Custody

What Happens in a Custody Evaluation?

Child custody proceedings can be one of the most emotionally taxing facets of family law proceedings. Whether you are getting a divorce, or are an unmarried parent of a minor child, a case involving child custody issues requires the court to evaluate a number of issues. In California, a family law judge has the authority to order a custody evaluation conducted by a qualified professional. This blog explains the nature of custody evaluations and what occurs during a custody evaluation.

What Is a Custody Evaluation?

A custody evaluation is somewhat self-explanatory. Fundamentally, a custody evaluation is a process whereby a qualified professional evaluates family interactions to answer the question: What custody arrangement serves the best interests of the child?

Court’s have the authority under California Family Code § 3111 to order a custody evaluation if it believes that doing so is in the best interests of the minor child. California law requires evaluations to be conducted by profession who meets certain legal qualifications. A party also has the option of using a private child custody evaluator. However, both court-appointed and private custody evaluators must meet the same basic qualifications.

Qualifications of Custody Evaluators?

A proper custody evaluation analyzes the behavior and interactions of each parent and their child, the child’s developmental needs, the quality of the environment each parent provides their child, and the child’s reactions to the parents’ divorce and conflict. Custody evaluations often involve interviewing the parents, collecting significant documents such as police reports, and consult with other experts and professionals. If facts suggesting child abuse have been alleged, the custody evaluator is given substantial breadth to determine the veracity of such allegations.

Under California Family Code § 3110.5 and Rule 5.225 of California’s Rules of Court, a qualified custody evaluator has a background that meets the following criteria:

  • Successful completion of a state-sanctioned domestic violence and child abuse training program
  • Is a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, family therapist, or clinical social worker
  • Successful completion of 40 hours of education and training in 21 topics regarding child care, child safety, and child abuse prevention
  • Successful completion of ongoing continuing education and training requirements

A proper custody evaluation analyzes the behavior and interactions of each parent and their child, the child’s developmental needs, the quality of the environment each parent provides their child, and the child’s reactions to the parents’ divorce and conflict. Custody evaluations often involve interviewing the parents, collecting significant documents such as police reports, and consult with other experts and professionals. If facts suggesting child abuse have been alleged, the custody evaluator is given substantial breadth to determine the veracity of such allegations.

After completing the custody evaluation, the evaluator reduces their observations and opinions in a report that the family law judge may consider in determining the appropriate custody arrangement for the child. Courts are not compelled to adhere to the custody evaluator’s recommendations. The custody evaluator’s report must be served on both parties at least ten days prior to any hearing on child custody.

Ethical Issues Involving Custody Evaluators

Custody evaluators are clothed in a significant amount of power over the parties. It is not unheard of for parents to be on their best behavior in front of the custody evaluator, or engage in efforts to manipulate them to increase their chances of obtaining a favorable custody determination. Moreover, custody evaluators enjoy “quasi-judicial immunity” from civil liability for acts performed in their quasi-judicial capacity because their role involves the neutral and impartial assessment of facts.

Given the uniquely powerful position that custody evaluators inhabit, the parties are prohibited from engaging in any ex parte communications with the custody evaluator. Likewise, custody evaluators are required to avoid making ex parte communications with either of the parties.

A judge is not required to follow the custody evaluator's recommendations. However, the custody evaluation report may be admitted into evidence. If a party can demonstrate a defect regarding the custody evaluator’s qualifications, process, or the ethical approach to their evaluation, any findings based on the evaluator’s report may be erroneous and therefore appealable.

If you need legal advice regarding issues regarding child custody and custody evaluations, you can benefit from the professional legal advocacy of Moshtael Family Law. Call us at (714) 909-2561 or contact us online for a free consultation.