In particularly contentious child-custody cases, a child custody evaluation may be a great investment in your case to help achieve the custody arrangement you seek. This is because, at the end of the process, the evaluator makes recommendations to the court about what custody arrangement is in the children’s best interests. There are different levels of evaluators that you should consider when requesting a custody evaluation. This blog covers the three most common types of evaluations.
Perhaps the most common custody evaluation is completed by a Guardian Ad Litem1 as allowed for in the Divorce and Paternity Acts. In many cases, these GALs will be experienced family law attorneys. Such GALs can be very helpful, as they have experienced the toxic environment between the parents and can make a recommendation who should have custody if it is initially being determined or modified all by analyzing the facts through the statutory factors to consider the child’s best interests. Attorneys are familiar with evidence so they may ask for more documents and records to help them determine what is the children’s best interests, as well as interview neutrals who see both parents, such as doctors and teachers. Attorneys are skilled in analyzing and weighing evidence. However, where there are underlying mental health or addictions concerns with a parent, an attorney may have limited experience in identifying such and accounting for in the child's best interests. Is a GAL attorney right for your case? Normally attorneys are more expensive than other forms of GALs.
Depending on your geographic location in the state and what professionals are available to act as Guardian Ad Litems, you may wind up (or want) a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) instead of an attorney to investigate and make a recommendation to the court as to what is in the child’s best interests. Most seasoned LCSW’s have significant experience in working with parents who have mental illness and/or substance abuse issues and may have a better grip than an attorney on mental illness and/or addiction and how this is impacting the family unit. In fact, mental health and addiction issues may go unnoticed by attorneys who do not normally have as much experience in these areas. Furthermore, an LCSW may be able to offer some testing that is available to them in their profession that helps identify mental health and/or substance issues. On the whole, LCSWs are more cost-effective than private attorneys, but that is not always the case. So is an LCSW a proper custody evaluator in your case? If mental illness and/or addiction is at play, you need to carefully work with your counsel to pick the evaluator that has the best background and skill set to identify what is going on with the family and, ultimately, what living arrangement is in the child’s best interests. Unfortunately, there is no set way GALs handle cases, so you risk him or her missing an issue or not spending enough time on the case because there are no requirements for GALs who conduct custody evaluations.
Where there are not significant budget constraints, most experienced family law attorneys handling highly contested custody proceedings (initially at the beginning of the divorce or paternity case or on modification), prefer obtaining a forensic child psychologist2 to conduct a custody evaluation. Clinical psychologists have very specific training in conducting custody evaluations and have a strict set of guidelines to follow when conducting investigations that are set for by the American Psychological Association. Basically, a forensic psychologist will carry out a custody evaluation in three parts. The first is to interview each parent and each parent with the child. Sometimes, the evaluator will want a joint meeting with the parents. Kids, except those who have been alienated or not seen a parent for a long period of time, may show verbal and nonverbal cues to a child psychologist which may yield insights into which parent the child is primarily bonded with and speak to the best interests. The second part of the evaluation is to perform psychological testing. Normally, the testing includes the MMPI, which tests for personality states and traits. A state is how a given parent is at the moment (happy or sad). A personality trait, on the other hand, is who a person is at a fundamental level and these rarely change. Attorneys and LCSWs cannot perform these important tests. In addition, there is a battery of other tests available to forensic psychologists, which range from testing for anger to propensity for addiction. The third part of the forensic custody evaluation is gathering collateral evidence and contacting collateral sources. The third-party documents may range from police reports to medical records. And strong collateral contacts are those individuals who are neutral and give the evaluator information that will tend to debunk some of the allegations against the other. While all of these types of custody evaluators make a report to the court about what custody arrangement is in the children’s best interests, a forensic clinical psychologist is by far the most valuable tool in high-conflict custody cases because the scope and detail of their work is broader and in more depth. Correspondingly, a custody evaluation can cost in excess of $10,000, versus a few thousand for a GAL. Does your case merit a custody evaluation by a forensic psychologist?
With all three of these sources, the children’s voices are heard through the professional and his or her report to the court and testimony without the need to involve the child in court.3 And while a litigant cannot testify as to what his or her child said (it is hearsay), a custody evaluator can rely upon hearsay and use it in his or her report, potentially saving the parties thousands of dollars trying to prove the case and what is going on with the children in other ways. Clearly, there is a time and place for the use of these evaluators, but it depends on the very fact-sensitive nature of your case.
Seasoned family law counsel will know to assist you in deciding on a custody evaluator. So do you need a custody evaluator, and if so which type of evaluator? This blog post is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle custody matters of all types—ranging from routine DCS cases, complex property and custody case, to the more esoteric matters, such as international parental abduction. We hope this blog provides valuable insight for you to consider in deciding whether to employ a custody evaluator. This blog is written for general educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. It is not a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.
- Indiana Code 31-15-6-1 (court’s authority to appoint a GAL).
- Indiana Code 31-17-2-12 and Indiana Rule of Trial Procedure 35 (general authority for Ph.D. custody evaluator).
- In extreme cases, Indiana trial courts have the authority to order a party to seek a psychiatric examination by a medical doctor. Indiana Rule of Trial Procedure 3b