Dr James Schaller
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The Basic Child Custody Evaluation

Some Things to Consider (Part 1)

It is very hard to meet with someone you feel you have to "win over." So do not try so hard. Evaluators are good at getting to reality, so just keep a few things in mind:

  • If you have some serious flaws that are known, do not lie. If you punched holes in a wall, or had an affair, or if you are struggling with alcohol and the evidence is easy to locate, do not lie. Admit your error, and get a consult with a therapist (last month) on how you are going to stop the problem. People respect those with a plan. If you have no desire to follow through with your plan, that will eventually be very obvious, and you will look like a "gamer."
  • Dress in a way that shows you are serious, but not flashy. Never be late, and I suggest planning on being 30 minutes early. Never take more than one call during an interview or the evaluator may feel you are chaotic and unable to focus. If it is your child calling, explain that it is your child, and "You just want to confirm it is not an emergency." Get off as fast as possible. Ideally, try to take no calls.
  • If you feel the urge to tell your life story and all your feelings and perspectives on all sorts of topics, sew your mouth shut with heavy wire. This person is not your therapist or friend, and they need to cover many specific areas. In one custody evaluation some years ago, I met a mother who handed me fifty pages of notes "on her husband." I had only asked the ages of her children. If you go off verbally, you will look self-absorbed, and this is about your kids, and the evaluator's process, so be flexible with any "agenda." By the way, I read all fifty pages and 95% of it had nothing to do with their two children.
  • When you decided to have children, hopefully you said it was all about being a good parent and loving them. Now you get to show that conviction. Never say anything about yourself that can be said in terms of your children. If you feel that they would be best suited at their current school, mention their friends, their new and solid teachers, and other benefits. Never make it a focus that it is on the way to your job. Simply, make this entirely about the children and as little about you and your needs as possible.
  • If you have a concern about your partner, try to express it calmly and clearly without crying. It might also be best to fuse it with strength. "Dr. Jones, John, their dad, is driving in a way that is too aggressive--like 65 mph in a 35 mph zone. I have no problem with him taking the boys to their practice, but I just wish he would drive in a safer manner when he takes them. Two speeding tickets is John's business. The fact the children were in the car for both is a concern.
  • If you or your children have been physically or sexually abused, be prepared to mention it, and have any objective data available. If you were hit, bring in the pictures if you have some. If your child was sexually abused, bring in the materials that support your claim. It is unknown what percentage of abuse accusations are true, but if it is true, it will likely come out sooner or later.
  • If you are given homework like a questionnaire or a special test, complete it on time and do what is asked. Your compliance shows you are competent. True to be reasonably honest on your questionnaires. Everyone wants to look perfect in a custody evaluation and it is as obvious as a tornado both are trying to come off as super parents.
  • You do not have to be a perfect parent, so be a little at peace. No one is a perfect parent. And if you worry about your partner's evaluation, you are wasting your time. They will not come off perfect either because we all have flaws.
  • When an evaluator is chosen, do not take a long time to set up your appointments. If you can be flexible, be as flexible as you can. If you cannot be too flexible, try to calmly explain the reason why you are somewhat limited. If it is because you had to miss three days at work due to taking three children to three different doctors on different days, it does show you are the primary health caretaker. But if at all possible, try to be flexible with the evaluator.
  • Lets assume that your spouse was a poor spouse. OK? But the evaluation has little to do with that issue. It has to do with the gifts you and your spouse bring to the table. Unless there is serious abuse or a concern for the children's physical survival, try to avoid excess criticism. A few focused concerns are fine if true. "Since John, their dad, had his car accident he struggles with attention, and the pool is easy for the little one to walk into if the doors are not locked."
  • Never use your child as your therapist.
  • Never tell your children about the marital mistakes of the other spouse. Making the other spouse look bad does not help your children and it will make you look bad. Unless there is severe abuse, generally children really need both parents. You need to express that conviction. For example, it is not "your" child, but "our" child.
  • If you try to turn your child against the other spouse it will usually be revealed. The people involved in this process have seen everything hundreds of times. They also know if the co-parent is made to look like a loser because they were a disappointment as a spouse, this will literally hurt your child or children.
  • Many evaluators will come to your home. It does not have to look like a set from a 1950's movie, but it should not be junky. Try to show you have some structure and order to the home. All children and adolescents need some basic rules, structure and some fun.
  • If you are going to meet with the evaluator with your child or children, try to do fun things or calm satisfying things before the session which the child enjoys. However, some little children can be over stimulated and then hard to settle down, so use your good parental instincts.
  • Be prepared to mention a few of your weaknesses and some of your co-parents strengths.
  • Be prepared to summarize the major events in your relationship with your co-parent.
  • Try to release your hate or bitterness as part of your own divorce recovery. If this is leaking out of your pores, it is not useful for your child, since this is felt to be a poor emotional environment for your child or children. If you want to mention it briefly, OK, but keep it strongly controlled.
  • If you have any way to have a lawyer, please get one. Generally the best ones are not in love with legal violence. The best ones will learn your case personally, and the strengths and weaknesses of your situation, and present your position in clearly and firmly in terms of the law. Most custody cases do not go to trial, and so the ability of your attorney to work with the other lawyer can be useful. Generally, you will not be able to crush the other side into some sort of homerun with money, motions or speaking ill of the other. Typically, because not everything you want is in the best interests of the child, and a lawyer should try to be as realistic as possible even if it hurts to hear. You do not want surprises. You want to know the issues and the different ways the court might go with your situation.

Finally, be at peace. Your child or children need you. It is really that simple. Simply love them and care for them in the manner you can, and that will be clear to everyone and also to your children. If you love them, in the future they will love you for your faithful presence, reliability and affection. Children have a great ability to love you 200%, and to still love their other parent also. They need you. Love them. And then love them again.

Plan on many special times together for the rest of your life.

Dr. J

Bank Towers, Tamiami Trail, Naples, FL
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