Agreeing on child custody and the visitation schedule for the children can be difficult for two parents who are no longer together, especially if the parents have different parenting styles and/or different notions of what is best for the children. When parents are unable to reach a custody agreement, it is the occasional practice of the courts to order a child custody evaluation. Absent a court order, parents may also elect this option.
What is a Child Custody Evaluation?
A child custody evaluation is, essentially, an investigation of the children’s home, home environment, family relationships, and other matters of the children’s lives. The goal of the investigation is to determine the best custody and visitation outcome for the children, and the results of the investigation are used to aid the court in making its custody and visitation decision.
What is the Process?
Once a child custody evaluation is elected, either the court will appoint or the parents will choose, together or one parent unilaterally, a child custody evaluator to perform the investigation. The evaluator is often a mental health professional, and it is their task to evaluate the two parents, the children, each parent’s abilities to positively parent, and each parent’s willingness to foster a healthy relationship between the children and the other parent. After a full investigation, the evaluator makes a recommendation to the court, and the court heavily weighs this recommendation. However, do be mindful that the evaluator’s recommendation is not definitive; the court will exercise its own discretion in reaching a decision.
Also note that, because a custody evaluation involves an exploration into the mental health of each parent, the mental health of the children, the quality of the parent-child relationships, each parent’s capacity to parent, and any evidence of abuse and/or parental alienation, the evaluator may also interview outside parties who have witnessed the parents, children, and/or parent-child relationship. These outside parties often include teachers, daycare providers, and therapists, but are not limited to such.
What Should You Know Before You Choose a Child Custody Evaluation?
Before choosing an evaluation, you should keep the following in mind:
- The child custody evaluator is not your advocate, not an advocate for your ex, not your friend, and is not on your side, even if you chose and/or are paying for the evaluator. The child custody evaluator is an objective, neutral third party. The evaluator is neither parent’s activist.
- The child custody evaluator does not decide the final custody arrangement; the court decides! The court will consider the factors listed under Virginia Code Section 20-124.3 when determining the best interests of the children for purposes of custody or visitation.
- The evaluator is not appointed for the purpose of giving parenting advice, and is not appointed for the purpose of telling the parents who is right and wrong. The sole task of the evaluator is to observe and make a recommendation that is in the best interest of the children.
- An evaluator’s recommendation can include more than just a simple custody arrangement. The evaluator may make therapy recommendations (for both the parents and the children), may suggest parenting classes, may propose a plan for how to deal with future conflicts between the parents, and more.
- The best two people to make a decision regarding the best interests of the children are usually mom and dad!
How Should You Prepare for a Child Custody Evaluation?
Firstly, when you meet with the child custody evaluator, treat it like a business meeting – be punctual, dress appropriately, be polite, be organized, be honest, and answer the questions that are asked of you.
Secondly, the child custody evaluator is concerned with each parent’s parenting skills, not his or her ability to be a good spouse or partner. Therefore, keep your evidence and your conversations focused on the children. It is unproductive to bad mouth your ex and/or comment on their short-comings as a spouse or partner.
Thirdly, the children should be apprised of what is happening. Find a neutral way of explaining the investigation to the children without coaching the children and without painting an ill picture of the other parent.
Lastly, if you find yourself in a custody and/or visitation dispute, it is best to consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible. The custody lawyers at Livesay & Myers, P.C. have years of experience representing clients in custody and visitation cases in Manassas, Fredericksburg, Fairfax and across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.