Gavel on a bench for a custody evaluation in New York
By Categories: Custody Evaluations6.6 min read

Preparing for a Custody Evaluation

Why is this Necessary?

If parents are unable to reach an agreement about custody, the judge (usually a Family Court judge) may order an evaluation.

A forensic, also called a custody evaluation, is an assessment conducted by a mental health professional (usually a clinical psychologist) to determine the best interests of the child. It consists of a series of personal interviews and psychological tests administered by the psychologist, who is chosen, or “appointed” by the court. The purpose is to assess the specific needs of each child, and the parents’ ability to meet those needs.

In contrast to attorneys whose job is to advocate for their client, the custody evaluator has a neutral or independent role in the process. He/she does not work for either side and provides an impartial opinion to the court. The evaluator’s job is to collect information about the situation from several sources. Then he/she analyzes and organizes the data into a report, which is submitted to the court. Usually, the evaluator is asked to make a recommendation that will help the court reach a decision about custody and visitation that will be in the best interest of the child. For example, the court might request the evaluator to determine which parent should serve as primary residential parent, or whether the parents have the capacity to make joint decisions on matters such as education or health care for the child. The evaluator might also be asked to recommend a visitation schedule.

A custody evaluation is ordered by the court. Parents can also request a custody evaluation, but you should consult with a legal professional before you do this.  The process is not covered by doctor-patient privilege. Whatever is disclosed or discussed between you and the evaluator is not kept confidential.

What Happens during the Evaluation? Do I have to take a Lie Detector Test?

Because the custody evaluation is supposed to be an objective assessment the court prefers to have several sources of data, or information, about the parents and children. The evaluation typically includes interviews with the parents, observation of parents with the child, psychological testing, and collateral contact interviews. The evaluation is conducted over several sessions with the psychologist.

A Custody Evaluation usually includes:

  • Interviews with each parent
  • Interviews with each child
  • Parent-child observation sessions
  • Psychological testing
  • Collateral interviews
  • Document Review

Let’s take these step by step:

Interviews

The personal interview usually takes between 2 and 4 hours. During this time you will have an opportunity to tell your “side” of the story and voice any concerns you may have about your partner and your children. The evaluator will ask some questions about your background, educational and work history, parenting methods, relationships, and your child’s developmental history. Try to be yourself. Listen to the questions and try to answer them directly. Ask for an explanation if you don’t understand something. Remember that you will probably meet with the evaluator several times. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you think you’ve left something out or have not covered every issue in the first interview. Don’t worry if you can’t remember exact dates for specific events.

It is to your advantage to be honest. Don’t lie or omit a history of substance abuse, legal problems, or even that you have been in therapy. It will reflect poorly on you if the evaluator checks and your story turns out to be untrue.

Psychological Testing

The tests used in forensic evaluations are usually personality tests and questionnaires that have been specifically designed for custody evaluations. They are standardized tests that have been written to provide an objective measure of personality characteristics, psychological functioning, quality of relationships, and specific skills, knowledge, and experience with parenting. Custody tests are usually of the paper-and-pencil, multiple-choice variety.

Answer all questions honestly. Do not attempt to practice or take practice tests offered on some of the custody web sites. Psychological tests are designed to detect false statements and defensiveness. Attempts to manipulate or outsmart the tests will only make you look sneaky and less credible to the evaluator and judge. The psychological tests are never the most important part of a custody evaluation.

Parent-Child Observations

The observation takes place in the evaluator’s office. The psychologist will have a variety of toys and games, but it is helpful if you bring personal items that you know your child enjoys. During the session you might engage in structured play or games or drawing pictures. Older children may just want to have a conversation.

Explain to your child in terms that they can understand that he or she is going to meet with a psychologist who is interested in getting to know them. With older children, you can also explain that the psychologist is helping the judge to figure out how much time the child will spend with each parent. Do not prep them or coach them on what to say. Don’t tell them to speak poorly of the other parent, but encourage them to be honest about how they feel.

Collaterals

The evaluator will ask for names and contact information of people who know you and have regular contact with you and your child. These interviews are usually done by telephone. Spend some time thinking about people who are best suited to talk about your skills as a parent and your relationship with your child. Such people include: Teachers, pediatricians, mental health professionals, childcare providers, extended family members, and neighbors. Let these individuals know that the evaluator will be getting in touch with them for this purpose.

How Can I Prepare?

Try to be truthful and candid. The evaluator is not your enemy. The report is only as good as the information you provide. Don’t take offense at questions about your personal life or current and past activities. It is not often that you have the opportunity to be listened to calmly and objectively by a professional with experience in these matters. Many people find that they gain insight about themselves by going through the forensic evaluation process. Be cooperative, even if you oppose the evaluation or don’t see the point of doing it. People often complain about the time it takes to complete the forensics. There are many ways in which you can help move things along. The evaluator needs to set up appointments, conduct collateral interviews by phone, review records, and score tests. When you start the evaluation, be flexible in terms of scheduling appointments and show up promptly.  Facilitate contact with teachers, doctors, and references, by providing names and phone numbers when they are requested. Make sure that the contact information you provide is current and accurate. If the evaluator requests documents such as report cards or medical records, do your best to gather the material and provide it promptly.

The Bottom Line

Custody disputes and forensic evaluations can be stressful for all involved. They are time-consuming, often expensive, and involve a lot of soul-searching. But a well-prepared, thorough custody evaluation helps the judge reach a decision and often eliminates the need for a trial.

Why Dr. Thomson?

I have had years of experience conducting custody evaluations. I have worked directly with attorneys on private cases, and I have become familiar with many of the judges in the New York Family Court. In addition to expertise with a variety of psychological testing (personality measures and custody questionnaires, admissions tests, and ERB), I have specific experience working with children in school and individual settings. I know how to establish rapport with your child so that you and your family will feel at ease throughout the custody evaluation process. In my private practice I work with clients from diverse populations, including the LGBTQ community and individuals with special needs.

To set up an appointment for a forensic evaluation, call Dr. Thomson at: 212.666.0332. Or email: peggythomsonphd@gmail.com

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Peggy Thomson, PhD, Therapy in NYC

Peggy Thomson, PhD, is a psychologist based in New York City, providing psychodynamic psychotherapy online and in-person. Find tips, resources and strategies here in her blog.

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