Whenever there is a deep-seated dispute concerning which parent, if either, should have primary physical custody of a child, a question commonly asked is whether the Court should have the benefit of a formal custody evaluation. These studies, most often undertaken by psychologists, attempt to evaluate the relative parenting skills of the parents and seek to measure those skills against the perceived needs of the subject child. The rules of civil procedure authorize courts to order such studies either by agreement or the request of one party. Technically, because these studies involve expert opinions, each party is entitled to his or her own expert. But Courts actively discourage this not only because the evaluations are expensive (typically $5000-7500) but because experts separately hired by each parent tend to be viewed as “hired guns” for their employers. The vast majority of such studies are jointly undertaken by neutral evaluators who is tasked to identify what custody arrangement would be in the best interests of the child involved.
The typical evaluation follows a fairly routine protocol. Most evaluating psychologists send each parent a packet of information intended to secure a history of the individuals, their families of origin (i.e., their parents), the relationship that gave birth to the child and what has transpired since that relationship dissolved. They will commonly ask for collateral contacts who can verify the accuracy of the information submitted. If either parent is already involved with a mental health professional, the evaluator will typically ask permission to discuss the matter with the treating professional (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or social worker). Having secured this information the next step is ordinarily a face to face interview with each parent conduct without the other parent present. At some point in the process many psychologists want to see the dynamics of both parents together in the same room. Some like to observe this early in the evaluation; others make it a last step before completing their reports.
Except in instances where the child is too young to effectively communicate, most evaluators want to separately interview each child involved. They may also want to see the child interact with each of his or her parents either in the evaluators office or in the home where that the parent and child occupy. The children are often tested using tests directly intended to help the evaluator determine which parent the child is more closely bonded with.
Parents are also commonly tested using devises like the much joked about Rorschach ink blot test and the MMPI (566 yes/no questions that seem pretty bizarre when you read them). These tests are intended to assess whether either parent has a diagnosable mental condition.
So what comes out of all this. In the vast majority of cases, not much beyond a lengthy written report. First, most people don’t have a diagnosable mental disorder and in many situations we read that much of the supposed aberrant behavior is attributed to a kind of “divorce syndrome.” The stress of separation and custody litigation does often cloud judgment and create reactive parenting. Second, even people who have mild disorders can still be very effective parents. Beyond the testing, many judicial officers don’t find the reports very helpful, especially as children grow to be old enough to articulate their own views. But despite these limitations clients and many attorneys continue to believe that these reports can “win” the case and Courts are inclined to permit evaluations to go forward often because there is hope that a custody evaluation will provide a springboard to case settlement.