California Child Custody Evaluations

Custody evaluations are assessments done by mental health professionals to determine what's in a child's best interest.

In California courts, you may hear them called 730, 3110 or 3111 evaluations, referring to the sections of state code that govern them.

Evaluations can be requested by a parent, recommended by a court mediator or ordered by a judge on his or her own accord. While they vary in length and focus, their end result is a confidential report that includes an official recommendation to the court.

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Common reasons for evaluations

Evaluations can be ordered by a court anytime an investigation into a family's circumstances would help decide the best parenting arrangement for a child. Concerns about the following often prompt custody evaluations:

Selecting an evaluator

Superior courts either have evaluators on staff or keep a list of local evaluators who have registered with the state. Evaluators can be psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, or licensed clinical social workers.

Occasionally, the judge on a case selects an evaluator. More often, the judge asks the parents for input; one parent might choose three options, from which the other makes a final choice. Many times the opposing lawyers call evaluators together to ask about areas of expertise, methods and approaches.

Full evaluations

A traditional custody evaluation can include interviews with the parents and children, psychological tests, home visits, interviews with other people who know the family, and a review of documents ranging from school files to health records. The evaluator is expected to use whatever sources necessary to assess each custody issue in a case.

Full evaluations take weeks to months to complete. Evaluators' hourly fees range from $100 to $400, often adding up to $1,000 to $50,000 in total. The court determines which parent pays, if the parents split costs, or if neither is able to afford it.

Brief assessments and focused-issue evaluations

In an effort to make evaluations quicker and less expensive, some counties use abbreviated versions when possible. The details are decided by the judge, lawyers, parents and evaluator.

Brief assessments, also called mini-evaluations, are a sped-up form of an evaluation. The evaluator usually does brief home visits and short interviews with the parents and kids, possibly conducting simple psychological tests. There is no in-depth review of files and documents.

Similarly, focused-issue evaluations ask the evaluator to look at only one issue in a child custody case ― for example, how a parent's move out of state might affect a child.

Both forms of evaluations may last anywhere from a few hours to a month. Evaluators often charge flat fees for these options, ranging from $500 to $5,000. In some cases, evaluators trying to gain experience may even do them for free.

Special circumstances

Some custody cases require more than one evaluator or subject expert.

For example, one evaluator might look at a specific issue like substance abuse while another makes the overall custody recommendation. Psychological testing must be done by a trained psychologist, so it can also require the involvement of second expert if the first is not qualified. Evaluators can also consult with professionals who have worked with the family in the past, such as social workers, therapists or doctors. (Parents sign release of information forms in these cases.)

Evaluators today are on the lookout for a behavior called parental alienation, and some even specialize in it. It's when one parent attempts to distort their child's relationship with the other parent through false claims and manipulation. If an evaluator identifies parental alienation, they will usually recommend therapy for the family members involved, as well as gradually-increasing parenting time (or sometimes sole custody) for the alienated parent.

Evaluators can recommend a child be represented by his or her own lawyer, called a child counsel. Most often evaluators make this recommendation for cases involving child abuse, child neglect, substance abuse or especially serious conflict. The counsel also investigates what would be in the child's best interest.

If you have a complaint to make against your evaluator, contact your county's Family Court Services Department, then speak to your judge during a hearing. If the complaint is about ethics or licensing, contact the relevant state board, such as the Board of Behavioral Sciences or the California Board of Psychology.

Tips for parents going through an evaluation

  • Prepare with an attorney or legal professional.
  • Take all interactions with the evaluator seriously. Arrive on time, dress neatly, be prepared with documents, etc.
  • Show that your children are a priority in your life. Keep their interests and needs at the forefront, rather than your own.
  • Remember your words and actions will go into a report. Treat the evaluator with respect, and don't argue.
  • Be honest.
  • Recognize both your strengths and your weaknesses as a parent.
  • Try not to speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Don't coach your children, though you can encourage them to practice what they would like to say.
  • Be forthcoming with any questions you have.
  • Consider providing letters of support from your contacts. Although evaluators don't usually value these highly, they can demonstrate commitment to the process.

Evaluator's report

Once the evaluator has finished assessing a family's situation, they will compile the findings into a confidential report that includes an official custody recommendation. The report cannot be accessed by anyone who is not involved in the case.

At least 10 days before the next hearing, the report is shared with the court and with both parents' lawyers (or with the parents if they're representing themselves). It becomes one of the factors the judge considers when deciding the case.

The parents can question the evaluator about the report during a trial. In addition, they can ask other mental health professionals to examine and testify about the report.

Staying organized during an evaluation

Evaluations add complexity to an already-complex process.

Throughout your case, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft custody schedules, keep a log about interactions with the other parent, and more.

The Custody X Change online app enables you to do all of this in one place. With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, a digital journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody and visitation.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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