Pennsylvania Child Custody Evaluations

Forensic custody evaluations are assessments conducted by mental health professionals to clarify issues in complicated custody cases. Evaluators give recommendations to the court as to what would serve the child's best interests.

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Common reasons for evaluations

Bucks County requires an evaluation in almost all cases.

In other counties, judges order evaluations on a case-by-case basis, spurred either by a request from a parent or guardian ad litem or by their own initiative.

Evaluations are most common in cases where parents have wildly diverging versions of events, and in cases involving mental illness, a history of crime, violence or substance abuse, a child with special needs or plans to relocate a child out of state.

Selecting an evaluator

Although Pennsylvania doesn't require certification to perform an evaluation, evaluators are typically psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers.

Allegheny, Philadelphia and Bucks counties automatically assign cases to staff evaluators, although parents in Bucks County can opt to hire a private evaluator if they agree on one.

In other counties, parents must use a private evaluator. Courts there typically keep lists of evaluators for parents to choose from, or parents can find someone on their own. If parents can't agree, the court picks for them.

Evaluation procedures

Since each family's situation is unique, the evaluation process varies. Evaluators may do some or all of the following:

  • Conduct multiple interviews with each parent, the child and other people connected to the family (relatives, teachers, etc.)
  • Observe interactions between each parent and the child
  • Conduct psychological evaluations of the family
  • Administer an extensive questionnaire to parents
  • Review relevant documents and records (school, medical, criminal, etc.)

Bucks County's procedure for custody evaluations has a few differences — primarily that parents meet with the evaluator together.

It's rare for evaluators to investigate only one issue. They prefer to look at the entire case to ensure no problem goes unaddressed. Sometimes, a court will direct an evaluator to pay extra attention to a specific concern, such as a parent's anger issues.

Evaluators often work with other professionals, like guardians ad litem or the family's doctors, to gain more insight.

County court evaluations typically conclude within two months. Private evaluations often take longer — up to five or six months for complicated cases. Participants can speed up both processes by making themselves available for interviews and providing documents quickly.

When one parent lives in Bucks County and the other parent lives elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Bucks offers a "compacted" evaluation that takes three to four business days.

Evaluator's report

At the end of an evaluation, the evaluator writes a report that includes a summary of their findings and a custody recommendation for the judge to consider when making a final decision. It may also recommend therapy or other treatments.

In Bucks County, the report includes a recommended parenting plan or, if parents reached an agreement during their joint meeting with the evaluator, an agreed-upon parenting plan.

The evaluator submits their report to the court and lawyers before the next court date. Attorneys often share the report with their clients, while parents without lawyers can typically review the report within the courthouse.

Many parents settle their case after seeing the evaluator's recommendation. If not, they can call the evaluator to testify at trial.

Evaluation costs

The court order for an evaluation specifies how parents are to split the costs.

In smaller counties, parents pay around $5,000 to $7,000 total for a private evaluation. In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, costs can reach $10,000 or more. You might incur extra charges if members of your household beyond you and your child must undergo psychological exams.

Costs for court evaluations are generally much lower. In Allegheny County, fees depend on the parents' combined income, and parents can ask the court to reduce fees, if necessary.

In Bucks County, court evaluations cost $910 per parent for the first child, with additional fees for more children. Low-income parents can get fees reduced or waived.

Special circumstances

If an evaluator suspects child abuse or neglect, they report it to ChildLine, a child protective services program. The evaluation continues but may take longer as ChildLine's investigation reveals more information for the evaluator to assess.

By a judge's request, evaluators can look for a behavior called parental alienation. If parental alienation is taking place, the evaluator usually recommends awarding the alienated parent significant time with the child, as well as therapy with the child.

Another option in Philadelphia County: Home investigations

In Philadelphia County, if a parent's home may be unsafe for the child, the court can order an investigation where a custody probation officer inspects the home and interviews the people who live there.

The probation officer writes a report based on their findings, but unlike an evaluator's report, it does not include a custody recommendation.

A parent can request an investigation by asking the court verbally or filing a Motion for a Home Investigation. Specify if you don't want the officer to conduct interviews. There's a $48.62 fee to file a motion.

Home investigations cost $200. If you have a low income, you can file an In Forma Pauperis Form to ask the court to waive fees.

Tips for parents going through an evaluation

  • Prepare with an attorney or legal professional.
  • Don't coach your children, but you can encourage them to practice what they want to say.
  • Help expedite the process by requesting medical, school and other records early.
  • Provide all documents the evaluator requests. If you don't without good reason, you risk implicating yourself if the evaluator assumes you're trying to hide something.
  • Take all interactions with the evaluator seriously. Arrive on time, dress neatly, etc.
  • Remember your words and actions will go into a report. Treat the evaluator with respect, and don't argue.
  • Be honest.
  • Always show that your children are the priority in your life. Keep their interests and needs at the forefront, rather than your own.
  • Recognize both your strengths and weaknesses as a parent.
  • Do not speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Ask any questions you have.

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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