A Quick Guide to Parenting Evaluations
If you are involved in a Parenting Plan dispute, you are likely to have to participate in a Parenting Evaluation of some kind. The court will decide what kind of evaluation is required in your case. The evaluation may be done by the Family Courts Service, a Guardian ad Litem, a Child and Families Psychiatrist or Psychologist, or some similar professional.
Why are parenting evaluations important?
Parenting evaluations are an important part of court proceedings concerning children. The judge who will ultimately have to decide your case will not meet your child (except in very rare cases) and will not come to your home or ever talk to you in any depth.
Although the law requires judges to make decisions in the best interests of your child, judges are lawyers and not experts on child development. They look to parenting evaluators for this kind of insight.
Also, parents who cannot agree about where their child can live often do not agree on many other things, such as which parent the child is more attached to and what the child wants or needs. A judge cannot decide these kinds of issues just by listening to the parents themselves when they give evidence in court. The judge needs to hear the views of an independent third party to help determine what has been going on in your family.
For all of these reasons, courts rely on parenting evaluators to help judges decide what is best for your child.
What happens in a parenting evaluation?
The job of the parenting evaluator is to make an independent assessment of your child’s family, including both parents, and to make a written recommendation to the court about the best arrangements for your child. The assessment will probably include some or all of the following steps:
- Interviewing the adults in the case. If a psychiatrist or psychologist is doing the evaluation, this may also involve formal testing of some kind.
- Interviewing a few other people at the request of each parent. These are called “collateral contacts,” because these are interviews with people who know you and your child, but are not directly involved in the litigation.
- Interviewing other professionals who have been involved with your child. This is more likely in cases where the child has had problems in the past, and has had to be helped by a doctor, social worker, visitation supervisor or counselor.
- Interviewing (or at least meeting) the child herself. The Family Courts Service often does not do this (unless there is some special reason), but a Guardian ad Litem will always be expected to meet the child, as will a child psychiatrist or psychologist.
Some Do’s and Don’ts
Do keep your all of appointments, promptly complete all forms the evaluator gives you, return phone calls and answer letters from the evaluator. This is an important process and you need to show that you are taking it seriously.
Do remember that the evaluator’s job is to help the court make a decision that is in the best interest of your child. The evaluator is not interested in “rewarding” one parent or “punishing” the other.
Don’t spend all your time criticizing the other parent. Instead, tell the evaluator the positive things about your home, your relationship with your child, and your own strengths as a parent. Concentrate on the positive things that you have to offer your child.
Do remember that your child has a right to a relationship with both parents, no matter how bad the relationship is between those parents. The evaluator will expect you to be ready to make some sacrifices (for example, seeing the other parent when you would rather not, or having a schedule that is not absolutely ideal for you) in order to make this happen for your child.
Don’t use the evaluation as an opportunity to complain about or blame the other parent for what has happened in the past. It is more important to talk about your child, what you think your child needs now and in the future, and why.
Do be ready to admit that you are not a perfect parent. No parent is! The evaluator is not looking for perfection. The evaluator will ask you at some point why your relation ship with the other parent broke down. Don’t try to convince the evaluator that the other parent is the only one to blame for the end of your relationship. Taking some of the blame yourself will show the evaluator that you have insight.
Don’t be shocked if the evaluator tells you that things your child is saying or doing are “normal for a child whose parents are in conflict.” For example, it is common for evaluators to find that a child says different things to each parent, in an effort to keep both parents happy. This doesn’t mean that the evaluator isn’t taking what you say seriously.
Do remember to keep the focus on your child at all times. Don’t raise complaints about the other parent unless they are really relevant to your child’s welfare. For example, having an affair with another person, spreading rumors about you among friends and family, not sharing your religious faith, demeaning you in public or eating fast food might make your ex-spouse a bad person to be married to. It does not make him a bad parent. Of course, issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, or real mistreatment of your child in any way are serious and do need to be discussed with the evaluator. Keeping your focus on your child will help you to sort out the important issues from the unimportant.