Divorce is a complex, multi-layered experience that is emotionally and mentally exhausting. But perhaps the most grueling part is the custody evaluation. The process, wherein a professional appraises you, your child, and your co-parent to make a recommendation to the court regarding how much custody and visitation parents are given, is so wrenching and intrusive that even people who profit from the evaluations warn against them.
“I always recommend to people that if you don’t need one don’t do them,” psychologist Julie Gowthorpe and veteran custody evaluator said. “You’re turning over a lot of decision-making to someone who doesn’t know you.”
Fathers echo the sentiment. Jeff Nichols, a Pennsylvania dad, requested a custody evaluation during his divorce. He believed his wife had substance abuse and mental health issues that would easily convince anyone his kids would be better with him. The custody evaluator instead gave him a 50/50 custody split with his wife and he now regrets instigating the evaluation in the first place.
“My major mistake was in allowing those evaluations to happen at all,” Nichols said. “Those evaluations got me nothing.”
So it’s best to avoid custody evaluations if at all possible. But if you’re looking down the barrel of one, there are strategies you can follow to make sure you stay a major part of your kids’ lives. Divorce attorneys, psychologists, and dads who’ve been through the ordeal advise calm, patience, and, above all, honesty.
The custody evaluation process can take months and cost parents thousands of dollars. It involves a deep dive into conflicting accounts of events and can take on absurd complexities.
The first thing to understand is that custody evaluations are rare. Despite all the horror stories about evil exes moving kids cross country in the dead of night, professionals agree that amicable custody agreements are the rule and fights are the exception. Couples who fall out of love still love their kids. They’ll accept that they need to negotiate a fair way to live apart but remain parents.
“Most of the time people don’t really disagree on custody and parenting time,” New Jersey-based matrimonial attorney Eric S. Solotoff said. “Or, with minimal mediation they come to some type of agreement.”
So, consider custody evaluations as the nuclear option of parental division. “They are typically reserved for situations that are more high conflict,” says Gowthorpe. “Those are the times when people aren’t able to make decisions themselves that they can come to an agreement upon.”
While laws defining the role vary from state to state, the one performing the custody evaluation is generally a medical professional trusted to determine what’s best for children in custody disputes. Like court-appointed guardian ad litems, they determine and advocate for the best interests of children. But their ability to research and make recommendations is more expansive than legal professionals.
“The people who do the report have a lot of power,” New York City-based psychologist Dr. Alberto Yohananoff said. “The court takes our recommendations seriously.”
Yohananoff practices forensic psychology, performing investigations that straddle law and psychology. He administers psychological tests to parents and observes and interviews children. He also interviews parents and third parties who can give a sense of a child’s welfare, such as pediatricians or teachers.
A custody evaluation commonly includes multiple interviews conducted with each co-parent, multiple interviews with the child(ren), interviews with others who interact at home with them regularly, and interviews with teachers. Evaluators will also look at any court documents and, if deemed necessary, there will also be a psychological test for any or all parties involved.
“People have to remember that children get their sense of self from both parents. If a parent is degrading the other parent in front of the children or to the children, in some ways they are degrading the children too because half of who the children are come from that other parent.”
The process can take months and cost parents thousands of dollars. It involves a deep dive into conflicting accounts of events and can take on absurd complexities.
“You have competing visions of parties’ narratives, and the person who does the evaluation has to sift through tons of materials, which is often contradictory,” Yohananoff said. “Our job is put together and integrate a rainstorm of material.”
Yohananoff said he often has to compare competing stories from couples. Sometimes, simple facts like dates prove elusive or more ambiguous than they’d seem.
“I had a case many, many years ago where the parties couldn’t agree on when they split. One of them said, ‘We split five years ago,’ the other one said six months ago. That’s an extreme example but shows how people have extremely different versions of things.”
Considering the number of people interviewed in the evaluation, anyone undergoing one is highly advised to stick to the truth. As in a job interview, you can present the best version of the truth to bolster your image. But outright deception is a waste of time. For instance, if you make the false claim that you pick up your daughter every day from school, it will be disproven when the evaluator talks to her teacher.
“The best thing you can do is to be as honest as you can be because ultimately the truth will come out,” Solotoff said.
But while you stick to the truth about yourself, it’s essential to avoid bad-mouthing your ex. “You don’t want to bash the other parent,” Solotoff said. “You can highlight your strengths and you can compare your strengths and weaknesses but when you bash the other parent, it’s usually a bad thing in terms of the evaluation. Also, don’t take the bait if there are some evaluators that sort of invite you to bash the other parent.”
When you strike out at your ex, you don’t just look petty and angry to an evaluator. You look like someone who doesn’t care about their kids.
“People have to remember that children get their sense of self from both parents,” Solotoff said. “If a parent is degrading the other parent in front of the children or to the children, in some ways they are degrading the children too because half of who the children are come from that other parent.”
“What my lawyer called it was ‘Sweatshirt Dad’ or ‘Hoodie Dad,’” Peloquin said. “You want to be the dad that doesn’t wear a suit, the dad that’s out there playing wiffle ball with their kids in the cul-de-sac.”
So, rather than tearing your ex’s image as a parent, you want to give your own presentation a polish. For example, when Virginia dad Matt Peloquin was battling for custody of his daughter, his attorney advised him to surface his inner Clark Griswold.
“What my lawyer called it was ‘Sweatshirt Dad’ or ‘Hoodie Dad,” Peloquin said. “You want to be the dad that doesn’t wear a suit, the dad that’s out there playing wiffle ball with their kids in the cul-de-sac.”
That said, it’s not going to be convincing if you’re wearing that sweatshirt like a Halloween costume. Peloquin said he was deeply involved in his daughter’s life — the sweatshirt was already part of who he was. He just had to make sure it was prominently displayed for the evaluator.
“We never want someone to seem as though they’re faking it for purposes of the custody evaluation,” said Connecticut-based divorce attorney Meghan Freed. “You don’t want your client to be in any way untrustworthy.”
There’s a difference, of course, between pretending to have your life in order and actually working to get your life in order. When someone threatens to limit your access to your kids, it’s strong motivation to sort out your life. Plus, recognizing your shortcomings and taking steps to improve them can make a difference in the eyes of an evaluator. It demonstrates self-awareness and indicates the potential for understanding an opponent’s position.
“I think people who are able to self-reflect and have insight understand that other people may see the situation differently than them,” Gowthorpe said. “The problems are with people who are so invested in pushing their own agenda that they can’t step back and self-reflect.”
None of this is going to be easy. But, despite the heartbreak and frustration mounting around you during the process, experts stress that it’s imperative to remain calm. The custody evaluator is judging you on your ability to maintain emotional control — which is a vital skill for a dad.
“You want to show the assessor that you’re child-focused and can self-regulate your emotions,” Gowthorpe said. “You can shield your child from any conflict or negative feelings you might have about that other person.”
Just as important as patience and emotional regulation is time. In a custody evaluation, time is a more valuable commodity than money. Consider your schedule and life. Evaluators are going to take a close look at what time you have available for your kid.
“I’ve seen numerous times a parent that leaves the house at 6 a.m. or earlier comes homes at 7 p.m. or later and goes golfing on the weekend but believes that he should have sole custody or a 50/50 split instead of the stay at home other parent,” Solotoff said.
If you work long hours and don’t spend enough time with your children, all that time you spend making money might prevent you from handling school pickup and drop-off, doctor visits, practices, and so forth. And the court has tools to even the monetary playing field between exes, hence why alimony exists.
From a distance, the custody evaluation might seem stacked against fathers. While the evaluations often tilt towards stay at home parents, evaluators say that they don’t, as dads may fear, automatically favor moms.
“The law is gender neutral, and both parents tend to be more involved now than they probably ever have been, when you think about traditional seventies or earlier gender roles,” Solotoff said. “Things are different now.”