A child custody evaluation, also known as a parental responsibility evaluation, is a process by which recommendations are made to a family court with respect to the best interests of a child. They may include responses to parents’ requests for parenting time or access to their children as well as evaluations of who should have decision-making authority regarding the child’s education, health care, and religion. Such evaluations are performed by qualified mental health professionals who have been appointed or recognized by a family court or by privately qualified mental health professionals. Typically, the need for such an evaluation arises where there has been a high-conflict divorce; where there are accusations regarding one or both parents’ parenting practices; where there are concerns about a parent’s mental health problem, child abuse, or substance use or abuse; where the primary care parent is relocating, or in any other circumstances that may have a negative impact on the child’s best interest. While divorce rates in the United States remain high, about 90% of child custody disputes are settled out of court. The remaining 10% often involve protracted litigation.
From colonial times until about the middle of the 1800s, child custody decisions were based upon British common law. These laws were gender biased and gave custody to fathers based upon paternal entitlement. This practice continued until around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when women’s groups began protesting these laws. By the 1880s, most states had adopted the tender-years doctrine for custody decisions. The tender-years doctrine basically stated that when all other factors are equal, children under the age of 13 should reside with their mothers. If fathers wanted to retain custody, they had to prove that the mother was unfit or had committed adultery. The fitness of parents was heavily influenced by the perceived morality of the time. This often resulted in discrimination against homosexual or cohabiting parents.
Starting in the mid-1960s, the best-interest doctrine was adopted as a gender-neutral, child-centered model for custody decisions. The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, passed in 1974, attempted to standardize best-interest criteria. The criteria included consideration of the wishes of the parents and child, the physical and mental health of all parties, parent-child interactions, the child’s adjustment in multiple areas of life, and any special matters relevant to parental fitness. The first joint custody statute was passed in North Carolina in 1957, but due to lack of a favorable reception, records show shared parenting rulings were not widely recognized until the 1980s. Recent studies by the American Bar Association have shown that the number of sole custody decisions has decreased dramatically since that time, and joint custody is a far more common outcome. In most cases, permanent physical custody is awarded to the parent with whom the child will live the majority of the time. The custodial parent will have joint custody with the noncustodial parent, and they will share important decisions related to matters such as health care and education. In most cases the courts will also order scheduled visitation or temporary custody to the noncustodial parent.
The best-interest doctrine has increased attention to children’s emotional and developmental needs when making custody decisions and has necessitated the involvement of mental health professionals in custody disputes. In fact, the best-interest standard has replaced parental preference, thus allowing child custody to be granted to grandparents as highlighted by the landmark case of Painter v. Bannister.
By law, custody evaluations are supposed to answer the question of what outcome is in the best interest of the child. That is the standard for all jurisdictions in the United States, and it serves as the basis for the judge’s custody and visitation decisions. Therefore, it is important that custody evaluators be impartial and avoid advocating for either parent. The assessment goals are to identify the developmental needs of the child, to highlight strengths and needs of all parties, to observe and collect information pertaining to interactions of all relevant parties with children, and to develop a plan reflecting the best interest of the child.
Methodologies vary from one evaluator to the next; however, all evaluators must collect enough data to make their recommendations referencing the family court statutes criteria on best interests of the child. A thorough evaluation involves home studies, clinical interviews, clinical assessments, and self-reporting from involved parties as well as interviews or case notes from collateral contacts to substantiate the evaluator’s recommendations. Collateral contacts may be anyone from family members to experts. Examples of individuals listed as collateral contacts are teachers, school administrators, counselors, psychiatrists, medical doctors, social service personnel, parole officers, and court-ordered supervisors for parenting time.
The assessment tools used in custody evaluations can vary; however, the two most popular testing assessment tools used today in custody evaluations are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III. The evaluator will use profiles that emerge from the assessments along with the parties’ self-reports and the background offered by collaterals to evaluate and respond to the statutes’ criteria and subsequently formulate recommendations.
In addition to the criteria identified in the best-interest standards, the court may also ask the evaluator to investigate specific issues (e.g., drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, special needs of a parent or child.) The evaluator will then be ordered by the court to report on the specifics of the recommendations. The order from the court has three areas of investigation: allocation or modification of parenting time, allocation or modification of decision-making responsibilities, and relocation of the primary residential parent. The court may order the evaluator to investigate all pertinent issues identified and make recommendations on any or all of the above areas. The recommendations from the evaluator are submitted to the court as well as to the involved parties either pro se or through counsel via mail within 90 to 120 days of the initial court order. Once the recommendations are submitted, the evaluator is considered to have completed the case, unless he or she is summoned into court by subpoena as an expert witness.
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