Mental health professionals have to switch hats between different roles when their clients become involved in legal proceedings. While a counselor typically has a patient-focused therapeutic approach in normal counseling sessions, the requirements and expectations are quite different in child custody evaluations.
Tips for Testifying Lesson 9: The Role of the Counselor in Child Custody Evaluations
What is a custody evaluation?
A “custody evaluation” means a court ordered evaluative process through which information, opinions, recommendations and answers to specific questions propounded by the court in its order may be provided to the court, the parties, the parties’ attorneys and any person appointed by the court. These will be opinions and information regarding:
- conservatorship of a child including terms and conditions thereof;
- possession of or access to a child, including terms and conditions thereof;
- conditions for therapeutic services; and
- any other issue affecting the best interests of a child.
When does a custody evaluation occur?
The court may order the preparation of a child custody evaluation concerning:
- a child who is the subject of a suit;
- a party to the suit;
- the home of any person requesting conservatorship of, possession of or access to a child; and
- any other issue or question requested by the court or agreed upon by the parties prior to or during the evaluation process.
What is included in a custody evaluation?
It is recommended that the child custody evaluator perform, at a minimum, all of the following:
- review relevant information gathered from collateral sources;
- review relevant school records;
- review relevant mental and physical health records of the parties and any child subject of the suit;
- review relevant records of Child Protective Services (CPS);
- interview all adults living in the home;
- interview, in a developmentally appropriate manner, each child who is the subject of the suit, who is at least four years of age;
- observe each child who is the subject of the suit, regardless of the age of the child;
- observe any party to the suit with each child who is the subject of the suit;
- assess the relationship between each child at issue in the suit and each party seeking possession of or access to the child; and
- conduct any further tasks specified by the court or agreed to by the parties.
The court may also order the evaluator to do one or more of the following:
- conduct a visit to one or more party’s home;
- conduct a joint interview with the parties;
- observe each child who is the subject of the suit with any adult living in the home;
- interview or observe any child who is not the subject of the suit living, on a full or part time basis, in the home;
- conduct valid and reliable psychological testing; and
- review any other information the court deems relevant.
Unless appointed as a Guardian Ad Litem, a person should not offer an expert opinion regarding the conservatorship of, possession of or access to a child who is the subject of a suit unless the evaluator has special knowledge, education, and training sufficient to render opinions, make recommendations and answer the specific questions propounded by the court in its order. The mental health professional may, however, provide other relevant information and opinions to the court about any party that mental health professional has evaluated. When working in the legal system, quote your rate for any requested appearance, subpoenaed appearance, settlement conference, or deposition. Join us next time for the last entry in our Tips for Testifying in Legal Proceedings blog post series, where we’ll cover what records a counselor should keep in preparation for trial.