Custody Evaluation Preparation Guide

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Custody Evaluation Preparation Guide

Unread postby hoosier_dad » Tue Apr 08, 2014 11:04 am

This preparation guide was written by a PhD psychiatrist who specialized in custody evaluations and was geared to help attorneys prepare their clients for the process.

Although some aspects are clearly his preference and won't be universal with all custody evaluators or states, I think it still provides a good outline to help you prepare for the process.

This copy was scanned and then run through an OCR conversion before being cleaned up manually so there are probably some formatting issues.

Introduction: General Principles

A relatively common, and yet disconcerting situation, arises in the context of custody evaluations when the parent arrives for the custody evaluation and seems to have no understanding of the purpose of the evaluation, how it is likely to be used, the limits on confidentiality and privilege that are involved, or any understanding of what is likely to take place. A significant number of clients actually come and the only thing that they have been told is to show up at a certain place at a certain time to undergo a "custody evaluation." They have no understanding of even the rudiments of the legal criteria that a court utilizes to either establish custody in the first place or to modify custody, and they are often angry that they have to undergo any questioning of their parenting abilities or skills. Taking the time to talk with the client for thirty minutes or so in order to discuss the reasons for custody evaluations and an overview of the types of things done in custody evaluations will clearly help the client to present him or herself as favorably and strongly as possible.

Impact on Client when Attorney has not prepared Him or Her

Often when a client comes unprepared for the custody evaluation they quickly become frustrated and angry when they are asked to discuss things that they have trouble remembering or feel are particularly intrusive. This often leads quickly to dissatisfaction with the process itself as well as dissatisfaction with the client's attorney. At an extreme, some parents feel "set up" when they come and state that they had no idea what the procedure was going to be involved and they feel totally and inadequately prepared to go through the evaluation.

General Reactions with Prepared Clients

The custody evaluation process is never going to be a relaxed, comfortable situation for any parent who has such high stakes as custody of their child(ren) as the potential outcome. Most parents undergoing this type of procedure are anxious, and will remain anxious no matter how much preparation is done. But, if there has been some preparation of the client prior to undergoing the evaluation the client should not feel that they have experienced any major surprises, and should generally come away from a custody evaluation with the feeling they have been able to adequately present their views on all of the issues.

General Principles in Preparation of the Client

a) As a general rule, the attorney's introduction of the custody evaluation process to the client should focus on general principles. It would be impossible to prepare the client for the subtle differences in the way various evaluators conduct evaluations but in general all evaluators are going to inquire into the same areas. Thus, the client can be adequately prepared to deal with the process as a whole. Preparation is not synonymous with coaching the client as to what is an acceptable response to a specific question. In fact, such coaching may produce a negative impact in that people sometimes respond as if they have been coached. In addition, what the parent has learned is an acceptable response may in fact be contrad cted by the children or other potential collateral contacts in the course of the evaluation itself. Thus, a good starting point would be to go over with the client the general areas that will be pursued in a custody evaluation.
b) Definitely encourage the client to think about the evaluation ahead, and if they are comfortable with it, even develop an outline of the talking points they want to cover. When making contact with foreign governments, state department officials always have an outline of their "talking points" and similar preparation by the client in preparing him or herself to talk about the various areas included in evaluations will help the client come across as positively as possible.
c) Encourage the client to raise any possible negatives about themselves on their own and to try to address them objectively. Also encourage the client to respond as objectively as possible if negative points are raised by the evaluator based upon information the evaluator has received. As general preparation for the evaluation it would be helpful if the client understood that the evaluator is not personally attacking them but does need to discuss negative issues that may be part of the parenting or family situation. The evaluator needs to have the views of both parents, as well as any supporting evidence or documentation that the parents may have for their view of the situation.
d) Have the client bring any documents, diaries, school records, medical records, etc. that they have. Some attorneys and some clients are concerned that having this kind of material may be viewed negatively by the evaluator, but in general being prepared is more likely to have a positive impact on the impressions of an evaluator than the impact raised by a client who seems to be disorganized, forgetful, and who cannot seem to articulate their views on issues.
e) Letters of reference and calls from supporters are minimally useful, but if the client does have or wants to use these types of materials, tell the client to use them. In general, most custody evaluators are aware that each parent is usually able to produce numerous positive references, as well as being able to produce negative references about the other parent. Overall, these types of materials often cancel each other out. On the other hand, materials from more objective people such as daycare personnel, preschool personnel, school teachers, or health care providers who have relevant information usually provides information that is significant and more likely to be unbiased in contrast to the information provided by relatives and friends.

The information that the evaluator is seeking falls into a number of different categories which in toto yield clinical information that parallels the legal tests for the best interest of the child. In preparing the client it is generally advisable to go over the general areas that will be covered so that the client can think about these areas of inquiry, and if they are comfortable with it, even develop an outline of their own as to the areas that they think should be emphasized since the facts of any particular custody evaluation are likely to be unique. There is no standard way to weigh the information and what is important in one family may be irrelevant in another. For example, in client A’s family, the interrelationships of the parents and children may be uniformly positive, and in essence a non-factor from a clinical perspective. In Client B's family the interrelationships may be a critical element, and there may be genuine difficulties in the relationship of one parent, or even both parents, with the children. The extreme case in this regard would be one of parental alienation. If the client has a view as to the relative importance of the various factors they consider particularly important, have them prepare ahead of time to discuss these factors in detail with the evaluator. Being prompt and on time for the evaluation session or sessions is also an important consideration. While not a major element in most cases, it can be crucial in cases where a parent is alleging that the other parent is disorganized in his or her parenting, and then that parent consistently arrives late for the session or sessions.

Specific Areas of Preparation

Parental Background Information

a) An area of general inquiry for all custody evaluators is the family of origin history of the client. Many people coming to custody evaluations do not understand the importance or relevance of this kind of background information. The importance lies in the fact that we tend to become parents based upon our views of how we were parented, and our views of what makes for a decent childhood. Thus, a significant portion of a custody evaluation is likely to be looking at the client's relationship with their own parents, their siblings, their school backgrounds, work histories, military history, etc.
b) The history of the marital relationship, as well as prior marriages or other significant relationships, will be reviewed extensively. Again, many unprepared clients do not see the relevance of this particular area but it is important in developing an understanding of the client for the evaluator to understand how the client has perceived the marital relationship and any other significant relationships in which they have been involved. This part of the background information will also include talking about how the client has handled difficulties in those relationships in the past.
c) An important area of inquiry is current relationships the client is involved in, and particularly the impact of these relationships on the children. Many clients want to talk about the relationships the other parent is having but see no significance to the relationships they themselves are in.
d) Having the client prepared to discuss their views on their own relationship with the child(ren) as well as their view on the relationship of the children to the other parent is an important consideration. Included in this area would be information as to how the parent's decided to have children, their reactions to becoming a parent, and the history of their involvement with the children.
e) The developmental history of the child is an important area of information that the parent should have. In particular, if there are any unique roles that the parent played in the child's development the client would want to be prepared to discuss these issues at some point in the evaluation.
f) In addition to the past history, it is important to review the children's relationship with the client as well as with the other parent.
g) Having the client prepared to present their views on the physical and psychological care they would expect to provide for the child(ren) is an important consideration. Areas to consider in preparing for the evaluation would include that parent's work hours, alternative child care arrangements they might need, and how they view the child's current physical and psychological functioning.
h) Health (including mental health) concerns of the parent or the children should be an area of discussion, and it would be good if the client could think through any concerns that might exist for themselves of the children in these areas.
i) Educational issues should be something that a well prepared client is capable of discussing. In many cases, education is not a controversial or conflict area between the parents, and the children are generally doing well. On the other hand, in some cases there are significant educational issues and often significant disagreements between the parents. This would be an important area to be prepared for discussion, and any supporting documentation that the parent could provide for their views on the situation would be helpful.
j) In same cases, religious issues are important. If there are strong disagreements between the parents about religious issues, it would be important for the parent to be able to discuss their views on this issue. It would also be helpful if the parent understood that the courts generally do not choose between religions per se, but how each parent is prepared to handle religious issues is an important consideration.
k) If there is any significant legal history that needs to be discussed it is helpful if the parent is prepared to discuss it, including the time frames when the event occurred, the legal outcomes, etc.
l) An extremely significant area is any concerns the client has involving drugs, alcohol, or domestic violence. There is an abundant psychological research literature on the impact of these kinds of issues both on people as individuals as well as on people's abilities to parent when these are areas of concern. Corroborating documentation for any views the client has would be helpful in this regard.
m) The work history and financial ability of the client to parent the children is an important consideration. This area of inquiry would generally also include discussion of any history of spending concerns that the client has of the other parent or about themselves.
n) One of the areas of discussion will certainly be the client’s view on discipline issues, and it is helpful to know not only what the client thinks about disciplinary techniques and what they actually do, but also to have some understanding as to why the client has the views they do about discipline.
o) In general, a final question that will be asked of a client is whether or not the client him or herself has any other areas that they want to talk about. Every custody evaluation is a unique situation in that no two families are alike, and in many cases there are unique or idiosyncratic factors that need to be discussed. The custody evaluator cannot know about these unless the client brings them up, so having the client think about possible areas other than the general ones in their background would be helpful preparation. Clients should also be aware that should they forget something in their discussions with the evaluator it is always appropriate to call, write, E-mail, or fax the evaluator supplemental information. This situation is much like the "omitted question" that lawyers frequently have in court.

Child Background

a) In preparing the client, it would be important for the client to understand that if the child has any special or unique needs they should be prepared to discuss these areas in detail. In addition to this, when there are special or unique needs there is often supporting documentation from education or health professionals that the evaluator will need to have. This supporting documentation becomes crucial when the parents are in disagreement over these special or unique needs.
b) The role that each of the parents has played in parenting the child in the past as well as their current roles and involvement with the child or children is an important area for the client to be prepared to discuss.
c) The patterns of discipline that have been used within the family, and by each parent if they are different, is an important area for the client to also be able to discuss. In particular, if the parents have significantly different views on discipline it is important for the evaluator to understand both the differences and the reasons for the differences.
d) The parents view on the children's reaction to the divorce, and what they see as the child's future reactions is an important area of consideration.
e) Clients need to understand that they will be asked about things such as developmental milestones in the child or children, and these usually involve ability to remember and recall the ages at which children did different types of things. In many instances, all of the developmental milestones were "within normal limits" and thus there are no major issues. On the other hand, in some cases the parents have significantly different views on how well a child has progressed, and then it becomes important to be able to discuss these issues in detail.
f) Strengths of the child as viewed by the client are important.
g) Weaknesses of the child as viewed by the client are also important.
h) The client should understand that they will probably be asked to talk about the child's relationship with the other parent, including the child's desire to be in contact with that parent, the frequency of that desire, and how those wishes are dealt with when the child is with the client.
i) Preparation to discuss the interests of the child is also important. Included in this area is the involvement of that parent with the child's interest.
j) Again, an end question to each section or at least to the overall evaluation is a question of whether or not there is anything else that the client would like to discuss about the child. Again, if after the formal session is over the parent feels that they forgot to discuss something they should again feel comfortable in recontacting the evaluator to provide supplemental information.

Interaction with Child

a) In looking at the interactions with the child, one of the areas which the client should be able to discuss and the evaluator at some point in the evaluation should be able to observe is the communication patterns of the parent with the child. There are obviously a wide range of possible patterns, but in general the ease with which the child communicates with the parent and the parent with the child is the area of interest.
b) The extent to which the child and parent display affection, the manner in which it is displayed or not displayed, and the historical pattern of the affectional relationship is something which needs to be discussed as well as observed during the course of the evaluation.
c) How the parents prioritizes his or her own needs compared with the child's needs is an important consideration. This may be something which will be discussed jointly with the child during the evaluation if the child is old enough, or it may be something that is gathered from a combination of the parent interviewing and the child interviewing.
d) At some point, in discussing the interactions with the child, the parent's perceptions of the child's needs is likely to come up. One of the things an evaluator will be interested in is how accurate the parent's perceptions are compared to objective indicators of the child's needs.
e) One of the areas to be observed during the course of the evaluation is the comfort level and how relaxed the child and the parent are with each other. This is an area which may be variable at different points during the evaluation process, and if in fact the child's comfort level does vary outside of the evaluation session it would be important for the client to both acknowledge that and discuss what they view as the reasons behind this.
f) One area of concern in some evaluations is any evidence of coercion or intimidation of the child during the course of the evaluation or prior to the evaluation, and this is an area that may be part of the discussion in some evaluations.

Parenting Abilities

In this area, the material is likely to be gathered from the combination of the interviews with the parents as well as interviews with the children. Overall, however, the following areas are among the more common ones that are likely to be discussed:
a) Attendance at school conferences.
b) Areas of active involvement in the children's life.
c) Ability to communicate with the child at the child's developmental level.
d) Awareness of the current developmental level of the child and of emerging developmental levels or transition points in the child's life.
e) Limit setting and how well the parent does this.
f) Ability to provide an adequate physical environment.
g) Ability to provide an adequate psychological environment.
h) The degree of flexibility in parenting and rule setting.
i) The support the client can provide for the child's relationship with the other parent.
j) Work history and financial responsibility.
k) Interactions with the child around school issues such as homework, discussions of problems with teachers, etc.
l) Type of language used in the home with the child.
m) How the parent talks with the child about the other parent.
n) Use of alcohol or drugs.
o) The parent's own physical or mental health.
p) Educational plans for the child, including choosing schools for the child or children.
q) Mental health issues of the parent or the child that affects parenting.
r) Legal or criminal history of the child or parent.
s) Ease of talking with the child and of the child talking with the parent.
t) Ability of the parent to place the child needs above their own.

Home Study

As a general rule, home studies are only likely to arise in the context of situations where there are allegations that one or both parents are incapable of providing an adequate physical environment for the child. In these cases, the following areas are likely to be an issue:
a) The adequacy of the home environment in terms of things such as cleanliness, safety, privacy, and ability to provide enrichment, educational, or toy materials.
b) Type of neighborhood
c) Food, clothing, shelter, and utility issues.
d) As a general rule, most custody evaluators are working with families where the adequacy of the home environment is not an issue. An important emerging area here, however, is the issue of a smoking vs. a non-smoking environment and the impact on children in particular who have pulmonary problems such as asthma or histories of chronic bronchitis or other breathing problems.

Child Interview

As part of any custody evaluation, if a child is at least three or four years of age there is likely to be some type of interview. Obviously, the interview will be much more extensive with older children, and particularly with adolescents, than it would be with very young children. Assuming the child is old enough to be aware of what some of the issues are, the following points are ones which are likely to be covered in an interview with the child:
a) What the child knows of the reasons for being at the session.
b) Where the child lives and who are the people with whom he or she lives.
c) Some discussion of each of the parents homes and what the child likes and dislikes about each.
d) The relationship the child has with siblings, step-siblings, etc.
e) The relationship the child has with step-parents or significant others.
f) Interest areas and which parent or parents are involved in the child's interest.
g) The child's view of the parenting roles of each of the parents in things such as cooking, cleaning, working, getting the child to activities, etc.
h) The child's view of his or her peer relationships.
i) The child's view of his or her school performance.
j) The child's views of his or her own behaviors.
k) The child's view as to his or her relationship with each parent , including ease of talking, to whom child would go if they had a problem or were hurt, etc.
l) Whom the child sees as taking him or her to the doctor, dentist, optometrist, etc.
m) The child's view as to which parent gets the child to activities, and the child's view as to each parent's involvement in coming to and supporting the activities,
n) Child’s goals for him or herself.
o) The fun things the child does with each parent as well as things they dislike doing with each parent.
p) A question to the child as to whether or not the child has been told to remember to tell the evaluator anything. If the child has been told to do that, what is he or she supposed to tell the evaluator.
q) The child’s view of rules in each house and the types of discipline.
r) The ability of the child to talk about or to contact a parent when with the other parent.

Psychological Testing

Although some evaluators utilize extensive psychological testing, my own view is that this is an expense which is not warranted in routine cases. Typically, psychological testing would be utilized in the context of a custody evaluation as an additional source of information with regard to issues such as the mental health of the parties. It is also useful as a concurrent source of information about personality functioning of each of the parents, and it will supplement the interviewing data that is obtained in the course of the evaluation. To routinely utilize intelligence testing and a full battery of personality tests on parents and children as a part of a custody evaluation procedure is significant overkill and raises the expenses of the evaluation inordinately. In general, the research on psychometrics indicates that an MMPI or MMPI-2 alone will provide as much and more valid data than any combination of tests. Utilization of intelligence testing other than quick screening measures of the paper and pencil variety is definitely unwarranted unless there is a suspicion of significant cognitive impairment in one or both of the parents. Similarly, significant cognitive testing and school achievement testing with the child or children is unwarranted unless there is a specific question about a child's functioning in this area. Ordinarily, there will be sufficient school testing data when that is a question, but if the parents are in conflict over this issue then full battery testing of the child may be needed.

It is important for the parents to understand that the role of testing in these evaluations is no more or less important than any of the other sources of information. In general, it's role is to provide either a divergent or convergent indication of validity of the information being obtained, and in no instance is it warranted to base a custody recommendation upon psychological testing alone. In particulars the indications of psychopathology that sometimes arise in the course of personality testing, often have a unique meaning in custody evaluations and may in fact not indicate the same pathology seen in clinical populations. Thus, the client should be made aware of the fact that the testing itself is no more nor less important than any other aspect of the evaluation process.

Special Situations

Some custody evaluations involve unusual circumstances such as situations where child abuse, child sexual abuse, or domestic violence is an important issue. Clients should, along with the attorneys in these cases, check the qualifications of the evaluator to deal with these very specific issues. There is a large body of research literature dealing with all of these issues, but it is a body of research literature not familiar to the average clinician. Unless a clinician has significant knowledge and experience in these particular areas, that particular evaluator should avoid attempting to do custody evaluations involving these issues until they have obtained enough advanced training to both understand and deal with the complications these particular issues raise in the context of a custody dispute.
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