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NY Child Custody Evaluations

Posted on May 5, 2020

If you are undergoing a divorce and have children, you have heard the term “in the best interest of the child.” This is the most important standard the New York courts will use to determine child custody and visitation. In the best of all worlds, a divorcing couple can put their issues with each other aside and develop a “parenting plan” that puts their child’s needs at the forefront.

There are times, however, where allegations or a history of problems between a parent and a child or between parents makes a New York Child Custody Evaluation necessary. Whether ordered by the court, recommended by an attorney or requested by a parent, chances are, you have many questions about the how and why of a custody evaluation. Here are answers to some of the questions we are most often asked.

1. What, exactly, is a NY child custody evaluation?

Sometimes called a “forensic custodial evaluation,” it is an assessment conducted by a mental health professional to determine what is in the child’s best interest. It takes into account the skills and shortfalls or each parent along with the child’s needs. The evaluator does not side with one parent or another and should not have had any previous interaction with either parent or the child. Guidelines for child custody evaluators in New York include:

  • The child’s best psychological interests and well-being are always the primary concerns
  • Psychologists should be impartial and objective in conducting child custody evaluations
  • Special knowledge and experience on the part of the psychologist for a child custody evaluation is essential. This should include child and family development; diversity in family living structure, culture and function; child abuse and neglect; the dynamics of divorce and its effect on children; court procedures; and legal options in custody

2. How can a mental health study or forensic evaluation be requested?

While it is often ordered by the court, a parent also has the right to request a mental health study/forensic evaluation. Typically, this is done through that parent’s lawyer. It is important that if you do request an evaluation that you do not “coach” your child to give the answers that you want, particularly if they are untruthful. Not only are evaluators likely to quickly spot a parental influence, it is emotionally damaging to your child. Talk to your attorney to make sure you understand all the issues, as well as the cost, of a forensic evaluation.

3. Why may a forensic custodial evaluation be needed?

Parents who are in conflict often trigger an order or request for a forensic evaluation. Evaluations are also deemed necessary in cases of:

  • Domestic violence: Whether against the parent or the child, allegations or a history of domestic violence will require a forensic evaluation
  • Questionable parenting: This isn’t just about a disagreement as to whether it’s a good idea to let your child have ice cream after dinner – it’s about those issues that put a child at risk physically or emotionally. Questionable parenting can range from frequently and consistently berating a child to leaving young children unattended to having known criminals in the house, any of which amount to child harm.
  • Mental illness or impairment: A significant and/or untreated mental illness may leave a parent unable to properly care for a child.
  • Parental alienation: When one parent manipulates a child verbally or by conduct to create hostility towards or isolation from their other parent, it constitutes parental alienation and is often considered a type of child abuse.

4. How does the evaluation process work?

The process consists of both interviews and observation, as well as an examination of court files. The evaluator (mental health professional) will interview the child and each parent separately and individually and conduct a parental history survey. He or she will also observe the child’s interaction with each parent (again, separately). Each parent, and sometimes the child, will be tested psychologically. The evaluator may also gather information from teachers, caregivers, physicians or other witnesses.

5. Does the evaluator give recommendations to the court?

Yes, and those recommendations carry significant weight in how the court makes its final decision regarding custody, visitation and time-sharing, as well as how parents should address future conflicts and whether counseling should be required.

Learn more about how to prepare for and deal with a child custody evaluation

With so much at stake, it is important to have a knowledgeable New York City child custody attorney to help you protect your child’s well-being and your rights as a parent. To discuss your needs and concerns, please call us at (212) 349-1600 or contact us online to schedule a confidential consultation.