Texas Custody Evaluations: What Parents Should Know

In a child custody evaluation, a judge orders a mental health professional to investigate specific issues in a case.

After investigating, the evaluator compiles a report on each parent's strengths and weaknesses. The report may also provide recommendations to the court if the judge requested them.

Custody evaluations were once known by a variety of names that you may still hear from time to time: psychological evaluations, forensic evaluations, social studies, etc.

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Common reasons for evaluations

A judge can order an evaluation anytime more information on a family's circumstances would help determine the best parenting arrangement. A parent might ask the judge to make this order.

If the parents do not agree to the evaluation, the judge must first hold a hearing to decide whether it's necessary.

Many cases that go to trial over conservatorship, possession or access require an evaluation, especially when they have complex aspects hard to cover in a courtroom.

Concerns about the following special circumstances often prompt custody evaluations:

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

Whether you have an evaluation will depend on your case, judge and court. Some judges use evaluations frequently because they like to hear from an unbiased expert. Others rarely use evaluations, instead making their judgments based on evidence like witness testimony. In Travis County, courts more often turn to guardians ad litem.

Selecting an evaluator

Evaluators can be counselors, therapists, licensed social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists.

Counties like Harris and Tarrant offer evaluations by professionals in their Domestic Relations Offices, while other counties just maintain a list of approved evaluators.

If the parents agree on an evaluator, the judge appoints that person. If the parents can't agree, some judges ask each to choose three possibilities, from which the judge selects one. Other judges select an evaluator without input from the parents.

The evaluation process

The evaluator must:

  • Interview everyone named in the suit, including any children over 4
  • Observe the children with each parent (sometimes at the parent's home)
  • Review school records, medical records, criminal records and other relevant documents

The evaluator gives mental exams to people in the case when necessary. If he or she is not qualified, they bring in another professional to give the exams.

The evaluator might also interview other people with knowledge of the family, from babysitters to doctors.

Evaluator's report

Once the evaluator has finished assessing a family, they write a report on each parent's strengths and weaknesses in raising children. The report might also provide recommendations as to how the court should rule.

The evaluator shares the report with the lawyers (or the self-representing parents).

Often times, parents agree to settle after seeing the evaluator's report.

If they choose instead to proceed to trial, the judge or jury won't see the report until a parent enters it as evidence. It then becomes one of the factors considered when deciding the case.

Both parents can question the evaluator during trial. If a parent objects to the report, they can hire other evaluators to testify about problems with it.

Time and costs

Evaluations typically take three to nine months. In rural counties, they may only take six to eight weeks. On the other hand, complex cases in populous areas can take over a year as evaluators sometimes work with as many as 75 sources.

Evaluators charge a flat rate, an hourly fee or a combination of the two. Parents usually split the costs evenly, though one can be ordered to pay the entire fee.

Total costs range widely, from $500 per side (in rural areas) to $15,000 per side (for exceedingly complicated cases in populous areas). Evaluations done by Domestic Relations Offices are often much less expensive. For example, the Harris County Domestic Relations Office charges parents $110 to $720 each, depending on income.

Special circumstances

Cases sometimes have more than one evaluator, especially if one is in training or based far away. These evaluators can split up duties or collaborate on each one.

By law, evaluators can't disclose information about a case; they release their reports only to the lawyers or self-represented people in a case. Still, to prevent highly-sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands, a judge may agree to set additional rules. For example, the evaluator may have to review documents in front of a lawyer.

Evaluators today are on the lookout for parental alienation. This is 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 may recommend that the alienated parent receive gradually-increasing possession time or be named sole managing conservator.

Tips for parents going through an evaluation

  • Meet with an attorney or use other resources to make sure you understand the process.
  • Take all interactions with the evaluator seriously. Arrive on time, dress neatly, be prepared with documents, etc. Remember everything you do and say will go into a report.
  • Always show that your children are a priority in your life. Keep their interests and needs at the forefront rather than your own.
  • 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.
  • 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 possession 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, customizable possession calendars, a digital parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to conservatorship, possession and access.

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

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