Oftentimes, when custody and visitation is at issue, the Parties will be ordered to participate in a custody evaluation. Custody evaluations can be scary, both as to the process as well as the outcome. There are several types of custody evaluations, from "mini-evals" to "solution-focused" to informal full evaluations and, finally, formal evaluations. In addition, custody evaluations can be by a social worker, family therapist, supervised intern, psychologist or psychiatrist. Selection of the particular evaluator all depends on who the judge is, what the issues are, how much money is available from the parties to conduct the evaluation and how much time is required to complete the evaluation.
Parents can use the following guidelines to help them navigate the initial interview for the evaluation with flying colors, the result of which should not only be to the litigant's advantage, but, more importantly, to the child's advantage.
- If you have been the recipient of unfounded accusations of conduct concerning your minor child or children, whether verbally or as written in the legal documents, it would be wise to list every accusation made by the other parent against you. Take some time to write down a thoughtful rebuttal stating in your own words how the facts differ from the statements made by the other parent. It is important to be concise and only rely on actual facts or other admissible evidence in your response.
- If you have any concerns about the other parent, it is important to put these concerns in writing as well. I would suggest that you start with a sentence similar to the following example: "I believe the other parent has not been properly supervising the children when in his/her care." Then, you should provide at least two examples that illustrate the topic, such as how and when the lack of supervision occurred and what the specific problems were and how they affected the minor children.
- It is important to answer all questions honestly. Psychological tests are designed to detect defensiveness and false statements. Rest assured that you cannot outsmart the tests, so do not try. If you attempt to manipulate the test results, you will fail and the outcome will not go well for you.
- It is always helpful to make as many positive statements as possible about the other parent's parenting and to describe what your child likes the most about him or her.
- Do not embellish or be dramatic about what you consider to be the faults of the opposite parent.
- Write down the ways you have facilitated the relationship between your child(ren) and the other parent and how you intend to keep the other parent an influential and consistent presence in your child's life. If there is a reason or two why this is not in the child's best interests, then explain in a concise and factual manner why limited or perhaps supervised visitation with the other parent is necessary and whether you believe some parenting education or gradual integration into the child's life might be helpful towards implementation of California's policy of frequent and continuing contact with both parents.
- Arrive on time for each of your custody evaluation interviews and if you are bringing the minor child or children, do NOT discuss the process, issues or case with them at all. You may have to explain to your child(ren), according to their level of maturity, why they are speaking with a stranger in either his or her office or in the courthouse, but keep it brief, unemotional and impartial, to the best of your abilities.
- Listen to the questions posed and answer them as briefly and concisely as possible. Only answer the questions as posed. Do not try to embellish or change the focus from you to the other parent, or vice verse.
- When there is an observation of your and your child(ren)'s interaction, try to be keenly aware of what your child(ren)'s needs are at the moment and be as responsive to them as possible. If you need to discipline the child, do so in a calm and controlled manner. Do not put your needs first and do not lash out at the child for inappropriate behavior that might be perceived as a negative strike against you.
- Frame your answers to the evaluator's questions in terms of what is the best decision for your child(ren). For example, do not say, "I miss my children so much. They need to be with me" or "She has the children more than 50% of the time, but I should also have them 50% because I don't want her to have any more time." Rather, state how your parenting is needed in the children's development, not what your needs are or that you are competing with the other parent for time with your child.
- Read as many books about parenting for child's current age as well as books about parenting a child a little older so you can be knowledgeable about the developmental process that your child is currently experiencing and the psychological, mental and physical stages that your child will be entering into.
- Do not make excuses for your behavior or that of your child. Just explain what happened, that you understand that perhaps some other approach might have been more appropriate under the circumstances and that you continue to strive towards that approach and are learning how to avoid such confrontations in the future.