In any family law matter, child-related issues can quickly become contentious. Ideally, parents will work together to create a parenting plan that works best for their family. However, in many cases, parents are not able to resolve differences about parenting matters or there are certain issues or concerns – such as domestic violence, mental health concerns, problematic behaviors by one or both parents, one parent wanting to move out of state with the children, etc. – that require the assistance of an expert.
In these situations, the judge may appoint a professional, usually a trained psychologist or psychiatrist, to perform an evaluation to help the judge decide the best parenting arrangements for the family. The judge may order the evaluation on their own or may do so if one parent, the guardian ad litem (GAL), or child’s representative requests it.
Going through an evaluation is stressful for most people, but there is no need to panic. Having some basic information about the types of evaluations and the process is useful.
Types of Evaluations:
There are three types of evaluations that the judge may order:
- 10(b) evaluation. This is the most common type of evaluation. The judge appoints a trained mental health professional to conduct the evaluation. Unless the parties agree upon an evaluator, the evaluator is chosen by the judge. In some circumstances, the judge may order one party to pay most or all of the evaluator’s fees, but more often than not, the judge will order both parties to pay for the evaluation and will split the cost between the parties based upon their incomes. During the evaluation, the professional will interview and observe the family, talk to friends, relatives, and other people with useful information about the family, and conduct psychological testing on family members. After the evaluation is completed, which may take several months, the professional will prepare a written report summarizing their observations, conclusions, and opinions on the disputed child-related issues. The report is given to the judge and the parties’ attorneys. The report helps give a judge insight and information so that they can make decisions about parenting responsibilities, including how significant decisions for the children will be made and an appropriate parenting time schedule. The judge is not required to rule how the evaluator recommends, but the opinions and recommendations of the evaluator are heavily considered by the judge.
- 10(c) evaluation. If one party disagrees with the opinions and recommendations of the court-appointed 604.10(b) evaluator, they may request a separate evaluation. A 604.10(c) evaluation is the exact same process as a 604.10(b) evaluation. The party who requests the 604.10(c) evaluation chooses the evaluator and pays all costs associated with the evaluation unless the judge orders otherwise. The final report is sent to the judge and the attorneys, and the judge considers both evaluators’ reports, opinions and recommendations when making decisions regarding custody and parenting time.
- Rule 215 evaluation. This is a more limited evaluation and is used to assess the mental or physical fitness of one parent. Usually, the evaluator meets only with the parent whose mental and/or physical condition are in question. A Rule 215 evaluation may be ordered at the request of either parent or the judge may order it. The parent requesting the Rule 215 evaluation pays the fees for the evaluation. Just like a 604.10(b) and 604.10(c) evaluation, the Rule 215 evaluator will prepare a written report summarizing their opinions and conclusions.
Tips for Getting Through the Evaluation Process
- Cooperate with the evaluator. The evaluator’s requests for interviews and/or in-person observations should be given top priority for scheduling purposes. Always remain respectful and polite when meeting with the evaluator.
- Be transparent in your communications. The evaluator may ask you some personal questions that make you uncomfortable or embarrassed, but do not withhold information. Full transparency is crucial. Everyone has done or said something that they regret, so if the evaluator asks about something like this, be candid and honest. It’s ok to admit that you have made bad decisions or mistakes in the past, acknowledge the past and tell the evaluator how you have grown and changed. Do not try to “beat” the psychological tests and give the “best” answers. The tests are developed and designed to tell when someone is not telling the truth – so just be honest.
- Provide access to any requested information. Oftentimes the evaluator may ask to see medical and/or school records, calendars, notes, photographs, or other documents. The evaluator may ask you for contact information for people that you want the evaluator to talk to or who are involved in your children’s lives, such as teachers, therapists, coaches, or physicians. Pay careful attention to and cooperate with any requests from the evaluator for information or documents.
- Do not talk negatively about the other parent. Understandably, you may feel like you are under a microscope and that the evaluator is trying to figure out who is the “better” parent. Your instinct may be to tell the evaluator why you are a better parent and to point out all of the flaws and failings of the other parent – do not do this. The evaluator is not appointed to determine who is the “better” parent, they are looking for information to help determine the best custody arrangement that will benefit your children. Taking shots at the other parent will hurt you, not the other parent. If asked a specific question about your co-parent, you can answer honestly — but make your statements about facts that you can prove.
The more you know about child custody evaluations, the better prepared and less stressed you can be throughout the process. Having the benefit of an experienced family law attorney during this process is invaluable. Your attorney should work closely with you to answer all of your questions and guide you through this process.