How To Choose The Right Custody Evaluator When They Do Get Involved
Just like most people getting married never plan for divorce, no one having children ever imagines a day when they will need to spend thousands of dollars to hire a stranger to make significant decisions impacting their children’s lives.
According to New Jersey psychologist, co-parenting therapist, and custody evaluator Dr. Mark Singer, “There’s two ways to go through a custody evaluation: the uncomfortable way and the less uncomfortable way.” Anyone undergoing this experience is probably already dealing with trauma, so it’s essential to know what to expect, and how to handle it.
Dr. Singer shared some insight on what to look for in a good custody evaluator and important questions to ask when choosing one. Here are some excerpts from what he said during our live interview on this topic:
Do you know what parents have to remember? It takes a village to raise a child. I agree with that. But to me, at the end of the day, there are only two people who should be making those decisions. Or maybe one. If you’re a single parent, it should be that parent. But of course, in these high-conflict cases and custody battles that we see 100% of the time other people get involved, then we just have to figure it out.
Sometimes you’re doing the right thing and you’re dealing with someone who’s severely narcissistic. And no matter what you do, it’s not good enough.
Healthy decisions for children are best made by parents because they always know their children better. I think it’s very narcissistic for an evaluator to meet a child three or four times and to think he or she knows better than the parents do. I don’t get the luxury of living with the children. You all do.
We never spend enough time with the children. When children wake up with nightmares at two in the morning, I know that although a parent is telling me that, I don’t know how the child’s experiencing it. And that becomes the parent’s role in talking about it the best way he or she can, the experience of the child.
These things are time-limited evaluations; they can’t go on forever. They’re only a snapshot in time.
I think the more decisions parents can make on their own, the fewer decisions a judge or custody evaluator has to make. And if a judge has to make those decisions or a custody evaluator, what happens is that it robs the parent of raising their children.
If a judge has to tell you your child’s going to go to this after-school program, or the child’s not going to play baseball, the child’s going to go to gymnastics or dance, the child’s not going to see this doctor, the child’s not going to see you every weekend, the child is going to see someone else during the week, and maybe we’ll let a grandparent go on the weekend and we’ll let you be supervised or whatever it may be…The more you can keep someone out of the court system, [the better].
There was a commercial years ago, which said, “an educated consumer is our best customer.” I think that the more evaluators you talk to, the more information you get, the better decision you make for yourself.
In looking to get the best custody evaluator possible, the first thing I would not do is go to Google and start looking at reviews. You’ll see some good reviews and some bad reviews, but people that have had negative experiences are more likely to post reviews in a custody evaluation. At least one parent’s going to be unhappy. It’s unfortunate.
The first thing that should occur is, if you have the resources, talk to an attorney about his or her experiences with different evaluators. Qualifications are important, obviously, and you can get an evaluator’s resume.
I do think it’s very fair for you to call an evaluator with caution. It’s good to ask about the process. But, I think it puts you in a very awkward spot if you start telling the custody evaluator about your family because I’ll tell you what I do. If someone calls here and says, “Listen, Dr. Singer, we’re thinking about hiring you, okay?” If they tell me too much information, that can actually get me thrown off the case.
My view is that this information is so important that it shouldn’t be discussed on the telephone, and should be discussed face to face.
I would ask the evaluator about their experiences, including how long they’ve been doing this, and whether they have ever testified in court. What professional guidelines do they adhere to? You know, there’s the APA, American Psychological Association, there’s AFDC, Association of Family Courts and Conciliation.
I would ask the evaluator if you have concerns about culture. I’ve had families call me and say, listen, you know, we’re from Nigeria. What kind of experience do you have working with Nigerian Americans or Orthodox Jews? What you don’t want is an evaluator who just flies off of the seat of their pants.
I think the bottom line is comfort. And when I say comfort, not just your comfort, but more importantly the children’s comfort.
I think it’s really important that the evaluator hear you. Sometimes when you read the reports, not everything you said is in there. That’s why evaluators keep notes and files and there are depositions. When we interview children, the parents are not in the room, so they don’t know what their children are being asked and what they’re not being asked.
The other thing I will say that’s extremely important is, whether you represent yourself or you have an attorney, to have your lawyer or yourself organize documents that only reflect the referral question.
Be judicious with the materials that you’re going to provide, whether to your lawyer or to the evaluator.
I have people who send me hundreds of pages of tax returns. Listen, I can’t do my own tax returns, never mind read somebody else’s. The more you can narrow down the documentation, the better it will be. Because when you flood people with 5,000 pages of stuff, there’s a cost to that.
Even in the middle of an evaluation, don’t be afraid to ask questions. But beyond that, when people come in with a suitcase full of stuff and they start wanting to go through all of their items, it slows down the process. There may be a time and a place for that, but again, be judicious with the information. Any evaluator that needs more information will ask for it.
I have a lot of clients that want to send me videotapes and audiotapes. Sometimes you get into a legal issue. Not every state allows you to record someone without telling them that you’re recording.
So you should know your state laws clearly. For audiotapes and videotapes, some are very helpful. For others, you run into the issue of understanding that there’s something that happened before the recording and after the recording. I can’t tell if an audiotape’s been doctored or not and I feel bad seeing people go to court, where the other side hires an expert to show that the audiotape has been doctored.
I think the most important thing in terms of preparation is just to be honest. Most people have things that they’re proud of and most have things that they’re not so proud of. We want children growing up being able to say, “You know, my dad has some good points and my dad has some bad points,
and my mom has some good points and my mom has some bad points.”
I think being able to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of your significant other is a good thing.
But at the end of the day, nobody wins. The parents are going to have to live with whatever decisions are made for the children. You just want recommendations that are in the best interest of the children.
Dr. Singer stressed throughout our conversation that parents should think about the experience of the child. He noted how important it is for parents to pay attention to how evaluators are dressed, and how they present when children go to meet and spend time with them. As your kids may associate a person in a white jacket with going to the doctor, we hope that they in turn should not be associating a custody evaluator with a judge or court.
He also corrected a common misconception people have regarding the intended role of a custody evaluator, making it clear that people like him are not there to mediate between the parties, and that a parenting coordinator or coach is better suited for advice on decision-making.
Our mission at Been There Got Out is empowerment through education. We help teach you how to present your case as powerfully as possible so that you have the chance of the best outcome in family court and beyond. We find an expert opinion is one of the best ways to educate ourselves on the reality of what people have to do within the family court system, and how to arm ourselves properly.
(Note: This blog is Part 2 in a series, and is a clip from our live interview, “How To Prepare for a Successful Custody Evaluation (From An Evaluator Schooled in Coercive Control),” with New Jersey psychologist, Dr. Mark Singer. Part 1 is “Why “Parental Alienation” is Not A Syndrome But Your Child’s Rejection is REAL: How to Handle It Properly” ).
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