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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
When custody agreements cannot be reached between the parents in a divorce, the Judge has the option of ordering a child custody evaluation. Parents may have the perception that the process is fairly simple or uncomplicated, however, the fact of the matter is, a custody evaluation is a very in-depth exploration of the relationship the child has with each parent, the personality characteristics and traits of each parent, and an in-depth evaluation of the parents' thinking and behavior patterns, followed by a report with the expert evaluator's opinion.
The role of the expert / evaluator in a custody evaluation is to assist the Judge in making a decision about custody and timeshare with the parents. The evaluator is simply providing information to the Judge in an effort to assist the Judge in making a decision in the best interest of the child.
How then can a child custody evaluation sometimes turn out "so different" than the parties expect? Often you hear the evaluator blamed for the outcome of the case but, it is important to consider all the other factors that can impact and influence the outcome. It is not only the Judge deciding, it is the attorney who may be questioning or cross examining the evaluator that could have a strong influence on the interpretation of the report as well. At a recent conference where many exceptional and experienced evaluators gathered together in an effort to continue to improve the outcome for children in a custody evaluation, one would be amazed at how challenging it can be to a) be in the position to make such important and impactful recommendations and b) to prepare yourself as an evaluator to survive the cross examination by an attorney representing the side who is dissatisfied with your report.
It is so fortunate that in mediation most of the clients are interested in being in charge of the outcome of the plans for their children. It's important to know and understand those who prepare child custody evaluations may not always report to the Judge what the client wants to hear. Still, the evaluators try to understand the relationships, weigh the risks and benefits to each party, and make conclusions that are considered to be "in the best interest of the child(ren)."