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The Basics of a Custody Evaluation

A child custody evaluation is a tool available in child custody litigation to assist the judge in determining the best interest of the child with regard to specific issues: conservatorship of the child (e.g., where the child will live, how decisions will be made about the child’s education, medical care, and therapeutic treatment), possession of the child, and any other issue affecting the best interest of the child. The court will appoint an evaluator to gather information and opinions, and make recommendations to the court regarding these issues.

Not every case involving children requires a child custody evaluation, as most parents are able to agree between themselves what is best for their children. But there are situations where having the opinion of a neutral expert trained and qualified to conduct child custody evaluations can be incredibly helpful, as the evaluator has the opportunity to do a deep dive into the child’s relationship with the caregivers, the home environment, the child’s preferences, special needs of the child, mental health of the parties and/or child, and the ability of the parents to provide for this specific child’s needs.

The appointment of a child custody evaluator is not automatic. Most often, one of the parties will make a motion and request that the judge appoint a custody evaluator. Sometimes, the parties are able to agree on who will be appointed to conduct the child custody evaluation, and the judge will appoint the agreed upon evaluator. If the parties are not able to agree on the custody evaluator, the judge can appoint a child custody evaluator.

When a child custody evaluator has been appointed to conduct a child custody evaluation, it is imperative that the participants in the evaluation show up for the evaluation in a constructive, cooperative spirit. Remember, the evaluator is an extension of the court, conducting an evaluation for the court’s benefit. Basically, expect that everything you say to the evaluator will be used as part of the basis for the evaluator’s recommendation to the court.

As you begin your relationship with the individual appointed to prepare the custody evaluation, it is important to know:

  1. What to expect,
  2. How to engage with the evaluator,
  3. What actions to avoid, and
  4. The impact the evaluation will ultimately have on the outcome of your custody case.

The purpose of this article is to help demystify the evaluation process, and also to provide you with additional resources that may help you as you prepare for a custody evaluation.

Who is the Child Custody Evaluator?

The child custody evaluator will generally be a mental health professional who is appointed by the judge. The evaluator may work for a county agency who is organized to assist the court with evaluations (e.g., in Dallas County, this agency is known as Family Court Services). Or, the evaluator may be a professional in private practice who conducts evaluators as part of his or her practice. Whether the evaluator is in private practice or works for a county agency, the evaluator must meet certain stringent requirements regarding education, experience and training in custody evaluations. 

Generally, the individual appointed to conduct the evaluation must:

  1. Education. Have at least a master’s degree from an accredited college or university in a human services field of study;
  2. Licensure. Be licensed by the State of Texas as a social worker, professional counselor, marriage and family therapist, or psychologist, or have a license to practice medicine and a board certification in psychiatry;
  3. Experience. After having completed his/her degree, have two years of full-time experience under professional supervision; and
  4. Training. After having obtained a license, performed at least 10 court-ordered child custody evaluations under the supervision of someone qualified to conduct evaluations.

In smaller counties across Texas and along the border, an individual without these qualifications can be deemed “qualified” by the court to conduct an evaluation after notice and hearing, or agreement of the parties. This reflects the reality that it can be very challenging to find professionals who are able and willing to conduct custody evaluations. Even across our North Texas counties, there is a shortage of professionals qualified to conduct child custody evaluations. 

Sometimes, families want to know if their child’s therapist, or other mental health professional already familiar with the family, can serve as the child custody evaluator. The answer is – no. The child custody evaluator must avoid conflicts of interest, and having served in another role would create a conflict. 

Many professionals who conduct custody evaluations admit that it’s different kind of relationship that can be off putting and feel very cold. This is a very structured and formal relationship, and it is important for parents going through a custody evaluation to understand that the custody evaluator is operating in a very defined role. It would be inappropriate for the evaluator to develop a personal relationship with parents whom they are evaluating. So just be prepared for that awkwardness – and respect their role as a professional in the custody process. Maintaining a professional and courteous working relationship with the professional appointed to conduct your evaluation is important. If you sense problems arising in our relationship with the evaluator, be sure to discuss this with your attorney.

What is the Purpose of the Child Custody Evaluation?

The purpose of the child custody evaluation is for the evaluator to conduct a thorough investigation into the facts and circumstances relating to your children, and to make a recommendation to the court regarding the custody arrangements for your children. 

Many Texas orders appointing a child custody evaluator will include specific questions that the evaluator is being asked to answer as part of their investigation, including questions such as:

  • Should the parties be appointed as joint managing conservators of the children?
  • Which party should have the exclusive right to determine the primary residence of the child?
  • What periods of possession and access to the children should be ordered for each parent?
  • Which party is best able to meet the emotional needs of the children?
  • Which party is best able to meet the physical needs of the children?
  • Should either party’s possession of and access to the children be supervised?
  • Does either parent present a physical or emotional danger to the children?
  • What is the nature and quality of parental communication between the parties?
  • What effect does each party’s communication with the other party have on the parties parenting abilities?
  • What effect does each party’s communication with the other party in the presence of the children have on the children?

The recommendation of the evaluator is not binding on the judge, but it can be very persuasive since the evaluator will have spent a significant amount of time and attention looking into the details of the parent-child relationship. The child custody evaluator will have an opportunity to review medical and school records, to talk with doctors and therapists, to interview witnesses provided by each party, and to interact with the children. In contrast, the judge will hear from a very limited number of witnesses and review a very limited number of exhibits. 

Opinion Not Binding on Court (But Persuasive)

The judge does not have to adopt the recommendation of the evaluator as to what is in the best interest of the child. However, judges often do give great weight to the recommendations of the child custody evaluator. The findings, conclusions and recommendations of the evaluator will be compiled into a report. The report will be provided to the attorneys for the parties. Often times, the report can be used to help resolve issues between the parties, and even settle the custody case. 

However, if the custody case does not settle, the parties may call the evaluator to testify in the hearings and final trial, and may offer the report as evidence pursuant to the Texas Rules of Evidence. If a case goes to final trial, it is not unusual for there to be one party who wants the report to be admitted, and there is one party who will challenge the report. The party challenging the report will cross examine the evaluator regarding their process, and look for any mistakes or omissions that may cause the testimony and report to be given less weight or kept out all together. In other words, the judge will only see the report and hear the recommendations of the evaluator if the case goes to trial, the report is properly offered into evidence, and the other party has an opportunity to ask the evaluator questions about their process, their report and their recommendations.

Because the recommendation of the evaluator will carry so much weight with the court, it is incredibly important to be prepared as you begin the custody evaluation process.

What to Expect and How to Prepare for a Custody Evaluation

The evaluator will want you to provide information that you believe is helpful, and this will include: historical background about you and your relationship with the other parent (often in the form of a questionnaire that resembles a very intrusive job application), witnesses who know you and your children (referred to as “collateral witnesses”), and supporting evidence you have (e.g., text messages, audio and video recordings legally obtained, photographs, emails). The evaluator may have a specific questionnaire they want you to complete, may have questionnaires for collateral witnesses, and may have a list of specific documents to provide to the evaluator. 

Going through a child custody evaluation in Texas can be complicated and emotionally draining, bringing up a lot of worries and fears. It’s a journey that demands both legal preparation and emotional strength. Knowing what to expect and how to get ready is essential for parents caught in custody battles where the judge has ordered a custody evaluation to be completed. It’s not unusual in the midst of the custody evaluation process to feel overwhelmed – and to feel like this is something that is being done “to you” instead of “for your child.” Keep an open heart and mind for opportunities to learn more about your parent-child relationship, and also stay focused on the goal which is to act in the best interest of your child. Learning about the process and finding support can truly help you to handle this difficult situation with more ease and assurance.

Download Our Custody Evaluation Overview:

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How Should I Prepare for a Child Custody Evaluation?

To get ready for a child custody psychological evaluation, approach the process with thoughtfulness and respect: 

  • be punctual, 
  • dress appropriately, 
  • be organized with your documents and concerns, and
  • respond timely to requests for information from the evaluator

When interacting with the evaluator, prepare as follows:

  • Answer questions honestly;
  • If you feel yourself getting defensive, take a moment to center yourself;
  • Understand the relevant factors and organize your thoughts and concerns accordingly;
  • Ensure your home is clean and safe;
  • When it comes to responding to concerns raised by the other parent, be prepared to address those concerns honestly; 
  • Avoid being overly critical of the other parent; and
  • Be professional and courteous.

What Will the Evaluator Investigate?

While the evaluator has discretion in conducting the investigation, there is information that is required to be reviewed by the evaluator in order. The Order appointing the evaluator will detail the specifics that the evaluator is ordered to consider, including the following:

  • A personal interview of each party seeking conservatorship and/or possession;
  • Interviews of the child (who is at least 4 years old) conducted in a developmentally appropriate manner;
  • Observation of each child with each party to the suit (unless otherwise prohibited);
  • Observation of other children who live with the child (e.g., step-siblings);
  • Obtaining information from collateral sources including: school records, physical and mental health records, CPS Investigations, criminal history, and other relevant records;
  • Assessment of the relationship between each child and each parent/party to the suit seeking custody of the child;
  • Balanced interviews and observations of each child while in the care of a party to the suit;
  • Evaluation of the residence of each party seeking conservatorship (this may or may not include a visit to the residence);
  • Observation of child with each adult who lives in the residence;
  • Psychometric testing, if necessary; and
  • Joint meeting with the parents and any other information the court deems relevant.

A custody evaluation is mandated to be a thorough investigation, which will likely require presentation of a substantial amount of information from the parties.

How Should I Organize Information Requested by the Evaluator?

First, you should talk with your lawyer about the information that you think is significant for the child custody evaluator to focus on. Your family law attorney should be able to help you organize the information in a way that is cohesive and helpful for the evaluator. Simply handing over shopping bags of documents, or a thumb drive with thousands of digital files, will not ensure that your evaluator will find the information that is important. Here are some tips for organizing information that will be helpful for your lawyer, and the evaluator:

  • Identify themes or topics that are important
  • Identify the most persuasive items (e.g., emails, recordings, photographs) that support your theme or topic
  • Provide an outline/table of contents of the themes or topics, with the supporting documents
  • Include dates with the supporting documents that effectively creates a timeline

While this sounds simple enough, it can be overwhelming if you are in the middle of a high conflict custody situation. However, following this framework can be very helpful for your case, and can help the evaluator organize the information they are reviewing. 

Preparing for the Child Custody Interview

As the parent or caregiver of a child, the child custody evaluator will interview you to learn more about your relationship with your child, and your relationship with the other parent. These are common questions that parents/caregivers should be prepared to answer in a child custody evaluation:

Your Familial History

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Who were your primary caregivers?
  3. What kind of conflict did you experience in your family?
  4. Do you have siblings?
  5. What kind of relationship do you have as an adult with members of your family?

Your Child

  1. When did you learn you were going to be a parent?
  2. How did you respond? How did the other parent respond?
  3. How was the pregnancy/delivery of your child?
  4. Does your child have any developmental, educational or medical concerns?
  5. What are your child’s strengths and weaknesses?
  6. What is your child’s routine? What kind of activities is he/she involved in?
  7. How does your child handle transitions?

Your Parenting Skills

  1. How do you handle discipline?
  2. How do you support your child’s educational needs?
  3. How do you support your child’s physical and emotional needs?
  4. What role do you play in making decisions for your child (e.g., activities, school, care)?
  5. What are your plans for parenting your child in the future?

Your Relationship with Your Child

  1. What routines do you participate in with your child on a daily/weekly basis?
  2. What concerns or challenges do you have in relating with your child?
  3. What have you discussed with your child regarding the separation/custody arrangement?
  4. What is your proposed parenting time schedule with your child?
  5. What kind of support system does your family provide for your child? What is your child’s relationship with your parents/siblings/cousins?

The Other Parent’s Relationship with Your Child

  1. What are the other parent’s strengths or weaknesses?
  2. What concerns do you have about the other parent’s ability to care for your child?
  3. What concerns do you have about what the other parent wants regarding time and custody?
  4. What actions do you take to help support your child’s relationship with the other parent? Why or why not?

Co-Parenting Relationship

  1. What kind of relationship do you have with the other parent?
  2. How do you communicate about significant issues concerning your child?
  3. What would need to change to make your co-parenting relationship better?

The child custody evaluator has wide latitude to address topics the evaluator considers relevant in the custody evaluation process. Specifically, if there are issues of concern regarding abuse, mental health or substance abuse issues, the evaluator will probe into those areas. The ultimate goal of the questions the evaluator asks is help the evaluator gain a thorough understanding of the circumstances facing your family. 

Will I have to Submit to a Psychological Evaluation?

A Psychological Evaluation can be a component of a Child Custody Evaluation, and refers to additional testing that is done by a professional qualified to administer such testing. A common test administered in the custody evaluation process is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2). If substance abuse is at issue, a Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) may be administered. There are other types of tests that may be administered as well. However, it is important to note that these tests help the evaluators create hypotheses that are then supported (or not) by other evidence. None of these tests provide definitive conclusions without the analysis of a professional trained to administer these tests (which may or may not be your evaluator). 

When there are concerns that a parent or child is struggling with a mental health disorder, a psychological evaluation can be helpful for the purpose of better understanding the parent’s ability to care for a child. However, too many people enter custody battles these days believing that if you prove a parent has a disorder (e.g., Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder), that will impact the custody evaluation recommendations. It is important to know that the purpose of the custody evaluation is not to diagnose a parent with a disorder, though a diagnosis may result from the testing. Whether a parent has been diagnosed with a mental health condition will not necessarily correlate to whether that parent is capable of providing for their child. Testing provides a set of data points for the evaluator that can be helpful when taken in context with the rest of the data collected by the evaluator.

See Jennifer Hargrave’s Conversation with Dr. Susan Fletcher on Preparing for a Custody Evaluation

Will the Child Custody Evaluator Come to My Home

It is likely that the Child Custody Evaluator will include a home visit as part of the overall custody evaluation. The purpose of the home visit is to assess the safety and conditions of the residence for your child. You will want to make sure that you have age appropriate safety measures in place for your child (e.g., outlet covers, safety gates for stairs, pool gating, locks), that you have adequate food for your child, that your home is clean, and that your child has an age appropriate place to sleep.

What will the Evaluator discuss with my Child

The Child Custody Evaluator will observe your child with you and the other caregivers in the child’s life. The Evaluator’s engagement with your child will vary depending upon the age of the child. The Evaluator has broad discretion when it comes to interacting with your child, and will likely cover a range of topics from activities the child enjoys, how the child feels about school, what the child likes and/or dislikes about each parent’s home. Evaluators are also trained to pick up on a child who has been coached by a parent or other adult, or when the child has been involved by other parent/caregiver in adult issues. In addition to talking with your child, the Evaluator will also want to observe your child in relationship with you and the other caregiver(s). The Evaluator will be observing how the parents respond when the child is acting out, how the child takes direction from the parents, and the overall bond and relationship between the parent and child.

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Click to See Jennifer Hargrave’s Conversation with Dr. Aaron Robb on Custody Evaluations:

Child Custody Evaluation Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long does a Custody Evaluation take?

In Texas, as in many other jurisdictions, a typical custody evaluation can take anywhere from a a couple months to more than one year . Complex cases, which might involve extensive interviews, observations, home visits, and review of numerous documents, can extend the process further. Additionally, if psychological testing is required or if there are special circumstances like allegations of abuse or the need for detailed assessments from multiple sources, the evaluation can take longer. Also, there are typically a limited number of professionals who do evaluations, and their schedules fill up quickly. 

It’s important for parents to be patient during this process and to provide any requested information promptly. If there are delays in getting the needed documents or during times where schedules clash, it will extend the timeline. Your family law attorney can give more specific guidance based on the particulars of your case and the typical time frames observed in your local court system.

What Does the Evaluator Look For?

Evaluators assess various factors, including each parent’s relationship with the child, parenting abilities, mental and emotional health, and the home environment’s stability and safety. The evaluator also observes how each parent interacts with the child and reviews relevant documents.

Financial Aspects of Custody Evaluations

Who Pays for a Custody Evaluation?

Often, the cost of the child custody evaluation is split between the parents. This is a common approach when both parties are in a similar financial position. However, a judge may order one party to bear a larger share of the cost based on financial resources and ability to pay.

How Much Does a Child Custody Evaluation Cost in Texas?

Costs can range from a few thousand dollars to over $10,000, depending on the evaluator’s credentials, the complexity of the case, and the evaluation’s scope and duration.

Preparing my Child for an Evaluation

When preparing for a child custody evaluation, parents may wonder if coaching their child on what to say is a beneficial strategy. It is important to understand that this approach is not advisable and can actually be detrimental to your case. Custody evaluators are experienced professionals skilled in interviewing and identifying inconsistencies in responses. They are trained to detect when a child is reciting rehearsed answers, which can raise concerns about the child’s actual experience and the parent’s integrity.

Children, by their nature, are not adept at retaining and reciting information in a way that appears natural, especially under the stress of an evaluation. They might remember certain points you’ve told them to mention, but their ability to articulate these in a meaningful, consistent way is often limited. This inability to fully comprehend and convey rehearsed responses can lead to confusion and inconsistency in their answers. Therefore, any attempt to coach your child could have unintended consequences, casting doubt on the authenticity of their responses and, by extension, your credibility as a parent.

The best approach is to encourage honesty and openness in your child. Let them know that it’s okay to express their true feelings and thoughts. Reassure them that both parents love them unconditionally, regardless of what they say during the evaluation. This assurance can help alleviate their anxiety and allow them to speak freely during the interview.

Creating an environment where your child feels safe and supported to express themselves honestly is key. Remind them that the evaluator’s role is to understand their needs and preferences to help make decisions that are in their best interest. By fostering a stress-free and truthful approach, you help ensure that the evaluation accurately reflects your child’s experiences and needs, ultimately supporting the best outcome for them.

What Does a Judge Do with a Custody Evaluation?

When it comes to determining the best interests of a child in custody cases, the role of the judge is pivotal. After a child custody evaluator completes their investigation and report, these findings and recommendations are submitted to the court, and potentially, the evaluator may be called to testify. This report plays a crucial part in the judicial decision-making process, but it is important to understand that it is not the sole factor.

A child custody evaluator’s recommendation, while influential, is not binding on the judge. The evaluator provides a professional assessment of the family dynamics, parenting capabilities, and the child’s needs. However, the judge holds the ultimate responsibility to decide what arrangement serves the child’s best interests. This decision is made by considering the evaluator’s report alongside a plethora of other evidence, including each parent’s living situation, the child’s preferences (depending on their age and maturity), and any relevant legal considerations.

The judge’s objective is to synthesize all the available information to arrive at a decision that holistically supports the child’s well-being, safety, and happiness. This could include considerations of stability, emotional support, educational opportunities, and the maintenance of significant family relationships.

If there are concerns about the recommendations of the custody evaluator, it’s important to consult with a family law attorney. They can provide guidance on how to address these concerns effectively and advocate for your position in court. The attorney’s role is to ensure that the judge is fully aware of all the nuances of your case, helping to ensure a fair and just outcome for both you and your child.

Challenges and Remedies in Custody Evaluations

Can You Have a Custody Evaluation ‘Thrown Out’?

Challenging a custody evaluation’s findings requires valid concerns about methodology or bias. As we’ve stated in this article, the opinion of the Evaluator is not binding on the Court. However, since it is persuasive and carries a lot of weight with the Court, getting a Custody Evaluation “thrown out” is not easy, and will often require additional expert engagement. One of the most important issues is to make sure that the Evaluator followed their own professional responsibilities in conducting the evaluation. If an Evaluator did not follow the established protocols, then it may be possible to at least diminish the persuasiveness of the Evaluator’s findings. Discussing these concerns with an attorney is essential for determining the best approach.

The Role of Legal Representation

How an Attorney Can Help You

An attorney can guide you through the evaluation process, help prepare for interviews, address concerns about the evaluator’s findings, and represent your interests in court. They ensure your rights are protected and that the final custody arrangement serves your child’s best interests.

Navigating Legal Complexities

Experienced attorneys can help navigate the complexities of Texas family law, ensuring that the custody evaluation process is fair and unbiased. They play a crucial role in advocating for your parental rights and ensuring that all procedures are followed correctly.