Before the evaluator comes to visit, parents should do a safety check and make necessary adjustments. The home does not have to be spotless, but sheets should be on the beds. Odors from cigarettes, trash, pets, and diapers should be minimized.
• A wide variety of fresh and healthy food should be in the refrigerator and cupboards. Everyone who lives in the home should be present for the interview.
•Anyone who is a frequent visitor to the home may be there at the beginning but should also be prepared to leave approximately ten minutes after the evaluator's arrival.
•The television should be turned off as soon as the evaluator arrives.
•The evaluator should not be offered anything but a glass of water.
•Let the evaluator choose where to sit and where to talk to household members individually and as a group.
• Inform the evaluator in advance if a household member needs to be seen first because of a work or school commitment.
When the evaluator asks for references or a witness list, the parent should be prepared with names, addresses, telephone and fax numbers, as well as the best time and way to reach them. (The parent should also speak with the references in advance.) Put the reference into the time line of your story to give the evaluator some perspective on when and how long the reference has known the family.
Choose references, including family members, who can corroborate the parenting-plan history as well as a parent's good character. Be wary of references who fail to back up your claims, who barely know you, or who hasn’t observed you being a parent.
The evaluator's confidential report must be filed with the court and served on the parties or their attorneys at least ten days before the custody hearing. It will be used as evidence at the hearing but is technically not binding on the court.
The parties may object to the report when it is presented to the court and even present other evidence or cross-examine the evaluator.
Many courts provide for a post-evaluation meeting, which offers a quick opportunity to hear the results of the evaluation before it's actually put on paper, and gives both parents an opportunity and incentive to return to negotiations or mediation, and to settle child custody themselves.
If the court decides custody, it will do so based on the health, safety, and welfare of the child; the nature and amount of contact with both parents; any history of child abuse by relatives or any caretaker; and any allegations of either parent's substance or alcohol abuse.
Typically it is considered to be in the child's best interests to preserve close contact with both parents as well as siblings and other close relationships. The court will consider the child's wishes if the child is "of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to custody."
Normally the courts encourage settlement, in which the parents stipulate to a custodial arrangement without court investigation or intervention. But the court will review a situation even when there is a settlement if the court becomes aware of substantiated domestic violence or substance-abuse allegations, mental health issues, findings of sexual abuse and so on.
The court is required to protect the interests of the child, and may appoint a guardian whose sole job is to represent the child’s interests.
Tara Fass, LMFT, is a child custody mediator and has served as an evaluator with the Los Angeles Superior Court Conciliation Court. Diana Mercer is an attorney-mediator and founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services. Diana is also the coauthor of Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce (Fireside, 2001).