Part of a custody fight is the custody evaluation – an independent report put together by a qualified and court-appointed evaluator to help a judge decide what sort of custody arrangement would best suit the family and the child. Custody evaluators are usually trained therapists or psychiatrists and may even specialize in children’s mental health. Their job is to provide a thorough and objective report of either party’s suitability and what’s best for the child.
To this end, the Internet is chockful of advice built around presenting yourself in the best possible light to the evaluator – sometimes to the actual detriment of your case. Custody evaluations can take multiple weeks, with separate interviews and approaches based on the evaluator’s investigative style.
Because these evaluations are usually ordered whenever mediation and other attempts at an amicable resolution have failed, evaluations usually occur when either side is hostile towards the other. An in-depth look at each parent’s qualifications and the child’s own best interests is required. Manipulating or attempting to win over an evaluator can backfire massively, as can trying to coach or pressure your kids or “dish out dirt” on the “other side.”
Dos and Dont’s of the Custody Evaluation Process
When preparing for a custody evaluation, keep the following dos and don’ts in mind:
DO Express Flexibility and Willingness to Compromise
Evaluators are trying to determine what kind of parent you are, your merits and demerits, your commitments, your parental bond with your child, and whether your child would be best served spending more or less time with you. Showing a willingness to continue to compromise and cooperate with the other parent despite individual and personal differences shows that you feel the need to put your child’s interests above your own.
There are exceptions, of course, in cases where there is cause for legitimate concern for the child’s welfare in the other parent’s care. But custody evaluations typically are not necessary in cases where there is evidence of incompetence or abuse from either party.
If it does come to that, and if you are in a high conflict situation and are convinced that the other parent is genuinely manipulative or means to harm your child for their own selfish gain, it remains important to emphasize that your position rests solely on trying to figure out the best solution for your child’s wellbeing, irrespective of your personal feelings towards the other party.
Focus on gathering evidence to protect yourself in the case of a false accusation, do not use the opportunity to smear the other parent (without legitimate and concrete evidence), and always coordinate with your attorney before making any decisions.
DON’T Smear Your Ex
Custody evaluators are most likely not going to base their opinion of the other parent on your experiences and complaints. Unless the circumstances call for you to bring evidence to the light of the other party’s inappropriate or abusive behavior, you should utilize your meetings with an evaluator to speak frankly about your strengths and weaknesses and the bond between you and your child.
If the evaluator allows you to talk about the other parent, be just as frank and honest. Consider the role they have played or continue to play in your child’s life. Please describe what you consider to be their strengths and weaknesses. Display your willingness to resolve the custody conflict in the child’s best interest. Smear campaigns or attempts at manipulation are more likely to backfire on you. Instead, focus on making a good and honest impression.
DO Focus on the Kids
Custody evaluators are NOT your marriage counselor. Speaking with an evaluator should not double as therapy, whether for yourself nor your relationship. Keep the focus on the topic at hand – suitability for custody and what is best for your children.
To that end, consider practicing with a (brutally) honest friend. Ask them to point out when or where you tend to resort to describing your own interests and intentions rather than talking about your kids. It can be difficult to drag a friend into this sorting process, so pick someone you trust to be honest throughout the ordeal.
DON’T Tell Your Kids What to Say
Just as it’s dangerous to manipulate the evaluation process through your conversation with the evaluator, it is just as much of a red flag if you try to coach your kids. Evaluators are usually trained mental health professionals and often work with children before becoming an evaluator. They know what it looks like when a child is told what to say, and they will talk to the children separately from either parent.
DO Be Thorough and Transparent
Keep a record of all relevant paperwork, recorded conversations, communications, texts, messages, and more.
DON’T Get Personal With the Evaluator
Again, it bears repeating that the evaluator is not your therapist. Neither should you treat them as such to appeal to them personally. These are professionals tasked with determining the person best suited to taking care of a child during their formative years. It is a serious responsibility, and one evaluator is not easily distracted from it. Make a good impression, be a good host, and be natural around your kids – but avoid trying to sell yourself or focus on your own needs.
DO Reassure Your Kids
Like every other part of a custody battle, the custody evaluation process can be scary for children. There is a clear line between being a reassuring parent in a scary situation and telling your children what to do or say. Just be sure to explain to them that this is part of a long process meant to help the courts know both you and the other parent and figure out the best arrangement for the family. If they ask you what to do or say, tell them to be honest and that all they need to do is tell the truth.
DON’T Use Questions to Sell Yourself as a Parent
Some parents make a bad habit of marketing themselves instead of answering basic questions asked by an evaluator. You can work with a friend to avoid using questions as a cue to start talking about your qualities as a competent caregiver.
Child custody proceedings can be a very stressful time for everyone involved. It is always a good idea to retain professional legal advocacy throughout the process and prepare yourself accordingly.