In any divorce or other proceeding which involves child custody issues, the Court may appoint a child custody evaluator to perform a custody evaluation. The court makes this determination if it decides the evaluation will be in the child’s best interests. The evaluator must be a mental health professional (MHP), but could be a domestic relations investigator, or any other court appointed evaluator who meets the judicially prescribed qualifications. Family Code Section 3117 outlines the standards and procedural guidelines utilized by the Judicial Council for conducting these evaluations.
– Evaluator’s Role
The evaluator’s role in a custody dispute is different from that of a family therapist. The custody evaluator has no duty to the parents or to the child. The evaluator reports to the court or attorneys involved rather than to those being evaluated. Thus, the evaluator’s role is not to treat patients (such as a therapist would in a traditional therapy setting) but to provide an objective evaluation with informed opinions to help the court determine the most appropriate custody outcome. Custody evaluators must explain this role to the parties involved before commencing the evaluation.
– Commonly Addressed Issues
The evaluator will often address the following issues:
Attachments: The evaluator will assess the parent-child connection and try to maintain continuity and stability in the child’s life.
Parental Alienation: When a child is very hostile and appears to want no relationship with one parent, it is important the evaluator assesses the meaning behind this and tries to ascertain its origins.
Other common issues: sibling relationships, special needs issues, and the mental and emotional needs of both parents as well as the child.
– The Evaluation
To perform a thorough evaluation that can be presented to the Court, the evaluator interviews both parties as well as the children involved. Both individual and group interviews (with both parents and individual parent interviews) are usually conducted. At the start of the first session, the legal aspects of the process are explained; including the fact that confidentiality and privilege are waived. The children are individually interviewed in order to ascertain their perceptions of the parents and the relationship between the parents and each child. Topics discussed in interviews include: developmental history of the child, sensitivity to the child’s needs, and the history and current state of parental-child connections as perceived by each party and by the child.
Other relevant information for both the evaluator and for the Court is contained in legal documents such as declarations of family members, motions, and current court orders. Also, interviewing family members, friends, and any educational and mental health professionals involved in the child’s life may help the evaluator generate his or her report.
– The Report
The report communicates to the Court the evaluator’s opinion (based on the factors described above) of the best custody outcome for the parties involved. Thus, it is weighed upon heavily by the Court as it is supposed to represent the child’s best interests.