Child custody evaluations are professional assessments of families, in order to find the best residence, routine, and parenting time schedule (aka “visitation”) for children in divorce or custody cases. Divorce cases and child custody disputes can be very emotional and very personal. Child custody evaluations can therefore be an excellent way for parents to bring in an objective, neutral, and trained professional to help examine and assess the best interest of children in terms of custody and parenting time.
Parents who don’t agree on a parenting plan for their children may request of the Court be referred to a custody evaluator. The evaluator then conducts interviews, assesses the parties’ respective situations, and makes a recommendation to the court on how to resolve custody and/or parenting time (visitation) disputes. The evaluator is chosen by the parties with approval from the court, and is usually paid for by the parties.
Both parents may love their children and therefore: (1) want to have the children live with them, (2) spend as much time with the children as possible, and (3) be the parent with the authority to make important decisions on behalf of the children.
Child custody evalautors are typically psychologists or counselors who specialize in child development, child psychology, and family dynamics. There is no official certification necessarily required for a person to call themselves a “child custody evaluator,” but typically the more education and training the evaluator has, the more likely that parents and the Court will respect and adopt the recommendations of the evaluation.
Parents can decide on their own (stipulate) to the use of a child custody evaluator, or one parent can ask the Court for a court order requiring that the parents and children participate to a child custody evaluation. Such evaluations are authorized by ORS 107.425, which provides:
Investigation of parties in domestic relations suit involving children (physical, psychological, psychiatric or mental health examinations, parenting plan services, counsel for children)
(1) In suits or proceedings described in subsection (4) of this section in which there are minor children involved, the court may cause an investigation to be made as to the character, family relations, past conduct, earning ability and financial worth of the parties for the purpose of protecting the children’s future interest. The court may defer the entry of a general judgment until the court is satisfied that its judgment in such suit or proceeding will properly protect the welfare of such children. The investigative findings shall be offered as and subject to all rules of evidence. Costs of the investigation may be charged against one or more of the parties or as a cost in the proceedings but shall not be charged against funds appropriated for public defense services.
(2) The court, on its own motion or on the motion of a party, may order an independent physical, psychological, psychiatric or mental health examination of a party or the children and may require any party and the children to be interviewed, evaluated and tested by an expert or panel of experts. The court may also authorize the expert or panel of experts to interview other persons and to request other persons to make available to the expert or panel of experts records deemed by the court or the expert or panel of experts to be relevant to the evaluation. The court may order the parties to authorize the disclosure of such records. In the event the parties are unable to stipulate to the selection of an expert or panel of experts to conduct the examination or evaluation, the court shall appoint a qualified expert or panel of experts. The court shall direct one or more of the parties to pay for the examination or evaluation in the absence of an agreement between the parties as to the responsibility for payment but shall not direct that the expenses be charged against funds appropriated for public defense services. If more than one party is directed to pay, the court may determine the amount that each party will pay based on financial ability.
(3)(a) In addition to an investigation, examination or evaluation under subsections (1) and (2) of this section, the court may appoint an individual or a panel or may designate a program to assist the court in creating parenting plans or resolving disputes regarding parenting time and to assist parents in creating and implementing parenting plans. The services provided to the court and to parents under this section may include:
(A) Gathering information;
(B) Monitoring compliance with court orders;
(C) Providing the parents, their attorneys, if any, and the court with recommendations for new or modified parenting time provisions; and
(D) Providing parents with problem solving, conflict management and parenting time coordination services or other services approved by the court.
(b) Services provided under this section may require the provider to possess and utilize mediation skills, but the services are not comprised exclusively of mediation services under ORS 107.755 (Court-ordered mediation) to 107.795 (Availability of other remedies). If only mediation services are provided, the provisions of ORS 107.755 (Court-ordered mediation) to 107.795 (Availability of other remedies) apply.
(c) The court may order one or more of the parties to pay for services provided under this subsection, if the parties are unable to agree on their respective responsibilities for payment. The court may not order that expenses be charged against funds appropriated for public defense services.
(d) The presiding judge of each judicial district shall establish qualifications for the appointment and training of individuals and panels and the designation of programs under this section. In establishing qualifications, a presiding judge shall take into consideration any guidelines recommended by the statewide family law advisory committee.
(4) The provisions of this section apply when:
(a) A person files a domestic relations suit, as defined in ORS 107.510 (Definitions for ORS 107.510 to 107.610);
(b) A motion to modify an existing judgment in a domestic relations suit is before the court;
(c) A parent of a child born to an unmarried woman initiates a civil proceeding to determine custody or support under ORS 109.103 (Proceeding to determine custody or support of child);
(d) A person petitions or files a motion for intervention under ORS 109.119 (Rights of person who establishes emotional ties creating child-parent relationship or ongoing personal relationship);
(e) A person or the administrator files a petition under ORS 109.125 (Who may initiate proceedings) to establish paternity and paternity is established; or
(f) A habeas corpus proceeding is before the court.
(5) Application of the provisions of subsection (1), (2) or (3) of this section to the proceedings under subsection (4) of this section does not prevent initiation, entry or enforcement of an order of support.
(6) The court, on its own motion or on the motion of a party, may appoint counsel for the children. However, if requested to do so by one or more of the children, the court shall appoint counsel for the child or children. A reasonable fee for an attorney so appointed may be charged against one or more of the parties or as a cost in the proceedings but shall not be charged against funds appropriated for public defense services.
(7) Prior to the entry of an order, the court on its own motion or on the motion of a party may take testimony from or confer with the child or children of the marriage and may exclude from the conference the parents and other persons if the court finds that such action would be likely to be in the best interests of the child or children. However, the court shall permit an attorney for each party to attend the conference and question the child, and the conference shall be reported.
The factors looked into by a custody evaluator are listed in ORS 107.137, which provides:
Factors considered in determining custody of child
Except as provided in subsection (5) of this section, in determining custody of a minor child under ORS 107.105 (Provisions of judgment) or 107.135 (Vacation or modification of judgment), the court shall give primary consideration to the best interests and welfare of the child. In determining the best interests and welfare of the child, the court shall consider the following relevant factors:
(a) The emotional ties between the child and other family members;
(b) The interest of the parties in and attitude toward the child;
(c) The desirability of continuing an existing relationship;
(d) The abuse of one parent by the other;
(e) The preference for the primary caregiver of the child, if the caregiver is deemed fit by the court; and
(f) The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the other parent and the child. However, the court may not consider such willingness and ability if one parent shows that the other parent has sexually assaulted or engaged in a pattern of behavior of abuse against the parent or a child and that a continuing relationship with the other parent will endanger the health or safety of either parent or the child.
(2) The best interests and welfare of the child in a custody matter shall not be determined by isolating any one of the relevant factors referred to in subsection (1) of this section, or any other relevant factor, and relying on it to the exclusion of other factors. However, if a parent has committed abuse as defined in ORS 107.705 (Definitions for ORS 107.700 to 107.735), other than as described in subsection (5) of this section, there is a rebuttable presumption that it is not in the best interests and welfare of the child to award sole or joint custody of the child to the parent who committed the abuse.
(3) In determining custody of a minor child under ORS 107.105 (Provisions of judgment) or 107.135 (Vacation or modification of judgment), the court shall consider the conduct, marital status, income, social environment or life style of either party only if it is shown that any of these factors are causing or may cause emotional or physical damage to the child.
(4) No preference in custody shall be given to the mother over the father for the sole reason that she is the mother, nor shall any preference be given to the father over the mother for the sole reason that he is the father.
(5)(a) The court determining custody of a minor child under ORS 107.105 (Provisions of judgment) or 107.135 (Vacation or modification of judgment) shall not award sole or joint custody of the child to a parent if:
(A) The court finds that the parent has been convicted of rape under ORS 163.365 (Rape in the second degree) or 163.375 (Rape in the first degree) or other comparable law of another jurisdiction; and
(B) The rape resulted in the conception of the child.
(b) A denial of custody under this subsection does not relieve the parent of any obligation to pay child support.
There are several child custody evaluators in Oregon. Many are located in the Portland metro area and– in addition to doing evaluations in and near Portland– they will see parents and children from around the state. The best way to select an evaluator is to speak with an experienced divorce and child custody attorney to ask for a recommendation. Most attorneys who work in the domestic relations field will know who the most professional evaluators are.
Cost of Child Custody Evaluations
The biggest barrier to child custody evaluations is usually the cost. They are expensive. Typically, a low-cost child custody evaluation is a poor child custody evaluation because one of the key components to a good child custody evaluations is the level of depth and thoroughness to the actual evaluation. For example, some evaluators will have limited education and experience with child development and family dynamics, and their evaluation might consist of a relatively short meeting with both parents, the children, and then a written report in letter form consisting of a few pages of background information and an ultimate recommendation. By contrast, a more thorough evaluation from a professional with a great deal of experience in child psychology, child development, and family dynamics, might consist of several hours of standardized psychological testing of the parents and children, several one-on-one sessions with parents and the children over multiple sessions, a home visit and inspection, interviews of collateral information including but not limited to interviews of other family members, teachers, doctors, and family friends, and a review of educational and psychological records of the parents and children. The ultimate report may be 20-30 pages long and come with a very detailed parenting plan that adjusts over time to the needs and ages of the children. There’s no other way to put it: You often get what you pay for.
Guidelines for Oregon Child Custody Evaluations
Child custody evaluations in Oregon vary in terms of cost and time frames. Limited evaluations may start at several hundred dollars and take only a few weeks. Comprehensive evaluations will run several thousand dollars and may take several months t schedule and complete. Evaluators typically charge and extra fee to prepare for court and to actually testify.
For more information, see the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) 2008 paper on “Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluations.”
Preparing for a Child Custody Evaluation
Preparing for a custody evaluation is important and should be undertaken with the assistance of an experienced divorce and child custody attorney. The evaluation cannot and should not be prepared for as if it were a test or an examination, but rather the client should be prepared to be able to provide the evaluator with all of the information that he or she might need to consider in terms of making a custody decision, and in assigning parenting time. Some general recommendations are as follows:
- Be truthful and candid with the child custody evaluator. You’re going to need to acknowledge both your strengths and your weaknesses as a parent, as well as the strengths an weaknesses of your spouse or parenting partner.
- Be open and willing to consider different custody and parenting time arrangements. If you are inflexible and rigid, that might not be in the best interest of the children.
- Keep your appointments, be on time, and present yourself well. You don’t want to delay returning calls or emails from the evaluator. Similarly, you don’t want to be late to appointments with the evaluator. Also, you do not want to show up for a meeting with the evaluator stressed, frazzled, and unprepared.
- Avoid saying negative things about your spouse or parenting partner. If you’re asked about your spouse’s strengths and weaknesses as a parent, be as even handed as you can, and don’t dwell on either.
Do not instruct or coach your children about what to say or do when meeting with the evaluator.
- Do not violate or disobey custody orders that are in-place while the evaluation is pending.
- Most importantly, do not attempt to manipulate the child custody evaluator in order to “win” the child custody evaluation. These evaluations are not a game. Parents who resort to cheap tricks found on the Internet will not be found credible and will likely only hurt their case. It’s best to lay bare your parenting interests, skills, assets, shortcomings, weaknesses, etc, and let the evaluator do their job.
For more information on how our firm can help you prepare for a child custody evaluations or to make use of an evaluator to benefit your case, please contact our office.