Custody Evaluation and What to Expect
If you are about to enter into a private, court-ordered child custody evaluation, this has most likely come about after much litigation in Family Court and after spending a great deal of money. You have reached this juncture because you and your spouse or ex-spouse (here referred to as “spouse”), cannot agree about how to share custody of your child (“child” refers to one or more), and previous attempts to mediate have failed.
In the beginning of the dissolution (divorce) process you have met with a mandated court mediator to discuss how to share custody of your child, and there has been a subsequent recommendation by that mediator to the Court that there is no agreement. After that initial attempt you may have met with any or all of the following: a private mediator (confidential or non-confidential), a co-parenting counselor, a special master, individual therapists, and any other experts who advise parents about how to share custody of their child.
You have reached an impasse in your legal journey. It is now critical to understand the following: A custody evaluation is your last chance to demonstrate to the Court through an intensive and often expensive evaluation that you are a competent parent who should have at least an equal voice with your spouse in your child’s future, which generally involves both legal (education, medical decisions, caretakers) and physical custody (timeshare, mechanics of exchanges between households, vacations).
If you assume you are
- the better, more qualified hands-on parent,
- your parenting style is superior to your spouse’s,
- you demonstrate your love because you have attended all the parent teachers’ meetings, school activities, doctors’ appointments, dentist appointments, play dates, sports games, etc.,
- you understand your child’s needs better than anyone,
- then you are not prepared for a child custody evaluation.
If you are at all shocked by this statement and have made some or most of the above assumptions, this memo is for you.
You are about to begin what for most parents is the performance of their life. You will be putting yourself on display in your role as a parent in front of an evaluator – in fact a stranger - who will quietly observe very closely who they think you are based on what they see. In this process, first impressions often set the stage, so if at your first meeting you are nervous and not well prepared, or even relaxed and feel at ease, please beware. You will not know until some months later what the evaluator really thought of you behind that kind, welcoming smile. If you come across as anxious to please, talk too much or too little, jiggle your foot, look away, lounge as if you are with a friend making yourself at home, laugh or cry a little too much, complain about your spouse… it will be observed and very likely be the first brush strokes of a developing picture of you – accurate or not. Think about how you felt when you looked at those photos of yourself from the last vacation showing a little too much fat that you didn’t realize you’d put on, or that receding hairline, or a few too many wrinkles. We all have those moments after the photo has been taken.
You may think things went really well during your first visit when you were relaxed and congenial, that you and the evaluator connected, maybe even laughed a little, that you were yourself. You will not know how you actually came across until possibly months later and too late to retake the photo.
Garrison Keillor once said about his mother: “Being Lutheran, Mother believed that self-pity is a deadly sin and so is nostalgia, and she had no time for either.” Those strangers, custody evaluators, also do not have time for your self-pity about how hard things have been, nor about how much you say you love your child.
Custody evaluators are licensed psychologists, psychotherapists or MD psychiatrists. Because there is minimal training for doing this life-altering and difficult work, there is still not enough standardized methodology for how to do these evaluations.
They are the few, self-selected professionals who have gained enough experience to be qualified for this work. A custody evaluator has the power of the Court behind him or her, and there is little to no recourse if in the end you think you have been unfairly portrayed. Most importantly, they may be friendly, but should not be mistaken as a friend.
What the evaluator is really listening for is what you have learned about yourself as a parent through the legal process so far, and what reasonable plan you envision for going forward that focuses on how to co-parent with your spouse for the sake of your child.
In the process of a custody evaluation the evaluator, like most psychotherapists, will be empathic, eager to hear everything you have to say. You will feel understood. And there’s the rub. You will be seen and understood all too well. The findings will be construed according to what the evaluator chooses to focus on, and that tends to be unpredictable. For example, if you lay out the failings of your spouse in a logical, linear fashion you may feel that you made a good case for yourself. However, you may actually have been heard as blaming the other parent. If you take the opposite tack and idealize your spouse in the hopes of appearing fair and impartial, you may risk being viewed as unrealistic and unable to stand up for yourself. In short, you may have entered a ‘mindfield’ without understanding the dangers.
Preparing for a custody evaluation is preparing yourself for a role in which your job is to present yourself as the authentic parent you are with all your strengths and weaknesses, while at the same time, protecting yourself from appearing too honest, too good, too weak, or too confident.
It is a difficult role to say the least. Many great actors have studied method acting, which is based on Constantin Stanislavski’s philosophy that “great acting is a reflection of ‘truth’ conveyed both internally and externally through the actor.” The key word is “reflection.” Good method actors come across as if they are truly the person in the role by using their own emotional memories. They have learned how to present nuanced gestures to transmit authenticity. They know precisely what they are doing while at the same time being spontaneous. This is very difficult to do and it requires talent and practice and the ability to self-reflect. If you look up how Daniel Day Lewis prepares for one of his roles you will appreciate the point.
When you enter the role of parent under scrutiny, you must understand how you come across to others. This means receiving feedback from a competent, neutral professional who can help you know yourself better than you have done before.
You will need to know the following:
What qualities as a parent you want to showcase and which you need to downplay. This means knowing what styles of parenting you naturally embody. For example, how do you set structure for your child? How do you set limits? How do you involve yourself as a parent (overly involved, or under-involved)?
Don’t wait to have to be told to take parenting classes! Read books on parenting even if you think you don’t need to. Start making improvements in your parenting skills and style now because there is always room for improvement.
By being fully prepared for an evaluation you will be ready to present yourself at your best. That is your role. In order to do this you should work with someone who is familiar with the process and who can help you understand what to expect.
Custody evaluators typically look for the following in a parent:
Do you provide structure for your child’s day?
Are there consequences for disrupting this structure?
Does your child understand expectations for their behavior?
Are your expectations reasonable?
Do you have an open line of communication with your child?
Do you participate in all aspects of your child’s life?
Do you enjoy being with your child?
Most of all, are you able to co-parent?
Can you make compromises with your co-parent?
Can you stay calm when you disagree?
Can you stay child-centered, keeping the issues focused on your child?
Can you keep old wounds out of the discussions in order to move forward?
Are you using your own therapy to assist you in letting go of the past?
The more you prepare in the right way, your chances improve for a more favorable outcome. This means being seen as reasonable, flexible, self-reflecting and able to compromise. Preparing the right way does not mean learning your lines by being coached about what you should say. It means spending time being able to observe yourself as a parent, getting experienced feedback, learning what you want the evaluator to observe and know about you. That way, you will have put your best self forward as a parent.
Evaluators can see through parents who have been scripted to say the right thing. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but you must be genuine, you must be honest, you must be spontaneous and most of all you must know how to protect yourself. This requires a very high level of self-examination in advance. All the work you are willing to do in preparation will be the evidence the evaluator needs to see you as the caring parent you are.
Otherwise, if you do not see the point of the above and do not wish to spend any more money than you have to, you might as well go on stage and wing it.
In the end, an evaluation report will be a compromise for both parents. It is not a win-lose proposition. If done well, the report will give each parent a neutral portrait and the resulting recommendations will seem right, and most of all – fair. An equal playing field is the goal. Most of all, it is what children need from their parents.