Custody evaluations are great tools that can be utilized in the context of a contested custody case, but they can be cost prohibitive. The uses and benefits tend to outweigh the cost, which is why attorneys continue to request them. This article addresses "private" custody evaluations, which are privately retained by the parties, or are court-appointed based on one party’s motion or a joint motion. It is important to remember that some courts provide free custody evaluations, so in the jurisdictions that do so, they are highly sought after.
What can custody evaluations be used for? Most simply, they are a single place to find information, and more importantly, a single report or witness to present as evidence or testimony to the judge. In terms of trial, it is much more efficient to present the evaluator and his or her report, rather than parading a child’s entire network of family, friends, and teachers through the courtroom.
Custody evaluators also have the luxury of taking time to see how all the different pieces of information fit together, and ask follow up questions to get the full picture, and can present the information from a neutral, third party perspective. Judges, on the other hand, are forced to take the evidence as presented, and hope that the system of direct and cross examining witnesses has done enough to minimize any bias that exists in the witness.
Custody evaluations are a full spectrum analysis, involving multiple issues, many interviews, and many hours to provide as complete an evaluation as possible. The process takes approximately fifty hours over the course of three to six months, at minimum. For cases in which the parents are farther apart in their beliefs of the child’s best interests, the process could take longer. Full custody evaluations can cost approximately $20,000 on the low end, but can easily be more costly. The evaluation can be quite costly, but the result can often help determine the direction of the case.
A second option for cases that have smaller, more limited questions regarding the children is a brief focused assessment, or specific issue evaluation. Topics that tend to lend themselves to a brief focused assessment include the child’s attachment level to each parent, relocation research, determining the child’s developmental level, and determining the child’s wishes. A brief focused assessment regarding the child’s wishes is a unique way to present the child’s desires without putting the child through the ordeal of testifying in court.
These brief focused assessments can be completed in as few as four to six weeks, and cost closer to $5,000. These assessments are faster and less expensive because they are so narrowed in scope that the amount of people the evaluator must interview is significantly decreased, so the process moves much quicker. However, the brief focused assessments provide the same benefits to a judge, simply on a much more limited scale.
Custody evaluations and brief focused assessments are performed by mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical marriage and family therapists or licensed certified social workers-clinical (LSCW-C).
In sum, despite the hefty price tag, it’s safe to say that custody evaluations, in one form or another, will continue to be used in family practice. Their benefits and uses are significant, and typically justify the associated costs.