What is a Child Custody Evaluation?
A child custody evaluation provides the court with information it can use to make decisions about custody and parent-time. It is typically conducted by a social worker or child psychologist. The evaluator examines a variety of factors to determine what is best for the child, including (1) each parent’s child-rearing skills, (2) the child’s physical and mental health, (3) the child’s preference, (4) benefit of keeping siblings together, (5) child’s bond with each parent, (6) pros and cons of keeping the current arrangement, (7) moral and emotional stability; (8) work and school schedules, (9) history of substance abuse issues, (10) domestic violence issues, (11) stability, (12) extended family, and generally anything else the court or evaluator considers relevant to determining what is best for this child.
Generally speaking, evaluators tend to be supportive of both dads and moms playing an ongoing part in their children’s lives unless the evidence shows one parent should be awarded more time than the other. Evaluators are allowed to present the court with scientific evidence demonstrating the benefits of joint custody.
Evaluators are particularly useful in complicated custody cases involving allegations of substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence / child abuse, rebellious children, estrangement / parental alienation, or the like. In these types of cases the court will typically appoint a psychologist with experience in forensic investigation to help the court determine what is going on and the best solution to the problem.
A custody evaluation generally takes about 4-6 months to complete, but they can sometimes take longer in complicated custody cases. They can also take longer if either parent is not cooperating.
Generally speaking, judges tend to give a lot of weight to custody evaluations because the evaluator is considered to be an independent witness who will tell the judge the facts without bias one way or the other and provide the information he or she needs to make an informed decision. Conversely, if the judge only hears from the parents themselves (along with each side’s family members and close friends) without an evaluator the judge may find such testimony less helpful because it is coming from biased sources who may not be telling the whole story.
One of the downsides to a custody evaluation is they tend to be rather expensive, often ranging anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000 (or even more). Courts will sometimes order parents to share the cost of the evaluation based on factors such as (1) whether both parents are seeking custody, (2) how much money each parent makes, (3) whether there is already a final custody order in place, and (4) any misconduct by the parents necessitating the involvement of an evaluator.
That being said, custody evaluators can sometimes significantly reduce the time and expense of trials. For example, normally the judge at trial is not allowed to hear “hearsay” evidence from absent witnesses meaning if you want the judge to consider testimony from the children’s daycare provider, teacher, best friend, pediatrician, extended family, etc. you would have to call each of them to testify. But a custody evaluator is allowed to interview these individuals and report what they would have to say to the court as part of explaining how they reached an opinion as to what is best for the children.
Custody evaluations are an important part of Utah custody law. They can make or break your entire case depending on what kind of impression you make on the evaluator. It is important to go into the process with the assistance of experienced attorneys like Wiser and Wiser to get you the best result possible.