provided as the evaluator has not evaluated both parents, however, the evaluator can comment on if the parent evaluated appears to be a fit parent.
Occasionally a Child Psychological or Child Psycho-Educational Evaluation may be requested or ordered. This occurs most often when parents disagree on if a child has a specific condition, such as AD/HD or autism, and that information is needed to assist in coming to an agreement as to care for the child.
Custody evaluations have the most breadth as the whole family is evaluated, and they are the only evaluation that yields specific custody (time-sharing) recommendations which are needed in some cases. However, the other evaluations also provide very useful information. If you desire a custody evaluation and the other side won’t agree, you can highlight your mental health and parenting abilities in your own parental capacity evaluation, which you can decide to do on your own without a court order. At times, the whole family does not need to be evaluated and a psychological evaluation of one or both parents can provide very useful information to the court on one or both parents’ mental health functioning. Lastly, if parents disagree about a condition the child may have, evaluating that child can provide clarity for the parties and judge. Unsure what type of evaluation could benefit your case? Ask your attorney for guidance! Dr. Lepage is also available to consult with parties and their attorneys.