If you’re in the midst of a child custody fight, you may be dealing with a custody evaluation as part of the court process. Your meetings with the evaluator present a challenge. You want to be yourself, yet you probably can’t avoid going out of your way to present yourself favorably. That’s entirely natural, and it’s also natural for you to be anxious when you meet with the evaluator. As you proceed through the evaluation, there are some important dos and don’ts to remember:
- Acknowledge both your strengths and your weaknesses as a parent.
- Be truthful in answering questions about your history and current situation. Answer the question that’s asked, rather than using it as a jumping-off point to state your case.
- Acknowledge the benefits to your children of having positive relationships with both of their parents.
- Express your willingness to consider different custody and visitation arrangements, but clearly explain (once, not over and over again) why you prefer one over another.
- Keep your focus on your children’s well-being and what’s best for them.
- Follow up promptly and thoroughly if you’re asked to provide paperwork or information—for example, verification of employment or medical information about your children.
- Say negative things about your spouse; if you’re asked about your spouse’s strengths and weaknesses as a parent, be as evenhanded as you can, and don’t dwell on either.
- Ask the evaluator to provide therapy or advise you on how to deal with your spouse or your children.
- Coach your kids about what to say or do.
- Be late or miss appointments with the evaluator.
- Disobey custody orders that are in place while the evaluation is pending.
Most important, don’t try to manipulate the evaluator. There’s a lot of material out there about custody evaluations, especially on the Internet. A lot of it comes from an extremely adversarial perspective, promising to show you how to manipulate the process to get the evaluator to do what you want. But if you’re in need of a custody evaluation, you and your spouse are already in a highly polarized situation—and you will best serve your children by recognizing that the help of an experienced professional might be just what you and your spouse need. That means you need to cooperate with the evaluator, rather than trying to get something out of the evaluation. Look at the evaluator as the person who may actually be able to help you and your spouse come to a better understanding of your children’s needs and your family’s best course of action.
Talking to your kids about the evaluation—what not to do
There’s little doubt that your children will be frightened and confused by the evaluation process, and will wonder whether the decision will hinge on what they say. You can’t avoid the difficult truth that the reason for the evaluation is that you and your spouse have different opinions about how the kids should be cared for. But you can explain to them that the evaluator is trying to learn about the family, in order to help you and your spouse learn to parent together in a way that works.
Never coach your children about what to say, and especially don’t tell them to speak negatively about their other parent. Reassure them that all they need to do is to tell the truth.
Adapted from Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.