Understanding the procedures for custody evaluations can help you prepare for what may come and assist you in seeking a favorable resolution to your custody issues.
What is an Evaluation?
In most counties when there is a custody dispute, the Court appoints a custody evaluator. That evaluator may work for Court Services or may be a private individual or attorney called a Guardian Ad Litem. In a Custody Evaluation an evaluator meets with the parties and evaluates the custody issues based on the factors for determining custody that are spelled out by Minnesota Statutes which are appended at the end of this article. Once the custody evaluation is complete the evaluator submits a report to the Court which will recommend a custody and visitation schedule that the evaluator believes is in the child's best interests. This report is a critical element of your case. Although custody studies may be challenged in court, many Judges defer to the recommendations of the evaluator because, unlike the parties, they are deemed to be an independent witness without any personal Interest in the outcome. As a result how you relate your case to the evaluator is very important.
Standard for Gaining Custody
When custody is being determined for the first time, the Court must determine what is in the child(ren)s best interests. To determine what is in the child(ren)s best interest, the court weights thirteen factors that are set out in Minnesota Statutes. As you may note, the factors are less than clear. As a result, the way you present your case to the custody evaluator is important. Once custody has been determined and a change of custody is requested, the burden on the party seeking to change custody is much higher. The Court must find that there has been endangerment OR that the child has been integrated into the household of the non-custodial parent by agreement of the parties AND that the benefit of the change outweighs the difficulties created by the change.
Working with Evaluators
In most cases, a custody study will be carried out by county workers or an independent Guardian Ad Litem. The custody evaluator will create a report regarding what he/she believes is in the child(ren)s best interests. Best interests of the child are magic words in custody proceedings since that is the standard that is used to make custody decisions. What is in the best interests of the child is determined by looking at thirteen factor specified by Minnesota Statutes. The custody evaluator often has broad power to require psychological testing, chemical dependency evaluations and urinalysis tests. How you interact with the custody evaluator may be a critical element of your custody case.
Initial Interview with Evaluator. At the initial interview, the evaluator will discuss at length the past history of care with the child. The evaluator will attempt to determine who was the primary caretaker. BE PREPARED! At the initial interview arrive prepared with a chronology of events clearly set out.
Home Visit(s). The evaluator will make at least one home visit to watch you interact with your child(ren). The evaluator is watching to see: Whether you actively play with and interact with your child; Whether you set appropriate boundaries for the child and whether the child obeys those boundaries; Discipline used; Child's reaction to the parent; Condition of the home environment.
The evaluator will ask for a list of persons that you think the evaluator should contact. Family members are usually not good contact since they may be biased in your favor. Where possible use independent contacts such as counselors, daycare providers, and school teachers.
Chemical Dependency Assessments
Where there are allegations of alcohol or drug abuse, the evaluator may refer you to a counselor for a chemical dependency evaluation. It is important that you cooperate in that process.
Where there are allegations of emotional or anger problems, the evaluator may refer you to a counselor or psychologist for a psychological evaluation. It is important that you cooperate in that process. Make sure that you communicate with the evaluator or counselor regarding any and all appointments. Budget enough time to complete and testing that is required. A failure to cooperate will appear in the evaluation.
Private Custody Evaluations
You may also have a private custody evaluation performed by an independent professional. Oftentimes the only way to combat a biased or unfavorable custody evaluation is with a private custody evaluation. Custody evaluations can be costly and may run anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000.