If you’re in the middle of a child custody case and have been ordered to participate in a forensic evaluation you probably have a lot of questions about the process. You may even be a little nervous about what is to come. We’re here to set your mind at ease by explaining what a custody forensic evaluation is, why it’s done and what to expect.
What Is A Custody Forensic Evaluation?
A custody forensic evaluation is a report from a licensed mental health professional that provides accurate and balanced information about each member of the family. These reports can only be ordered by judges and are used as evidence in child custody cases when the parents cannot come to agreement about custody arrangements. They are also sometimes ordered in cases where there are allegations of physical or child sexual abuse, neglect, parental unfitness or substance abuse.
Although the evaluations are influential in a judge’s decision-making, they are by no means the final word. The judge takes the report into consideration, along with many other pieces of evidence, when making a custody decision. In today’s custody cases, the vast majority of evaluations are simply that, evaluations. They do not attempt to make recommendations for custody, but merely present impartial analysis and observations.
The forensic evaluator is a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. Ideally, this person will have a large portion of their practice devoted to the area of forensics. Forensic evaluators are independent and neutral third-parties who do not work for one parent or the other. Their interest lies in providing information to the judge that he or she can then use to determine custody arrangements that are in the best interests of the child or children involved in the case.
When Are Custody Forensic Evaluations Needed?
Custody forensic evaluations are not needed in every case. Final discretion as to whether or not an evaluation is needed is up to the judge. In some cases, the judge will ask the attorney representing the children if they would like a forensic evaluator to be appointed to the case.
In general, a custody forensic evaluation will be ordered when the parents cannot come to agreement on custody arrangements. The neutral analysis helps the judge make a decision that is in the best interests of the child(ren).
If the judge has specific concerns about the case, he or she may ask for special attention to be paid to those areas. Examples include: custody, domestic violence, mental illness, decision making, visitation, interference of parental rights, substance abuse and grandparent visitation among others.
What To Expect From A Forensic Custody Evaluation
If a forensic custody evaluation has been ordered, it’s in your best interests to comply. Non-participation will be an extremely unfavorable mark against you in the eyes of the judge.
Here are a few other things you need to know about the process:
- Interviewees. The parents, stepparents, children and any new partners or fiancé’s will be asked to participate in the evaluation. Evaluations must be conducted in person, not virtually or by phone.
- Payment. The parents should expect a pro-rated fee based upon their respective incomes.
- Time Period. Forensic evaluations take time, sometimes as long as 2-4 months from start to finish. Do not worry if things seem to be progressing slowly. There is a lot of information to gather and it’s in your child’s best interests that it is done correctly.
- The Report is Evidence. Once complete, the forensic report is admitted as evidence to the court. If the report is very old, an updated report may be ordered.
- Initial Meetings. Everyone involved in the case – parents, stepparents, partners/fiancé’s and children will meet with the forensic evaluator alone. These meetings are used to gather general background information, though it sometimes also includes psychological testing.
- Joint Child-Parent Meetings. After the initial interview, a second interview with you and your child(ren) will be set up. This will give the evaluator a chance to observe you and your child interacting together and to interview you both at the same time. Your spouse will have a joint parent-child meeting too. Sometimes, a third meeting is required, but not always.
- Children’s Interviews. Children will be interviewed during this process. In addition to joint meetings with the parents, the evaluator will meet with your children as a group as well as individually, depending on their ages.
There are exceptions to this interview schedule, of course. If an order of protection is involved, the interviews will be adjusted, depending on the specifics of the order. Children may not interview with the parent who has the order placed against him or her, for example.
What To Bring With You To Your Evaluation Meetings
It helps to come to the meetings prepared. Aside from having all of the information the evaluator needs to come to complete the report, collecting this data and bringing it with you can help give you a sense of control over a process that seems completely out of your control. You may be asked to provide:
- Collateral Evidence. The evaluator may ask for collateral evidence. This evidence is similar to a reference check. It consists of interviews with people outside of the immediate family who are active in the child’s life. The list may include teachers, pediatricians, coaches, neighbors, babysitters, therapists or possibly social services if they have been involved in the case at any time. You’ll need to provide the forensic evaluator with this list of names and relevant contact information so they can conduct interviews.
- Documentation. The evaluator may request paper documents detailing information about the children’s lives. Reports cards, emails and medical records are all examples of materials that may be requested.
- Completed Paperwork. If you have been asked to complete any paperwork or submit a questionnaire, do so and bring it with you to your next meeting. It is extremely important to complete this paperwork and turn it in. Your attorney cannot help you with this. In fact, your attorney won’t have any contact with the forensic evaluator at all.
- Notes. Some people find it helpful to jot down notes or thoughts ahead of time so they don’t forget to address them with the evaluator. Feel free to do this if it helps you prepare for the meeting.
Most parents’ biggest stressors related to the evaluation process are the affect it will have on their children and how to prepare their children for the interviews. To begin with, do not coach your children on what to say! This can render the entire test invalid and show you in a bad light.
Explain to your children that they will be talking to a doctor. You may use the term psychologist or therapist if the child is familiar with these terms. Tell them that they should answer the doctor’s questions as honestly as they can. You might also want to tell them that you and their other parent will be talking to the doctor too, to help ease their fears.
If they are old enough to understand what is going on, you can explain that the doctor will be collecting information to help the judge decide how the child will spend time with Mom or Dad.
A Few Final Thoughts
Keep in mind that the whole point of a forensic evaluation is to help the judge determine what is in the best interests of the child. Try to give an accurate and balanced view of both yourself and your spouse. Be respectful of the evaluator and cooperative. Hostile behaviors will only reflect poorly on you. Remember, this is an evaluation about parenting abilities, not the marriage. Try to separate your marital problems from parenting issues and always try to keep your children’s best interests in mind.