New York Child Custody Evaluations

Forensic custodial evaluations, known simply as custody evaluations, are assessments conducted by mental health professionals to determine what is in a child's best interest.

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

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Common reasons for evaluations

Judges order evaluations prior to trial to gather information that can aid their final decision.

Excessive conflict between parents is the most common catalyst for an evaluation. This conflict usually becomes obvious through the allegations parents make against one another or during discovery.

Concerns about the following also regularly prompt custody evaluations:

  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental illness
  • A child with special needs
  • A parent moving a child out of state
  • Questionable parenting

Selecting an evaluator

Usually, lawyers recommend evaluators to their clients and let the parents choose one together. Unrepresented parents may choose from the court's list of local evaluators.

Evaluators must have experience working with families, preferably in legal cases. They can be psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists or licensed clinical social workers.

Types of evaluations

During a full custody evaluation, the evaluator uses whatever sources necessary to assess each custody issue in a case. They may:

  • Interview the parents and children
  • Conduct psychological tests
  • Make home visits
  • Interview people who know the family
  • Review documents, such as school files and police records

The length and cost of a full evaluation depend on the complexity of the case. Evaluators aim to complete their work in about two months. Hourly costs range from $100 to $600, and total costs range from $3,000 to $60,000.

Focused-issue evaluations task the evaluator with investigating specific aspects of a child custody case — for example, how a parent's move out of state might affect a child. Since they focus on one issue (or a few issues), these evaluations are shorter and cheaper than full evaluations.

In both types of evaluations, the court determines whether one parent pays the fees or if the parents split costs. In family court, the state can pay for an evaluation requested by an attorney for the child if the parents cannot.

Special circumstances

Some cases require more than one evaluator or specialist. One evaluator may look at an issue like substance abuse while another writes the final report. Psychological testing must be done by a trained psychologist, so a second expert may be needed if your evaluator is not qualified. Also, evaluators might consult with professionals who have worked with the family in the past.

Evaluators look for parental alienation. This is when one parent attempts to harm the other parent's relationship with the child through lies and manipulation. One sign is when a child knows vilifying information they could have only gotten from the other parent. If an evaluator finds signs of alienation, they may recommend family therapy or increasing parenting time — possibly even sole custody — for the alienated parent.

If an evaluator suspects child abuse, child neglect, substance abuse or serious conflict between parents, they may recommend an attorney for the child.

To make a complaint against your evaluator, contact the Office of the Professions.

Evaluator's report

The evaluator compiles their findings into a confidential report that includes an official custody recommendation.

The body of the report details the interviews conducted and interactions observed. It may focus on specific traits in parents and children. For example, for a parent, it may assess stress management skills and how they affect the family. With a child, it may look at developmental milestones as insight into possible neglect.

The conclusion of the report explains how the evaluator reached their custody recommendation.

Before trial, the report is shared with the court and lawyers.

Whether you'll be able to read the report depends on your judge. There's no guarantee that a parent will get access, even if they're self-represented.

Lacking access to the report can make it difficult to object to its findings. One way around this is to have the evaluator testify during trial.

The evaluation report is one important factor the judge considers when making a final custody decision.

Tips for parents going through an evaluation

  • Prepare with an attorney or legal professional.
  • Be honest.
  • Do not coach your children to say anything.
  • Remember that your interactions with the evaluator will be part of the report. Be respectful and keep a cool head during the evaluation.
  • Keep your child's interests and needs at the forefront.
  • Recognize both your strengths and your weaknesses as a parent.
  • Try not to speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Answer the questions asked of you, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification.
  • Dress neatly and arrive on time with any documents the evaluator requests.
  • Clean before the evaluator comes over. This helps demonstrate that your home is child-friendly.
  • Consider providing letters of support from relatives and others who are close to your family. Although they may not change the evaluator's opinion, they can show your commitment to the process.

Staying organized

Evaluations add complexity to an already-complex process.

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

The Custody X Change 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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