A Parenting Evaluation (PE), also called a Custody Evaluation, is a formal investigation that attempts to assess the level of each parent's respective parenting skills, and to determine which parent may be best suited to care for a child or children.
A PE is usually done at the request of one of the divorcing parties, but may also be court-ordered. It involves personal interviews with the parents by trained evaluators, psychological testing of the parents and most importantly, it allows for "collateral contacts" to be interviewed. A "collateral contact" can be almost anyone; a daycare provider, family friends, employers, marriage counselors, etc etc.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLATERAL CONTACTS CANNOT BE OVERSTATED.
These are the people that know you and your spouse- they know what he or she's like and what they've done. In a parenting evaluation, things like infidelity, financial manipulation, drug use, mental cruelty and physical abuse do matter! It's a direct indicator of what kind of person your spouse is, and is relevant to a parenting evaluator!
To put it simply, a parenting evaluation allows you to bring your spouse's behavior into court, something you might not be able to do otherwise, especially in a 'no-fault' state.
One last note- the overview given here is of a "typical" Parenting Evaluation, but like everything else, evaluation procedures may vary depending upon what organization is performing the actual work. As a rule of thumb, a proper evaluation should consist of at least the steps outlined below, and possibly more.
Notes On Using This Guide
1) All the links in this document should be followed. Some information mentioned in this document is detailed in more extensive write-ups that were too large to include on this page. To get the most from this guide, they must be read.
2) If you are currently involved in an evaluation or will be in the future, be aware that the time to report any unethical, biased, or otherwise improper conduct by the evaluator is DURING the evaluation, NOT after the report and the custody recommendation have been made. Report improper behavior by the evaluator to your attorney immediately.
An Overview Of The Evaluation Process
A PE usually begins with each party filling out a Parenting History Survey form (PHS) or the ASPECT form, or both. The PHS is a long questionnaire, with typically about 100 questions. The PHS covers your marriage in some detail, beginning with when you met your spouse, major events during the marriage and additional information concerning the separation and divorce. After the PHS has been filled out and turned in by both parties, interviews are scheduled.
The first contact typically consists of a 1 to 2 hour interview with a trained evaluator (usually a psychologist) and the taking of an MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) or other psychological assessment test(s). You will normally go back for another session called "Monitored Parent/Child Play". You and your child (or children) will be asked to "play" in a monitored room and the session will be video-taped. Finally, you'll almost certainly go back for at least one more interview where they may ask you to respond to allegations your spouse has made, and/or to discuss some of your responses to the MMPI test.
Additional testing procedures, such as drug tests, may be administered if concerns about drug use are raised. When all this is completed, the evaluator prepares his/her report and will then present it to both your attorney and your spouse's attorney at a meeting where they'll discuss the results. Initiating The Parenting Evaluation
A Parenting Evaluation may be requested by you or your attorney. Usually it's best to have your attorney file a motion asking the court to order that both parties undergo an evaluation. This is also the best way to proceed when your spouse is unlikely to cooperate in the evaluation process.
Let the court and especially the evaluator know that, if necessary, you're willing to pay for the entire cost of the evaluation. You want them to be able to be able to find out what they need to know, and you'll pay them to do so even if your spouse isn't willing or able to pay for his or her share of it.
Offering to pay for the entire cost opens other benefits, too.
First, it shows you are serious and that money is not an issue,
Third, it gives you the opportunity to schedule the initial interviews. You'll want to do this so you can schedule your interview before your spouse's. An evaluation will not proceed without payment up front, and since you're the responsible or paying party, you know who you'll choose (your spouse won't) so you can make arrangements to set up your appointment first.
The Parenting History Survey
Filling out the Parenting History Survey (PHS) is a crucial part of the evaluation process. If at all possible, get an electronic copy of the survey so you can fill it out on a PC. Otherwise, type the entire PHS into your word processor (questions and answers) or pay someone to do it- the latter may be preferable. Make sure you duplicate it as closely as possible. You want this huge and complex form to look good when you turn it in. Let your spouse turn in the one with all the hand-written comments and numerous erasures and corrections.
When filling out the PHS, stick to the facts and don't embroider. Try to go beyond the simple "yes" and "no" answers with a short explanation for each of your answers. If necessary, make a note asking that the evaluator discuss a particular section with you in person or on the phone.
Keep a neutral tone throughout the PHS form, don't lambaste your spouse or include critical or sarcastic comments under any circumstances. If you suspect something but have no proof (such as drug use), state so clearly. State the reasons for your suspicions and make them sound reasonable. Above all, tell the truth.
Completeness is important- answer every question or else indicate that the question is not applicable (N/A). Make references to any supporting documentation you've included and be specific; indicate which document, and the location of the referenced item. For logged notes, include the date so the evaluator can go right to the entry in question- don't make them search for it.
Once you think you're done filling out the PHS, set it aside for a day or two, then proofread it several times. It may be a good idea to have a friend look it over and critique it. If your friend happens to have been through a parenting evaluation before, so much the better. (hint hint) Alternatively, seek assistance from a Father's Rights organization. Check out the links page for dozens of links to Father's Rights groups and other resources. (And don't forget that you can always ask for assistance right here, on the SPARC Message Boards.)
Don't be in a hurry to get the PHS turned in, but don't dawdle, either. The evaluators expect that it'll take you some time to fill it out- sometimes as much as 3 or 4 weeks. If you can't get all the documentation in time to turn it in with the PHS, include a note indicating that you're waiting for additional documentation (and be sure to indicate what it is).
Instead of (or in addition to) the PHS form, you may be asked to fill out the Ackerman-Schoendorf Scales of Parent Evaluation of Custody Test or ASPECT form. The ASPECT form consists of 68 questions, similar in nature to the questions asked in the PHS. The ASPECT literature states that "ASPECT produces an overall score, the Parental Custody Index (PCI), which guides custody decisions. It not only tells you which parent is more effective; it also tells you how much more effective that parent is. If neither parent is effective, the PCI will reflect that, too."
Note that the ASPECT form is a test, as the answers to the ASPECT form are 'graded' by a clinician. The ASPECT literature makes clear reference to this:
"In addition, ASPECT differentiates situations in which one parent should obtain full custody from those in which joint custody is appropriate; it has also proven effective in identifying parents who need supervision during child visitation. Consistent with APA Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations, ASPECT requires the clinician to answer 56 yes-or-no questions based on information obtained from the following sources: the ASPECT Parent Questionnaire; interview with and observation of each parent with and without the child; and scores obtained from tests routinely used for child custody evaluation and an IQ measure for the child (these tests are not included in the ASPECT kit)."
Finally, assemble all of the supporting documentation and the PHS/ASPECT form, then make a copy for your lawyer and a copy for your own safekeeping. Bear in mind that whatever you provide to the evaluator may eventually end up in the hands of your spouse's lawyer- in some cases this can be a good thing. If they see that you have documented evidence of your spouses shortcomings as a parent they may be more willing to deal with you. On the other hand, if they see that you've misled the evaluator it'll work against you. The Importance Of Documentation
This is crucial, so pay attention. The more supporting documentation you can bring in to present to the evaluator, the better, as long as it's relevant. This does NOT mean you should bury the evaluator in paper, it means you should work hard to assemble an array of items to document your ex's trouble spots. The documentation you supply will vary depending upon what you're trying to show. Has your ex had dozens of jobs, indicating employment instability? Great!- get their W-2 forms and make copies for the evaluator. Has he or she committed forgery or written bad checks? Again, make copies and supply them as evidence of financial manipulation or financial instability. If you're taking notes of all your conversations with them (and you should be), copy the logged notes and give them to the evaluator. If you've given her money, make copies of the canceled checks and get them to the evaluator.
If nothing else, providing documentation will show you're methodical and that you're making an attempt to provide them with credible material to support your version of events.
Documentation can show your spouse has bad judgment, does things that are illegal, is unstable, etc etc- without your having to say a word. Oftentimes, a document speaks louder than words since it is an objective record of an event that can be verified independently. If you can't get the documentation you need, at least provide the name and phone number of a person the evaluator can contact to discuss the unavailable documents.
While you're at it, you should provide a list of ALL the collateral contacts that you'd like the evaluator to speak with. On this "contact list", have the persons name and phone number, their relationship to you and a brief description of their relevance to the evaluation (why they should be contacted). See the example contact list for an idea of what to provide.
Once you've assembled all this documentation, go through it, put in some kind of order and then write a cover-sheet listing each piece of documentation and what its relevance is. Put it all neatly in a binder or envelope and turn it in with your Parenting History Survey.
Remember, the more work you do, the easier it will be for the evaluator to find out the facts. Don't make the evaluator do any more legwork than he/she has to. Put yourself in their place and ask yourself what kind of information you'd want to make your job easier and more effective. The Interview
The interview will normally be done in a bland room, and is usually video-taped. You are told in advance that the interview will be taped, and are asked to sign a waiver allowing them to do so. Sign the waiver. Any resistance or reluctance on your part will probably weigh heavily against you. During the interview, the evaluator will ask about your childhood, your parents' relationship and such things as what attracted you to your spouse, how you shared responsibilities for chores and childcare, etc etc. Also be prepared to discuss your parenting style, parenting skills, and how you discipline your child. Again, be honest. Evaluators have very well-tuned and highly-sensitive bullshit detectors, and the last thing you want to do is to give them the impression that you're attempting to deceive them. (Let your spouse do that instead.) If you were a poor student in school, admit it. If you had arguments with your spouse, say so.
If you use (or have used) drugs, tell the evaluator. Be honest and admit to things that you might not normally want to, AS LONG AS IT'S THE TRUTH. Speak calmly and evenly, and if you can do so, keep your body language "neutral" or "open". If you don't know what this means, go to the library and get some books on body language, or use your favorite search engine to find some information on the Internet.
If you have the opportunity, do your interview first, before your spouse does. This allows you to present your side of events (with documentation) before your spouse does, and may put the evaluator on the fast track to finding out the truth about what is really going on. Evaluators are human, and may form significant impressions and opinions early in the process.
Another EXTREMELY important point is this: DON'T "SLAM" YOUR SPOUSE. You may have lots of reasons to, and many of them may be perfectly good reasons, too, but don't do it. The evaluators regard "spouse slamming" as a bad sign and will hold it against you. If they ask about certain events, tell the truth but don't overdo it- make them dig a bit before you say anything negative about your spouse.
When you do have the opportunity to relate negative or damaging information, do it in an objective, non-blaming manner. See the examples section for ways to do this. This is extremely important- as mentioned earlier, evaluators regard "spouse slamming" as a bad sign and will hold it against you. Let them investigate- chances are they'll find plenty of evidence. Just point them towards it and tell them what they may expect to find. Let your spouse slam you all he or she wants, generally it'll only work in your favor.
Tell the evaluator that you only desire fair access to your children, and that you don't wish to separate your children from your spouse or vice versa. Tell the evaluator that you think it's important that your children have regular and frequent contact with both their parents, and that you think it's important for their development. Tell the evaluator also that you don't wish to be separated from your children.
Don't make things up or exaggerate- the evaluators have seen it all before and will spot it pretty quickly.
If your wife has had an abortion (or more than one), mention this to the evaluator but do not appear to place an undue emphasis on it. Some evaluators regard abortions as very significant (and negative) events, so make sure that a mention is made of this on the record, whether verbally, in documentation, or both.
The evaluator may ask you about who will care for the child or children when they get sick. As any reasonable, concerned parent would, tell them that you would stay home and take care of the child. Telling them that you would have a friend or a family member (like your mother) watch your sick child while you go off to work is unlikely to impress them in a positive way.
The evaluator may ask you a series of standard questions, one of which is "Describe your child to me." The evaluator is NOT looking for a physical description suitable for a "Wanted" poster (i.e. "He's 4'4", about 90 pounds and has short blonde hair"). What they want to hear from you is something that indicates you have an understanding of your child's nature and personality.
A example of a good response might be to say that your child is "mature for his age, a little shy, but has a great sense of humor". This shows the evaluator that you are in touch with who your child is as a person, as opposed to a thing, and that your awareness of his strengths (his maturity and great sense of humor) and his difficulties (being a little shy) increases the probability that you will be sensitive to and responsive to his emotional needs.
The evaluator may also ask you what you want most in the way of custody, or may ask you what you would do if you were granted full custody. A proper response is to state that you would probably offer your ex joint or shared custody, perhaps on a 50% week-on, week-off schedule, or something along those lines. The evaluator wants to hear that you are willing to cooperate with your spouse and can be a "good winner", someone who is not just unlikely to interfere with the other parent's relationship with the child, but someone who would actively promote and support the relationship.
The evaluator may ask how you would handle various kinds of everyday "emergencies" with your child. (This could be anything from a sudden lack of daycare to the child being sick.) Be aware that being employed full time may be seen by them as a problem. Remember, they're looking for the best parent, not the best wage-earner. You must show (convince) the evaluator and the court that you are able to work full-time and manage the children full time.
If living together with your spouse during the battle, propose (and use) a datebook to schedule time with your child. Show it to the evaluator and explain what it's for. This shows them that you're taking practical steps to cooperatively schedule the parenting time with the child. If your ex vindictively tries to take advantage of this and schedules the time unfairly (for example, marking off every Saturday so you never get one with the child), make sure the evaluator's attention is directed toward this behavior, as it shows a basic uncooperativeness on the part of your spouse.
If possible, try and highlight a current problem you are having with your spouse that demonstrates his or her inability to accommodate or co-parent with you. This unwillingness to work together is a key behavior that evaluators look for and are highly interested in.
It's a good idea to say a few complimentary things about your spouse. For example, if she's a better cook than you, knows how to sew well, sings beautifully or has a "head for names and dates", say so. Tell the evaluator what kinds of things he or she can do well, but don't overdo it. Mention that in spite of all of their good qualities, you still have some "issues" (NOT "problems") with what you feel are deficits in their parenting skills.
Finally, tell the evaluator that you're willing to sign any waiver or request for information, and that you'll take any test they might want you to take. Tell them that you'll give them permission to look into anything they're interested in, and that if more time is required, you're willing to pay for it. Don't wait for them to get around to this- volunteer it to them and repeat it every time you meet with the evaluator. Make them aware that you're being honest and open with them. Several important DO's and DON'Ts:
DO present yourself as a fair and reasonable person.
DO speak calmly and evenly, and use "open" body language.
DO state that you believe you would make the better choices for your child's welfare.
DO tell the evaluator that you'll sign any waiver for information that they need.
DO state that you only desire fair access to your child.
DON'T "flame" or "slam" your spouse.
DON'T say that your spouse should be kept away from your child.
DON'T make false accusations against your spouse.
DON'T lose your cool, become angry or emotional.
DON'T argue or be sarcastic with the evaluator.
Various psychological or 'personality' tests are often administered during an evaluation, and most evaluations would be considered lacking if no such tests were given. Although psychological tests can be valuable tools to help assess a parent in terms of general mental health, these tests can be misused or used inappropriately. If psychological tests are part of your evaluation, we strongly urge you to read Misuse of Psychological Tests in Forensic Settings: Some Horrible Examples by Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield. Be prepared to challenge your test results if you feel the test was used, administered, or scored improperly.
The standard MMPI is one of the most frequently administered tests given during evaluations. It is a a 567-question psychological-assessment test that asks you to 'agree' or 'disagree' with statements such as "I sometimes feel the urge to do something harmful or shocking", "I often have a lump in my throat", and "If I was a reporter, I would like to cover sporting events". Various questions are repeated multiple times, phrased in different ways. The MMPI is often given along with other psychological tests, such as the MMCI, the Rotter Incomplete Sentence test, and the Rorschach or "inkblot" test. Many mental health professionals feel the Rorschach is completely worthless and without scientific merit, but the Rorschach is still used by some evaluators.
An MMPI test is very difficult, if not impossible, for an ordinary person to "cheat" on. In fact, the more you try to "manipulate" the test, the more likely it is that you will score poorly. At the very least you will score out as "deceptive" and "defensive"- definitely NOT the results you'd like to have.
Your best bet is to simply take the test, not thinking about each question much, and above all BE HONEST. People who deliberately try to show themselves in an unrealistically "good light" are detected quite easily. don't try to "psych out" the test. Don't attempt to portray yourself as a perfect person- this will backfire EVERY TIME. Just be honest.
It's normal to come away from the MMPI (or similar tests) feeling as though you've made an utter mess of it, but as long as you've been honest and didn't try to manipulate the test, chances are you did just fine. Relax. The Parent/Child Play Session
At some point in the evaluation process, you'll be asked to participate in a "Parent/Child Play Session". This is just what it sounds like- you and your child or children will play for about an hour while the evaluator(s) observe you, usually through a one-way mirror. This session is also usually taped.
Unless instructed not to, always bring some of your child's toys from home, as they may or may not have toys available in the "playroom". Familiar toys will also help put your child at ease. Sometimes the playroom is simply an interview room with the chairs pushed back against the walls, sometimes it's a fully-stocked play area. It's also a good idea to bring some snacks and something for your child to drink. A snack is a good way to help calm them down if they're feeling nervous.
Play with your child normally, don't be afraid to show affection, and if there's anything that might pose a "threat" to them, move it out of the way or deal with it. This might be something as innocuous as an extension cord in the area where you play, or a chair that is "too high" for them to safely play on. The evaluators look for you to respond to these kinds of things, so look around once you're in the room and make sure the play area is safe.
Talk with your child as you play and have fun. Relate to your child on his/her level, don't expect too much of them and don't be critical or disparaging of them. Frankly, if you don't already play with your children (as you should do every day), it'll show. There isn't any way to fake good interaction with your child, so don't try. If you don't play with your kids and have fun, you probably don't deserve to get custody of them anyway.
Some people feel that it's better to do your parent/child play session after their spouse has done their parent/child play session. The reasoning behind this is that the child will be more at ease going to and playing in the interview or play room because they have been there before and are familiar with it. There is some merit to this, in our opinion. Instead of going someplace new (and possibly a little scary), they're going somewhere they've already been before, to play. Collateral Contacts
Collateral contacts (friends, family members, employers) are a key part of any Parenting Evaluation. By having people who know your spouse talk to the evaluator, a clear picture of their behavior, temperament, emotional makeup and parenting skills can be provided. If your spouse has had conflict(s) with past employers, roommates or acquaintances, those are the people you want the evaluator to speak with. What you want to be able to make the evaluator aware of are any patterns of emotional instability, employment instability, interpersonal conflicts, inability to compromise, unwillingness to deal rationally with people and similar character traits.
Definitely have the evaluator contact anyone who may have seen your spouse mistreat your children, or who may have doubts about the way your spouse acts (or has acted) as a parent. Anyone they've angered, cheated, or had a "falling out" with is a candidate for a collateral contact. Well-balanced, psychologically healthy people won't have a long history of conflicts with family, friends, and employers; emotionally unhealthy people almost always do.
People you supply to vouch for your character should be willing to speak well about you to the evaluator. Obviously, you don't want to pick anyone who'll trash your character, reputation or parenting ability. At the same time, try and anticipate who your spouse will pick to speak against you and what they're likely to say. Think about how to respond fairly and honestly to what these people might say.
Once you've picked the collateral contacts for the evaluator to talk with, call each of them and explain to them that they may be contacted by the evaluator to discuss you and your spouse. This is primarily so they aren't surprised by the evaluator's call- you don't want your contacts to feel as though they're being "ambushed". Make sure they agree to speak openly and honestly to the evaluator, and if there are specific points you want them to communicate to the evaluator, go over these items with them and ask them to mention these things to the evaluator.
Tell the contacts that it may be a while before the evaluators call them or it may be fairly soon- evaluators work at their own pace and some take longer than others to get to collateral contacts. Don't worry if the evaluator doesn't contact everyone on your list- in most cases, this is a good sign, not a bad one. You may have cause for concern if they don't contact any of the people on your list, however. It may indicate that the evaluator is lethargic in his/her duties, unmotivated, or incompetent, but don't assume this without reason. Follow-up Interviews
After the evaluator sifts through the documentation you and your spouse have supplied, examined the results of the MMPI tests and spoken with some (or all) of the collateral contacts, they'll normally have you back for at least one follow-up interview. During this interview they may seek to clarify some allegations or claims you, your spouse or the collateral contacts have made. They may also want to go over some of the responses you gave to some of the questions on the MMPI test. This is where you'll probably start to get an idea of what kind of accusations your spouse has made about you. Stay cool and don't become angry or flustered. Answer the evaluators questions honestly. They may have confirmed certain events or claims and just want to see if you admit or deny them. I can't stress this enough: Tell the truth. No evaluator expects you (or your spouse) to be perfect. If you were, you wouldn't be undergoing a Parenting Evaluation.
If an accusation against you isn't true, say so, but don't overdo it. If you can, offer to provide proof in the form of documentation or a collateral contact. If you can't provide proof, calmly say so: "That isn't true, but I don't see how I can prove it" or "That never happened, but I don't have any way of showing that it never happened."
Tell the evaluator that all you want is a chance to respond to any accusations that your spouse may have made, and that you simply would like the chance to tell your side of the story. Speak calmly and evenly, and if you can do so, keep your body language "neutral" or "open".
The follow-up interview is also your chance to present additional information favorable to your version of events. Again, don't overdo it. Tell the evaluator that you have some additional information you think they should have (or be aware of), and present it to them. As in the first interview, don't "slam" your spouse. If you have negative information to present, do so in an objective manner. See the examples section for ways to do this. After The Evaluation
After the interviews and other investigations are over, expect at least a month before the evaluator releases his or her report. This is a nervous time for all, but don't let it get to you. In some cases more than a month may elapse, but be concerned if the evaluator issues the report in an unusually short time, or if the evaluation process seems to go too rapidly or appears to be very abbreviated (for example, no collateral contacts get interviewed, no follow-up sessions with you or your spouse are performed, or failure by the evaluator to investigate items you have requested them to look into.) Other Important Points Keep in mind the following things:
You're only going to get ONE chance to do well on the Parenting Evaluation. Once the parenting evaluation is over, it's over. Evaluators almost NEVER go back and change the final recommendations in the evaluation report. To do so would open up all the previous reports they've done to reinterpretation, as well as all the future reports they're going to do. Don't count on it.
It takes extremely compelling evidence to cause a parenting evaluation to be reopened. After all, most evaluation reports are done by a team of psychologists and/or therapists, not by a single evaluator. You may only see or deal with one person, but that one person usually has a staff of people he or she works with. The chance that a judge is later going to find that they were all wrong is pretty remote.
The point, as mentioned above, is that you're only going to get ONE chance to do well. You need to "have your act together" when you do the evaluation.
Use collateral contacts wisely. Point the evaluator towards collateral contacts who will say what needs to be said about your spouse. Don't forget that the things these people say have to be true. However, since collateral contacts are allowed to speak frankly about your spouse, by all means make use of them. The evaluator needs to hear the unvarnished truth about your spouse from as many people as possible.
Maintain your honesty at all costs and tell the truth. If telling the truth causes you to lose your children (highly unlikely), then you probably aren't the best parent to care for them. Parenting evaluators don't expect you to be perfect, but they do want the truth. Let your spouse lie all they want- it'll give the evaluator something to hold against her. The more your spouse lies, the better it is for you, as long as the evaluator finds out what the truth really is. Use documentation or collateral contacts to show what the truth is. I cannot stress this enough: maintain your honesty and tell the truth. If the evaluator catches someone in a single lie, that person's credibility is GONE. Let that person be your ex-wife, not you.
Maintain confidentiality of the report. The evaluator's report is considered "confidential", even though it may not be marked as such. DO NOT send copies of the report to friends or relatives, or allow anyone to read it. If you do, and your spouse's lawyer finds out about it, you'll pay for it. It may even make you lose your case. After all the paperwork is signed and you're officially divorced you may do whatever you want with it.