Why Judges Use Child Custody Evaluators

By Katherine A. Elias

Child Custody Evaluator

Question:

I know what’s best for my kids and what is truly going on in their lives so why does the court bring in external parties to decide on custody and the fate of my children after a handful of meetings?

I’m the one who has raised them and been a major part of their life since birth but suddenly someone my kids and I have never met and is completely unfamiliar with our family is going to make recommendations to the court on who the kids should live with?

Answer:

When divorce requires a restructuring of parental rights and responsibilities, judges often turn to child custody evaluators for their opinions and recommendations. The primary purpose of a custody evaluation is to assess the best interests of the child. An evaluator’s unique training and expertise in family dynamics, psychology, and child development can often aid judges in making their decisions.

A general premise has been that a judge should not always have a level of direct involvement in the family matter.

Some concerns regarding judges interviewing children include:

  • Out of loyalty to one parent, the other, or both , the children may not be as forthright and honest about what the judge is trying to discern.
  • Children speaking with the judge can cause further emotional trauma in a situation where they’ve already seen plenty of it.
  • Judges believe that they lack appropriate training in proper interviewing of children under such circumstances.
  • A judge is not a mental health expert and cannot be expected to carefully identify signs of abuse, parental alienation, etc.
  • Private meetings between the judge and the children, outside of the record, violates due process principles, especially when the discussion could impact judgment.

Judges would much rather see that a mental health expert, with specific expertise in dealing with children, handle interviews of children regarding family court matters and prepare a report on their findings for them.  Usually, these are done via the broad custody evaluation. While a guardian ad litem may be assigned to a child, there are limits to how much may be shared regarding a child’s express wishes regarding child custody matters.  Sometimes parents or others may be granted permission to testify regarding a child’s “state of mind.”

A custody evaluator’s role should specifically address the following:

  • Social, marital and parenting histories of each parent.
  • Age and developmental stage of each child.
  • Health of each child and the parties with reference to any special needs or problems.
  • Interests and activities of each child and the role of each party in encouraging and developing such interests.
  • Demonstrated capacity of each party to foster the growth and development of each child and to understand the individual needs of the child.
  • Each party’s demonstrated ability to provide continuity and stability of environment.
  • Relationship and attachments of each child to his or her parents, siblings and any other persons who may have a significant effect upon the child.
  • Demonstrated capacity of each of the parties to support an ongoing relationship between the children and the other parent.

Overall, the “custody evaluator’s job is to gather and report factual information, use clinical knowledge to interpret that data, and formulate clinical opinions to assist the court in making custody, visitation, or other decisions related to the welfare of a child.” Thus, the evaluator’s unique training and expertise is intended to aid judges in improving outcomes for children and to provide better protection of their rights and best interests.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

American Psychological Association. (1994). Guidelines for child custody evaluations in divorce proceedings. Washington, DC: Author.

Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (1986). Guidelines for court connected child cus-tody evaluations. Madison, WI: Author.

Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. (1991). Specialty guidelines for forensic psychologists. Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 6, 655-665.

Crump, The Guardian ad litem-His Origin,4 WEST RES. L.J. 178,181 (1898), in Weber, Robert H. & Jacoby, Valerie A. The roles of the guardian ad litem. Massachusetts Family Law Journal, 10,1,11-20.

Emery, Robert E., Otto, Randy K and O’Donohue, William T. (2005). A critical assessment of child custody evaluations. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 6 (1), 1-29.

Georgia Psychological Association. (1990). Recommendations for psychologists’ involvement in child custody cases. Atlanta, GA: Author

 

Katherine A. Elias has been a licensed psychotherapist in private practice since 1998. She is recognized as a Child Custody Evaluator with specialties in Parental Alienation (PAS), Relocation, Adoption, Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Domestic Violence, Termination of Parental Rights, establishment of Parenting Plans, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Military Family Issues. She is a member of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychology Law Society and The American Counseling Association. www.custody-evaluation.com

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