By Sarah J. Merry
Forensic evaluations (also referred to as custody evaluations) can be a useful tool in child custody litigation but can also be costly and time consuming.
So what does a forensic evaluation entail, and why is it used? Will your child have to undergo a stressful psychological evaluation?
The Forensic Evaluation Process
The forensic evaluation process typically entails the appointment of a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health expert to evaluate the family in question through the review of various documents, a series of tests and interviews, and information gathered from third parties.
Forensic evaluations are typically used in cases where a couple simply cannot agree to the legal and/or residential custody of a child or if there are concerns with abuse, mental health issues, or substance abuse.
A judge may order a forensic evaluation on his or her own volition, or a party may request that an evaluation be completed.
Child custody evaluators are prohibited from making an express recommendation as to which parent should be afforded legal or physical custody. However, the results of a forensic evaluation yield a detailed report that offers direction and guidance relative to the parent that should be afforded legal and/or residential custody of a child.
The evaluator will meet with each party individually (on a number of occasions), each party along with the child, and with the child individually (if age appropriate).
The evaluator will ask each party a number of questions surrounding the parenting skills and parent-child relationship of each party. The evaluator will also administer a series of psychological tests, which examine the parties' personalities and emotional functioning, as well as the parties' feelings toward each other as parents.
Evaluator's Meeting With The Child
Generally, a meeting with a parent and child involves the evaluator's observation of the parent and child engaging in an everyday activity such as reading or playing.
If the child is of an age where he or she can speak, the evaluator will privately ask the child general, non-threatening questions about "Mom and Dad" and about his or her home life and daily routines. The evaluator may also ask the child to draw pictures of his or her family, house, etc.
The foregoing methods allow the child custody evaluator to determine the strength and nature of the child's relationship with each parent and to ensure that the child is emotionally healthy and progressing intellectually.
A forensic evaluator is also likely to speak to third parties such as the child's pediatrician, any current or former marriage or family counselor(s), and any childcare providers.
The Final Custody Evaluation Report
Ultimately, the evaluator uses the test results and all of the information that he or she has gathered to prepare and submit a thorough written report to the court.
The report will commonly detail, among other things, the child’s relationship with each parent, the relationship between the parties as parents, the ability of each parent to make appropriate decisions for the child, and any risk factors that may impact child custody or parenting time.
The court is by no means required to render a decision that comports with the forensic report. Rather, the evaluation is but one factor that the court may consider in rendering a decision.