What back in the day was called a “social study” is now termed a “child custody evaluation”—either way, if you have one, full disclosure: you, your ex, and your children are probably in for a roller coaster. By no means am I saying do not have an evaluation—sometimes they are absolutely necessary, the clear right thing to do—just be prepared and fasten your seatbelt. It will at times be bumpy and probably not over soon enough.
Perhaps the most important step you can take for yourself and your family is to breathe and remember that while this is important, you will get through it. First, let’s set straight what a child custody evaluation actually entails, and how you can best respond for a favorable outcome.
An evaluation comes about either because a judge orders one or sometimes because one of the parties requests it. These days, an evaluation is pretty common. No matter what, BOTH parents are involved. Both must supply character references, undergo background and CPS checks, release school records, therapy records, and participate in interviews.
A child over three years old will also be interviewed—in a developmentally appropriate way and outside the presence of either parent. The evaluator will observe the interactions between the child and each parent and document the dynamics, including how the parents treat and talk about each other in front of the child.
The biggest myth about child custody is that the custody evaluation occurs because one of the parents is a drug addict or wildly unfit to parent. Usually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most often a custody evaluation involves two good parents who both just happen to want primary custody of the child or children.
Think about it. If one parent has a substance abuse or mental health issue, there’s not much of an argument. But if each parent loves and cares for the kid and treats them generally well, it becomes much harder to nail down who will actually function best as the primary parent. While the child’s opinion about where and who he or she wants to live with is important, what they say is only one piece of the puzzle.
With this info as the backdrop, what’s the best way to approach a custody evaluation? Often, I believe if your facts are “better,” there’s no reason to push for one. If you are the parent with the upper hand, you have more to lose. If an evaluation—which is exhaustive, expensive, and emotionally taxing—moves forward, either the evaluator’s recommendation is that things stay the same (you “win”) OR you lose. Why chance it?
Additionally, an evaluation can take up to a year to complete, cost a lot of money, and add significant stress to your life and the lives of your children. You have to have the stomach for it. Of course, either way, even if no one asks, the judge can always order it.
However it goes down, if you find yourself in an evaluation situation, don’t panic. Slow and steady, honesty and compliance are your assets. Also keep in mind that while you will talk to an evaluator, and it may be a six-month to a year-long process, the evaluator is not your lawyer or confidant.
Make sure you don’t go crazy with denigrating your ex, no matter how accurate you might be. Answer when asked, but your focus in a custody situation should always be what is best for your child. Not only does it work best for the evaluation, but it will also keep you sane in the process. Your mantra should be “this too shall pass.”