The role of custody evaluations in a divorce is to determine what is in the best interest of the children. A child custody evaluator will gather information from interviews with the family and also by gathering documentation, from the parties as well as other “collaterals” such as neighbors, teachers, therapists, etc. The evaluation will then decide what is the children’s best interest going forward.
A custody evaluation doesn’t happen in every divorce, but it can be court-ordered, or it can be requested and mutually agreed upon by the parents. Usually, if a party requests a custody evaluation, the court will order both parties to undergo a psychological evaluation to aid in conducting the child custody evaluation.
There are some cases where a court-appointed guardian ad litem is used. The guardian ad litem can conduct interviews, obtain information, review documents, and then make recommendations to the court. The Texas Family Code has specific duties for which the guardian can be ordered to fulfill. Using guardian ad litem is less intrusive and is usually less expensive (financially and emotionally) than a full custody evaluation.
Qualifications of the Mental Health Professionals Doing the Evaluation?
A child custody evaluator is a mental health professional. They must meet the statutory requirements and have had experience doing custody evaluations. Their role is not to support one parent over the other. They are focused on what is in the best interest of the children. Their experience and training can identify issues that may arise based on the behaviors of the children, the parents, as well as the family as a whole.
Does the Judge Always Abide By the Recommendations?
The judge does not have to abide by the child custody evaluator’s recommendations. The judge has the discretion to make decisions based on all of the testimony not just the recommendations of the custody evaluation. While in a jury trial, the jury will decide the custody of the children, but the judge has the final say in the possession schedule. The jury may decide for one parent based on the custody evaluator’s testimony. However, the judge may then award the parent the jury decided on child custody by title but allow the children to spend most of their time with the other parent because the judge thinks it is in the best interest of the children. Many guardian ad litems are well known and respected by local judges from prior experience, and as such, judges pay careful attention to their recommendations, and give much more weight to their recommendations.