Typewriter with a paper in it that says Psychology on it.

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When parents are going through a divorce, one of the most contentious issues is often who will get custody of the children. If the parents cannot come to an agreement on their own, or if the child’s Guardian ad Litem (GAL) has concerns about the parents, the court may order certain types of evaluations to assist the judge in making the final decision. Two types of possible evaluations are child custody evaluations and mental health evaluations. These processes can be long and expensive, so it is important to understand exactly what these evaluations entail and how they can be used to help (or hurt) your case for custody in family court.

Defining the Terms

A child custody evaluation is a process where a mental health professional, most often an experience forensic psychologist who frequently serves as a family court expert in your jurisdiction, interviews the parents and children involved in the custody case, administers certain written tests to the parents, observes the interactions between the parents and children, and reviews relevant documentation (such as school records, medical records, and police reports) to make recommendations to the court about which parent should have or is better suited to have primary custody of the child. A child custody evaluation, at the discretion of the evaluator, may also include collateral interviews of other witnesses or close contacts of the parents and children involved in the litigation.

A mental health evaluation is similar to a child custody evaluation in that it is conducted by an experienced mental health professional, who is often someone accepted as an expert by the family court in your jurisdiction. This expert interviews and performs clinical testing on the parents involved in the child custody case. They may find it necessary to conduct collateral interviews with the children of the matter or with other witnesses and close contacts to gather more information. However, a mental health evaluation goes one step further by also specifically analyzing the mental health of the parent or parents requesting custody. This type of evaluation is often ordered when there are concerns about the parent’s mental health, certain personality or substance abuse disorders that have never been diagnosed, or either parent’s mental or emotional ability to properly care for their child.

What Happens During a Child Custody Evaluation?

As described above, a child custody evaluation is conducted by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. The evaluator will interview the parents and children involved in the case, as well as any other people who have meaningful insights into the family dynamics, such as grandparents, teachers, therapists, Guardians ad Litem, and babysitters. The evaluator will also observe how the parents interact with their children and each other in a clinical setting. Based on all of the information gathered during the evaluation process, the evaluator will ultimately make a report to the court about the results of the evaluation.

While most evaluators will stop short of making a declaration of which parent should ultimately have custody of the child, their report will offer insight into each parent’s behavior, mental health, emotional health, and overall approach to parenting as observed by the evaluator. Their report will also be well-cited with the most recent research in child development which will help explain why there are or are not concerns about a parent being a custodian of the child or children involved. It is important to note that child custody evaluations are not intended to be used to decide which parent is “better.” Rather, they are meant to provide information to the court about what parenting arrangements might be in the best interests of the children at the heart of the litigation.

What Happens During a Mental Health Evaluation?

A mental health evaluation is conducted by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. The retained evaluator will interview and perform clinical testing on the parent or parents to be evaluated. The clinical testing will most often be computer-based multiple choice type testing. A computer will produce raw data from the answers given which the psychologist will then interpret based on the scoring model and research at their disposal.

The evaluator may also observe how the parents interact with their children and each other in a clinical setting if determined necessary for the best results. They may choose to interview other collateral witnesses also if they deem that step necessary. Based on all of this information, the evaluator will produce a formal written report to the court about the parent’s mental health, as well as describe any diagnoses the evaluator believes are present and what treatments may be best suited for those diagnoses.

Who Gets to Read the Reports from These Evaluations?

The reports from both types of evaluations are typically only seen by the attorneys, guardians ad litem, expert witnesses, and the judges involved in the case. Obviously, each party is able to review the results of their own mental health evaluation, but typically these reports are held in the strictest of confidence and only shared with those individuals who must review them to formulate opinions or testimony for mediation or trial. The reports are generally not made a part of the public record and even if they are admitted as evidence during a family court trial, they are typically done so “under seal” and not made publicly available in the clerk’s file, in most circumstances.

How Do These Reports Affect the GAL Investigation?

A GAL is allowed to consider any information that is relevant to the case when conducting his or her investigation. This includes, but is not limited to, the results of mental health evaluations and child custody evaluations. The GAL will review all of this information and form an opinion about what parenting issues must be addressed to protect the best interests of the children involved. If the reports have identified any specific diagnoses the Court has yet to consider, the GAL may recommend that the parent(s) with the diagnosis be required to seek treatment before the Court considers the parent for a primary custodian role in the children’s lives.

Depending on the rules of your state, the GAL may be very limited in what she or he can say, but even with those limitations, the GAL may recommend the Court pay close attention to certain parts of the evaluation report before rendering a final decision in the case.

What About the Costs for Each Evaluation?

These evaluations are certainly not inexpensive and, at least in South Carolina, it’s becoming more difficult to find experts who have availability to start and complete them within the tight time constraints required by most family court cases. Child custody evaluations are typically required when there are concerns about both parents and because they typically include some form of mental health evaluation as part of the total evaluation, they are often much more expensive upfront usually requiring as much as $5,000-$7,500 as an initial retainer from each parent. Mental health evaluations are typically ordered when there is a specific mental health concern about one or both parents. Because these evaluations do not typically require the involvement of the children or many collateral interviews, they require a lower fee upfront, typically around $1,500 to $3,000 as an initial retainer for each parent’s evaluation.

Both types of evaluations, however, will require expert testimony fees if the expert conducting them is asked to testify at any hearing or final trial. Expert testimony fees can be several hundred dollars an hour and if you have an expert who is not local to your area, most experts will also require travel and per diem fees, so it’s important to take all of these costs into consideration before requesting these types of evaluations in any child custody case.

Final Thoughts

It is important to remember that these evaluations are only one part of the information that the court will consider when making a decision about child custody. Other factors, such as the child’s own preferences, each parent’s financial stability, and the child’s relationship with extended family members can also play a role in the court’s decision. In some cases, the results of these evaluations can be determinative; in others, they may simply provide one more piece of information for the court to consider along with everything else.