As mentioned in our sections entitled “Determining Child Custody: Best Interests of the Child” and“Guardians Ad Litem,” superior court judges presiding over cases involving child custody determinations may seek recommendations from outside sources in determining what custody or visitation arrangement will be in the best interest of the child or children involved. A court may seek recommendations from a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) or a court may seek recommendations from other professionals in the form of custody evaluations. Additionally, a GAL appointed to the case or the parties themselves may also request that mental fitness or custody evaluations be conducted to aid the Guardian or the court in making a determination regarding custody. See Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(8).
In a case involving the determination of child custody or visitation, the judge is authorized to order a psychological custody evaluation of the family. O.C.G.A. 19-9-3(a)(7). This evaluation is an independent evaluation conducted by a court-appointed psychologist or other mental health professional. The court-appointed evaluator does not work for one side or the other but performs his or her evaluation as a neutral. The primary consideration in a child custody evaluation is to assess the individual and family factors that affect the best psychological interests of the child. Thus, a custody evaluator’s responsibility is to advise the court about the psychological and emotional needs of the children involved, the resources offered by each parent to meet those needs, and which custody or visitation arrangement would best meet those needs.
Typically, during the course of their evaluation, custody evaluators will interview each parent several times, administer psychological tests which assess the parent’s personality and parenting approach, observe parents interacting with their children in various situations, and administer psychological tests which evaluate the well-being of the child or children involved. Additionally, parents who are involved in a case where a case evaluation has been ordered should expect the evaluator to:
- Interview the child or children involved;
- Conduct interviews with individuals who have relevant information about parenting or child issues. These individuals often include therapists, teachers, neighbors, extended family members, step-parents or prospective stepparents, babysitters, and other individuals involved with the family;
- Compile developmental histories for the child or children involved;
- Review school records, medical and psychiatric records, legal records, and records from the home, like activities calendars, personal journals, photographs, home videos, or sound recordings;
- Conduct home visits; and,
- Make assessments regarding the parents’ capacity for parenting, the psychological and developmental needs of the child or children, the desires of the child or children, when appropriate, and the ability of each parent to meet those needs and desires.
The custody evaluator will not place too much weight on any single source of information. Instead, a good evaluator will wait patiently until he or she collects sufficient evidence from multiple sources before coming to any conclusions. Remember, an evaluator’s goal is to make recommendations that are in the best interests of the child or children involved. Similar to GALs, custody evaluators must reduce their findings to a report that explains the evidence relied upon by the evaluator and the reasoning behind their decisions. Once completed, the evaluator must submit this report to the court. If a GAL has also been appointed to the case, the GAL and custody evaluator will likely communicate with each other in order to coordinate efforts and share information.
Unlike communications with a privately retained psychologist, communication with a court-appointed custody evaluator is NOT confidential as between the parents, attorneys, judges and GALs. The evaluator’s report can help the parents reach agreements about custody, visitation, and parental decision-making concerning the children. If the parties do not come to a consensus prior to trial, either party may request that the psychologist appear at trial and testify on behalf of that party. As with any other professional, the parties involved in a case where a case evaluator has been appointed will be responsible for compensating the evaluator. The cost of child custody evaluations varies depending on the circumstances of the case and may cost anywhere between $3,000.00 and $15,000.00. Normally, the court orders both parties to share this cost equally. However, if one party does choose to have the evaluator testify for him or her, that party would be responsible for compensating the evaluator for his or her court appearance.
After the case evaluation is completed, either parent may challenge the validity of the evaluator’s report in court if that parent considers the evidence or the reasoning relied upon by the evaluator to be inadequate. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to decide whether the evaluator’s opinions are of sufficient value and weight to be considered in awarding custody and visitation.