When deciding custody and visitation cases, judges are supposed to make their decision with the best interest of the child in mind. The best interest of the child can be a difficult standard to uphold. It’s more complicated than simple fairness to the parents – if that were the standard, courts could just split parenting time 50/50 in most cases. But the best interests of the child is a more nebulous standard, and sometimes the courts need more unbiased information than the parents can provide. In those cases, a parental evaluation might be called for.
What is a Parental Evaluation?
A parental evaluation is when a judge orders an impartial third party to look into the parenting practices of one or both parents. They may also look into one or both of the parents’ living arrangements and mental health. Parental evaluations are usually conducted by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, or marriage and family therapists.
Parental evaluations are typically ordered by a judge. Though the judge may decide to order a parental evaluation on their own, parents can also request that the judge order an evaluation if they have concerns about the other parent’s fitness or parenting practices.
When Parents Can’t Agree
Often, parents can come to a custody and visitation arrangement on their own and submit it to the judge. They may come up with a parenting plan that they both agree to, or they may have a few areas of contention that they want the judge to decide on.
However, when parents simply can’t come to an agreement on most or all of the parenting plan, the judge still has to make a decision. Parents can’t fight in court indefinitely. A parental evaluation might be called for in cases when nobody can agree. This allows an impartial observer to make a recommendation that’s in the best interest of the child.
Mental Health, Addiction, and Abuse
Another common reason for a parental evaluation is when one parent accuses the other (or both parents accuse each other) of being unfit. A court might consider a parent unfit if they have uncontrolled mental health problems, active substances abuse problems, or if they display abusive tendencies or have been abusive in the past.
In these cases, a parental evaluator ensures that parents aren’t simply making unfounded accusations in order to gain an advantage in court. The evaluator will spend time with the parent or parents and child, observer their parenting, and may also conduct psychological testing. Then they’ll submit their findings to the court, along with a recommendation.
Moving Out of State
When one parent moves out of state for a job or for other reasons, the parenting plan, if there is one in place, will have to change. A noncustodial parent may object to the custodial parent moving out of state, given that it will affect their time with their child. If the parents can’t come to a compromise, a parental evaluator may be called in.
In these cases, the evaluator will spend time with both parents and with the child. They will want to know how the child feels about the move and how disruptive it may be to their lives. An evaluator might recommend that the parent should be allowed to move with the child with a new visitation schedule that allows the noncustodial parent to maintain a bond with them. However, they could also decide that it might be better for the child to stay with the parent who is not moving, even if that means changing the custody arrangement.
Serious Parenting Differences
In general, family court judges prefer to allow each parent to parent in their own way, as long as there is no abuse occurring. So, for instance, if you object to your child watching television, but their other parent allows television, a judge isn’t likely to step in. You would have to accept that your child’s other parent chooses to parent differently, and they’re allowed to do that on their own time with your child.
However, there are cases where parenting differences are serious enough that the courts need to step in. For example, if a child needs a blood transfusion, and one parent objects on religious grounds while the other parent wants to go ahead with the transfusion, a family court judge may need to settle the issue. In cases of serious parenting differences, a parental evaluator may be called in to evaluate the situation, talk to each parent, and talk to any other people involved, such as doctors, teachers, and the child themselves. They’ll need to collect enough information to make a recommendation to the judge about how to handle the situation.
After An Evaluation
When a parental evaluation is completed, all parties will have a chance to review the evaluator’s report. If you disagree with the evaluator’s conclusions, you can rebut their findings. Usually, that’s done by bringing in another mental health professional or social worker to evaluate the situation and the previous evaluator’s report. You or your attorney can call the new evaluator as a witness to testify to the problems or shortcomings in the original report.
While a parental evaluator’s recommendations are taken seriously by family courts, the final call is made by the judge. The judge will consider not only the report but any other evidence offered in the case as well. An evaluator’s recommendation isn’t necessarily a done deal, however, judges typically will give a lot of weight to the recommendation of a professional, well-respected evaluator.
If you think that you might want a parental evaluation in your custody case, or if you think that you’ll be asked to undergo a parental evaluation, a legal resource group can help you prepare. Legal resource groups like National Family Solutions can help you gather documents, refer you to expert witnesses, and help you prepare to speak in court.