Parenting Plan Assistance/Mediation, Custody Evaluations, and Other Evaluations for Use in Determining Custody

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BRIEF OVERVIEW OF PARENTING PLAN ASSISTANCE & CUSTODY EVALUATIONS

  • To determine the best interests of the child and a good fit for the family.
  • Can be used informally by parents to aid in their amicable decisions regarding custody and visitation.
  • Can be used in court proceedings

PARENTING PLAN ASSISTANCE/MEDIATION
We provide assistance to help parties reach decisions on the various issues involved in parenting plans and custody arrangements. Some families are amicable enough that with a little assistance of an expert they can avoid court and come to a decision on the custody schedule, and even some parents in a high-conflict divorce with very differing opinions about the custody schedule have been able to utilize this format to come to agreement. We can assist you with the parenting plan, that is, making decisions about arrangements as to where the child will live, visitation, etc., by working with you in making informed decisions based on the best interests of the child and the unique needs of your family. We facilitate healthy and effective communication between parties, and help them stay child-focused and envision what schedule would work best for the children. We will also give you our verbal expert opinion as to arrangements that might work best based on our knowledge custody schedules and your descriptions of your child and family; however, of course you make the final decisions that are then written into the divorce or separation agreement.

CUSTODY & VISITATION EVALUATIONS
Some couples decide voluntarily they want an evaluation to help determine what is in the best interests of the child regarding the custody schedule, and for others the court orders a custody evaluation. Psychologists who are 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. 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. We will also be deposed by both lawyers should the case proceed to court and will appear in court if necessary. (We encourage people to utilize the information to come to their own agreement whenever possible.)

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.

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 psych eval can include a Substance Abuse Evaluation. Given substance abuse is a DSM mental health disorder, all psych evals should screen for this, but you should be sure to mention substances specifically to your evaluator if they are a concern.

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.

Occasionally a Child Psychological or 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.

When there are concerns that one or both parents are negatively impacting the child’s functioning, an Effect of Parenting on Child Functioning Evaluation can be done. This may involve concerns about the child’s behavior such as aggression, misbehaving, etc., or concerns about parental alienation. There may also be concerns that the parent’s behavior is impacting the development or maintenance of a mental health (depression, anxiety), eating, or substance abuse disorder. The evaluation includes a clinical interview and psychological testing with the child, clinical interview with the parents, observations with the child and each parent, and necessary collateral contacts and review of records.

OUR CUSTODY EVALUATION EXPERTISE & TEAM APPROACH

FULL-SERVICE TESTING FACILITY & THE RIGHT KIND OF EVALUATORS (THAT IS, COMBINED CHILD & FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGISTS)
The breadth of specialty areas of our Associates makes us truly a full-service evaluation site. We can perform in-depth psychological testing, educational testing, substance abuse testing, etc. Thus, regarding just about any issue raised in a custody case, we have experts who can address the issue. Having such a broad range of experts in- house allows the evaluation process to flow smoothly, and results in a comprehensive custody evaluation service. We believe in and utilize a team approach to custody evaluations and are one of the only group practices in the area with the resources to provide a comprehensive team. Utilizing a team provides the highest quality evaluation and makes turn-around time for completion of the report excellent and far quicker than most. Importantly, we do not charge any more for these evaluations than others do locally for a single-evaluator report; we use a flat fee that remains the same regardless of the number of psychologists assigned to a case. Thus, you get more minds on the case and the expertise of multiple professionals without paying more.

It would surprise many attorneys and parents to learn that the forensic expert doing your custody evaluation is not a child psychologist, or that the child psychologist doing your custody evaluation has no forensic training, yet that is often the case. The majority of psychology degree programs teach adult psychology, and one must choose to add a child psychology track and/or seek out being trained as a child psychologist in practicum, internship or post doc training experiences. So, the vast majority of psychologists graduate educated and trained only in adult psychology. One possible screening question would be to ask if the psychologist currently or has ever done play therapy with pre-teen children as a regular part of their practice. Generally, the answer would be no because it would be unethical to do so since children are outside of their area of expertise. Forensic training is just as rare, and the clinician must again seek out coursework and training experiences in forensic psychology. A simple question about
forensic training can elicit this information.

At Lepage Associates, we believe that (1) if you are going to be evaluating what is in the best interests of children, you ought to be a child psychologist, and (2) if you are going to be providing evaluations for the court, you ought to be trained in forensic evaluation. All of our lead evaluators meet these important standards. We stay abreast of the most recent research data as it applies to custody considerations. We stay current on all literature related to parenting plan schedules and the pros and cons of various schedules for various age groups.

  • Expertise of Dr. Tina Lepage:

    Dr. Lepage is a Licensed Psychologist and has worked as a Court Psychologist in family law cases, employed previously by two Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts before starting Lepage Associates and their Forensic Services Division over 15 years ago. She has been qualified in family court as an expert witness in clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and child custody evaluations, and has served as a forensic expert in military court.


    In addition to a Doctorate and a Master’s in clinical psychology in which she studied both child and forensic psychology, Dr. Lepage also holds a Bachelor of Science in child development and family relationships. This is an ideal combination. From the very beginning of her career, Dr. Lepage has been focusing on families. When working on custody evaluations the breadth and depth of her expertise is bolstered by her undergraduate degree in child development and family relationships. She brings the expertise of keenly understanding the unique developmental needs from birth through the teen years and understanding the dynamics of family relationships. Dr. Lepage completed both her clinical master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on assessing the best interests of the child in custody evaluations. In her master’s thesis, she reviewed the statutory criteria of all 50 states for determining the best interests of the child, and then cross-referenced these criteria with the clinical literature on the psychosocial needs of children. Thus Dr. Lepage is well prepared to address the factors the court may be most likely to focus on and view as important, while also including and bringing focus to other important developmental needs that may not be addressed in the statutory criteria. Building on this, in her dissertation she reviewed the methods and measures typically used in custody evaluations, analyzing how well these can assess the psychosocial needs of the child, the parents’ abilities to meet those needs, and parenting skills in general. Thus Dr. Lepage is very knowledgeable regarding what methods and measures are best suited to provide information relevant to custody. She is also a certified Juvenile Forensic Evaluator, trained by the University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, a premier nationally recognized training institute for forensics. Having completed the Parent Coordinator (PC) Training by the Center for Cooperative Parenting in Chapel Hill, Dr. Lepage is able to act as a PC in NC family law cases.

    In her clinical practice, Dr. Lepage has a special interest in working with children and teenagers dealing with divorce or marital conflict in the family, and also works with their parents to help lessen conflict and minimize the impact of the divorce process on the child. She applies this broad knowledge with continuing research of divorce, marital conflict, and developmental concerns to her clinical and evaluation cases. Because her clinical interests focus on divorce, marital conflict, and parenting issues, Dr. Lepage is in a unique position to help families make the best decision about custody and visitation for their particular family situation.

  • Expertise of Dr. Colleen Hamilton:

    Dr. Colleen Hamilton is a Licensed Psychologist and holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with training focused on work with children, adolescents, and families. She has several years of experience working as a child psychologist and has testified as an expert witness in family court. Dr. Hamilton is a child specialist with in-depth experience assessing children of all ages; through direct observation and/or parent descriptions of very young children, and testing with preschool children and older, she assesses children ages birth through 18.

    Dr. Hamilton is one of few child psychologists specialized in the birth to preschool years as well as K-12 children. She has extensive experience conducting comprehensive psychological and behavioral assessments, trauma assessments, and educational evaluations of children, teens, and adults, and has provided court-ordered therapeutic supervised visitation and reunification coordination for families. In addition to evaluations she provides play therapy to children, therapy for adolescents, and family therapy, as well as parent coaching. From the very beginning of her career, Dr. Hamilton has been focusing on children and families. The impressive breadth and depth of her understanding of child and adolescent development, combined with her understanding of family and individual dynamics, allows her to holistically view the custody situation and the uniqueness of each family.

  • Expertise of Additional Team Members:

    Dr. Lindsey Ohler and Dr. Nina Solanki have extensive forensic experience and have testified as expert witnesses in family court. In addition to having conducted custody evaluations and parental competency evaluations, their other clinical and forensic work prepares them to asses for areas of high risk behaviors, substance abuse, competency, impact of disability and/or health issues, and employability. Dr. Ohler also has substantial training and experience testing for possible Learning Differences (LD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD, ‘ADD’), and Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is an excellent resource when these diagnoses may be impacting a family. Dr. Nina Solanki also provides sex offender evaluations. Their experience includes evaluating and treating all ages for psychological, substance abuse, educational, developmental, and neuropsychological concerns.

  • Summary of Clinical Experience of the Lepage Associates Team

    Within our specialty area of children, adolescents, and families, we have experience in both therapy and evaluation with children and adolescents with a variety of common childhood and teen issues such as AD/HD, LD, behavior problems, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, substance use, social problems, body image concerns, Asperger’s, depression, bi-polar, anxiety, dealing with divorce, and family and school difficulties. Our experience extends to working with parents and families as well, on parenting issues, family dynamics, and helping parents and family members to support the child or teen experiencing difficulties. This broad clinical experience allows us to speak to various facets of custody decisions, such as how different custody arrangements might affect a child with AD/HD, LD, or other special or unique educational needs, or whether certain custody arrangements might elicit, exacerbate, or reduce depression or anxiety in a child. In addition, we have experience in both therapy and evaluation with adults and can speak to how a parent’s mental health may affect the parent-child relationship and parenting abilities.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS & RAISED CONCERNS

  • I don’t feel comfortable letting someone else make the decision about the custody of my child.

    The evaluator provides a wealth of information and professional opinion but does not make the final decision. If you do not go to court, you and the other parent will utilize the expert opinion provided by the evaluator and will make the final decision, and your custody and visitation agreement will be written into your divorce or separation agreement. If you do go to court, the judge will make the final ruling, considering the information provided by the evaluator.

  • How does the evaluator come up with an opinion regarding who is the “better” parent?

    She doesn’t. She analyzes the child’s psychosocial needs, which are related to developmental age and the unique personality and temperament of the child. She then looks at each parent’s strengths and limitations in meeting that child’s needs. She also considers how well the social environments of each parent (school, neighborhood, social supports, community, etc.) meet the current needs of the child, and considers the unique structure and needs of the family unit. Lastly, she factors in empirical data on psychosocial needs and on various custody and visitation arrangements at different ages. With that she generates an opinion as to what would likely be the best custody and visitation arrangement at this time. As you can see, this is a process that does not view one parent as “good” and one as “bad.” All parents have strengths and limitations in parenting just as people have strengths and limitations in all skills. The evaluator will look at skill sets and how these meet the child’s needs.

  • What does a custody or visitation evaluation consist of?

    The most common components include: clinical interviews with parents, children, and any stepparents or live-in partners; psychological testing of parents and children; parent-child observations of each parent-child dyad; collateral calls with professionals and others who know family members and can speak to their functioning; and review of records. Some families choose not to do psychological testing, though the vast majority include it.

  • Time and money! … How much time will it take and how much will it cost? When do I pay?

    TIME: An exact amount of time is impossible to provide since each case has a differing number of family members and of collateral contacts to be interviewed, differing amounts of collateral data/records to review, and people test at different paces. Thus, the size of the family, number of collateral contacts, volume of records to review, and amount of testing all bear on the time line, as does everyone’s availability to meet, collateral contacts returning calls, and records being provided in a timely manner. This complexity makes it difficult to estimate an exact number of weeks from beginning to completion of evaluations. However, our turn-around time is excellent, and notably shorter than that of sole clinicians who do the evaluation by themselves or with the assistance of other professionals who are not doctoral-level psychologists. (Our custody evaluations teams consist of all psychologists with doctorate degrees.)

    MONEY: Quick overview for evaluations for family of up to 4: $6,750 without psych testing; $8,750 with psych testing, plus a small additional fee based on the amount of records to review. We package our rates and thus clients can be assured of this fee, unlike evaluators who charge hourly and cannot give you a concrete price for the entire evaluation. You will find that our fees are very reasonable when compared with rates in this area of expertise. While we hesitate to use “$200 per hour” or “$6,000-$9,000” and the word “affordable” in the same sentence, we keep our fees very affordable compared to others. For example, our custody evaluations begin at $6,750, whereas the average custody evaluation currently costs $10,000-$15,000 or more. Also, whereas some evaluators use master’s or bachelor’s level people to help with the work, at Lepage Associates the work is done by psychologists with doctorate degrees experienced in parenting plans and custody evaluations. Perhaps more important than the cost, you also get the highest quality at Lepage Associates. (You can find additional information in our bios on our website.)

  • My spouse is paying for the evaluation and I worry that will bias the evaluator.

    This should not be a concern. The evaluator is a professional and specialist fully focused on her ethical responsibility to make a determination based on what would be in the best interests of the child. The best interests of the child are paramount. It makes absolutely no difference who provides payment for her services, as this has zero bearing on her evaluation and final opinion.

  • Should each parent hire a separate psychologist and do two separate evaluations?

    No. It is not in the best interests of the child to go through the evaluation procedure twice. Not only is it time consuming, tedious, and tiring for a child to be interviewed, observed and tested twice (with limited attention spans this process is more difficult on children than adults), in fact many tests are no longer considered reliable and valid if re-administered without an interval of several months in between administrations. Thus, due to the strain on the child and the loss of reliability and validity of the test data, Lepage Associates will only take cases in which both parents agree to use their evaluator as the sole evaluator. At Lepage Associates the lead evaluator is part of a team and consults with other psychologists regarding their professional opinion; thus, you are already getting more than one professional opinion on your case. However, should the parents be unhappy with her final opinion, the evaluator will agree to provide the case file to another expert for a second opinion, and likewise she will provide second opinions on cases when provided full information.

  • Ideally, I would like to keep costs down and avoid court. Do we need a custody or visitation evaluation if we do not plan to go to court? For example, could the evaluator just provide mediation services instead to help us work out the custody and visitation issue?

    The majority of divorces do not go to court; parents work out the custody arrangement and have it written into the divorce or separation agreement. There are many cost-effective ways in which Lepage Associates can assist with that process. For example, our parenting plan assistance is a consult process that is an effective mediation for helping parents agree upon a custody and visitation arrangement, and it is very cost effective as it is brief. As to whether you need a custody or visitation evaluation if you do not plan to go to court, that depends upon two major factors: (1) if you feel confident in your knowledge of what custody and visitation arrangement would best meet your child’s needs, and (2) if you and the other parent are able to reach agreement on this issue. As noted above, some parents use a custody evaluation to settle out of court.

    If you feel fairly confident that you know what custody and visitation arrangement would work well for your child, and you and the other parent are in agreement about this, then you don’t need an evaluation. If you and the other parent are making these decisions in a fairly amicable manner but would feel better if you had a professional opinion, then a consult would be a good choice. If you and the other parent are having a hard time agreeing, then an evaluation can be helpful. If you suspect that your inability to agree might be fueled by anger over the divorce, then a consult can include an initial mediation process to help you put the anger in perspective and put it aside long enough to come up with a custody and visitation agreement. If you and the other parent have vastly differing opinions on this issue and deciding upon custody and visitation has become contentious, then a full evaluation can be very helpful. Lastly, both amicable and contentious parents may opt for a full evaluation up front if they have a child with special needs, if the custody and visitation questions in the case are complex, or if they simply want the most in-depth information possible in making their custody decision. Also, you may find that having your evaluator attend settlement conferences is quite helpful in moving the process along to a decision that both parties can live with.