A child custody/access evaluation is a process in which a mental health expert, usually a clinical psychologist, evaluates your family and makes a recommendation to the court for a custody and/or visitation or parenting plan that is in your child’s best interest.
In terms of Section 18 of the Children’s Act No 38 of 2005 parents are now regarded as co-holders of parental rights and responsibilities and therefore we now refer to care (primary residence) and contact. For ease of reference the term “custody” has been retained.
Unlike mediation or other settlement techniques, in which you and you ex-spouse are encouraged to reach your own agreement about primary residence and contact and develop a parenting plan for your children, when you have a child custody/access evaluation, your evaluator will be recommending a particular plan to you and the court.
It is not a settlement process like mediation. Rather, it is a process in which the evaluator gathers information about your family and makes a recommendation based on that information.
In an ideal situation, you and your ex-spouse can use that recommendation to reach a settlement, but if not, the judge can use the evaluation, along with all other testimony, to make an order for your family.
The evaluation process
While not all evaluators utilize the same process, there are certain things that you should expect in all evaluations.
- At least two, and perhaps three, individual interviews with each parent.
- Psychometric testing of each individual parent.
- At least two individual interviews with each child.
- Observations of your children with each parent.
- Review of court documents and other appropriate written information.
- Contact with some collateral sources (e.g. therapists, teachers, day-care personnel, pediatricians)
- A written report with specific recommendations about custody / visitation, and which addresses all of the major concerns raised by you and your ex-spouse
In addition, your evaluator will use questionnaires that help provide additional information about your emotional functioning or parenting style.
These additional techniques are commonly used by psychologists, especially in more complicated evaluations, and they are designed to provide further information that will help in his / her recommendations. Your evaluator might also include a home visit at each parent’s home.
This is designed to give the evaluator an observation of your family in a more natural setting. Home visits are particularly useful with very young children, especially those under age 6.
Is the evaluation confidential?
The simple answer is no. Normally when you see a psychologist, the information you share with the psychologist is confidential, and you can decide who has access to that information.
However, in a court-ordered child custody/access evaluation, you do not have a “therapist-patient” relationship. Instead, in a child custody evaluation, the court is the client and holds the privilege.
All material gathered by the evaluator is potentially discoverable by attorneys and the evaluator is subject to examination and cross-examination if the case goes to trial. If you are not certain about this, you will want to discuss it with your attorney and evaluator.
What to tell your children
One of the more common questions I get at the start of a custody/access evaluation is, “how do I tell my child about this?” The first thing I do is ask parents how aware the child is of the conflict.
I ask parents what they have thought of to tell their child. In these ways, I am beginning my assessment of the parents’ empathy and ability to put themselves into the place of their child.
However, because I feel strongly that evaluators should take precautions to avoid harm to children, I will then answer this question of parents.
Especially when children are aware of the conflicts, my answer is typically something like the following:
“When I meet with children, I always tell them that my job is to help their mother and father find ways to agree and cooperate about how to raise them.
It would probably make sense to tell your child that I am a psychologist who is trying to understand as much about your family as possible, so that I can help the two of you learn to agree on parenting.
Tell them that I will be wanting to learn as much as I can about them and their feelings, not just about the divorce and the two of you. Encourage your child to be open and talk about how he / she feels.”
I then ask parents how they think their child will respond to the above, again trying to assess their awareness of their child’s feelings.
What can you expect from the recommendations?
As mentioned above, one of the main differences between an evaluation and settlement techniques like mediation is that the evaluator will be making recommendations about your family.
Typically, recommendations will fall in several categories, including but not limited to:
- Custody / visitation recommendations
- This will typically include both legal and physical custody/access.
- For those families who always argue about these issues, the recommendations should be extremely precise and provide direction to the parents on how to modify visitation agreements when necessary.
- A parenting plan that outlines the time-share between the parents and how parents might deal with future conflict-resolution.
- Since conflict-resolution is difficult for many families who need a custody/access evaluation, the evaluator should make recommendations about how you can work together to solve future problems. In some jurisdictions, he / she might suggest a mediator, someone who is like a binding arbitrator, to work with you on an ongoing basis to learn to resolve future problems.
- Therapy recommendations for either the parents and / or the children
- A thorough evaluation will provide specific treatment recommendations rather than a vague statement about the need for therapy.
- When special problems exist, such as domestic violence, substance abuse problems, alienation of children, and others, there will likely be special recommendations focusing on those special issues. In some of those cases, there might be a recommendation for an updated evaluation after treatment of some period of time.
- Parenting classes when they are needed to help parents improve their understanding of their child’s needs.
- With very young children, evaluators might recommend a re-evaluation as the child gets older and his / her needs significantly change.
I believe it is best for evaluators to give their observations and recommendations directly to parents, when feasible.
Typically, when parents hear about evaluation results from their attorneys, there is a tendency to focus on the win-lose aspect of the case. Instead, when the evaluator meets with parents at the end of an evaluation, the evaluator can help parents stay focused on the child and his / her needs.
I believe it is important to help parents remain focused on the children and their needs at all stages of the divorce process and this is the best way to guide parents to accomplish this after an evaluation.
Medical aids do not cover custody/access evaluations and as such you are personally responsible for the full settlement of the account before the report is released to the Office of the Family Advocate or your legal representative.
The current tariff per one hour consultation is R850.00 per 50 minute sessions. The report is R7500.00