If my client is going through a custody or parenting time evaluation I will meet with them to prepare them for this process. Oftentimes, this process can take three (3) to five (5) months and is a very intensive and invasive process. In custody and parenting time evaluations, the appointed evaluator will oftentimes do home studies, criminal background checks, review mental or physical health records, and talk to other persons about the parenting skills of the parents involved. In my experience and in seeing numerous custody evaluation reports, I will give discuss the following with my clients:
Lying to or not providing information to the evaluator will significantly harm the credibility of the parent. Custody evaluators understand that people are not perfect; but it is always better to be open and honest with the evaluator relative to both strengths and weaknesses that the parent has. For instance, if a parent has a recent DWI and either fails to tell the evaluator and/or lies about it, this will significantly harm the credibility of that parent. A better course of action would be to be open and honest and let the evaluator know that the parent has had a recent DWI, but also the steps that this parent has taken relative to the use of alcohol. For instance, if alcohol has become a problem in this person’s life, perhaps this parent is attending is weekly AA sessions and has a sponsor who can speak with the evaluator relative to this person’s attendance and involvement in AA. If the person has attended either out-patient or in-patient treatment as a result of a DWI, it is certainly something that should be told to the evaluator. Further, if the parent has chosen abstinence from alcohol as a result of a DWI, the evaluator should be informed of this. People make mistakes and evaluators understand that. It is how you handle the mistake and that your honesty or lack thereof about the mistake, that can significantly affect the outcome of the evaluation.
9) Home Study Awareness.
If an evaluator is conducting a home study, be very aware of what is in your home. When I talk to a client I tell them that if there is a home study you want to make sure that your home is extremely clean, that the refrigerator has sufficient food items in it (especially if you are asking for custody of your child), that alcohol is kept out of reach of the child/ren, that if the parent smokes they keep any ashtrays out of the home and there is a game plan relative to no smoking around the minor child/ren, that there are no inappropriate magazines or literature that could be seen by the evaluator and viewed as potentially offensive, that there are no Court papers out in the open that can be seen by the child/ren, that the minor child/ren’s room/s are fully furnished and have all requisite items such as a bed, a changing table (if you are dealing with an infant), books, and age-appropriate toys, that there are no items in the home that could harm the child/ren such as exposed wiring or remodeling projects that are not completed. The home that is proposed where the child/ren will spend the majority of time should be a place that the evaluator feels is safe and an appropriate environment for a minor child/ren. Ensuring that the home looks appropriate at the time of the home study is an important task.
8) Ensuring That the People That Speak to the Evaluator on Your Behalf are Appropriate.
You want to ensure that the people that you refer to speak to the evaluator on your behalf are people who have seen your parenting skills. People who would only generally tell the evaluator about your character as a person are likely people you do not want the evaluator to speak with. You want people who have seen you interact with the child/ren, know your history of care, and are able to answer questions by the evaluator relative to the same. Additionally, if you are able to have more neutral parties present as your collateral contacts with the evaluator, that may be a good idea. Some of these people could be day care providers, teachers, religious leaders, pediatricians, etc. It is extremely important to speak with your attorney about the proper people you will be referring to speak with the evaluator prior to doing so. This is a very important step and one that should not be taken lightly and should be seriously discussed with your legal advocate.
7) Understand Your Weaknesses and Confront Them Head-On.
No one is perfect. Evaluators understand this; however, if you have imperfections and/or issues that will likely come out during the evaluation you will also want to have ways for dealing with these issues. For instance, people with chemical dependency issues should have a very solid game plan to tell the evaluator as to how they are dealing with their issues. An example would be active involvement in AA or NA, in or out-patient treatments, support networks, having a plan in place for non-use of drugs and/or alcohol. If domestic abuse is an issues in your case, a plan that involves anger management may need to be considered. Evaluators do understand that people are not perfect; however, continuing these imperfections in the future and asking for full custody is likely not a good game plan. In my experience, often this is one of the most difficult issues to deal with for the client. Clients who do have drug or alcohol problems may not agree they have a problem even though the history of their case would show otherwise. Judicial officers who view this information and have seen the history of chemical dependency issues of the parent would seriously consider that in a custody and/or parenting time situation. If you have a mental health issue you want to ensure that you are getting active treatment and taking any prescribed medication for the same. If I have clients who do have any of these issues, I strongly advise them to get help for their problems before going and asking for custody or significant parenting time. These issues really need to be worked on and dealt with head-on prior to going in front of a judicial officer or speaking with a custody evaluator.
6) Know Your Own Significant Other.
If you are asking for custody and you have a present significant other, whether it be a boyfriend/girlfriend or fiancé, this person will also be evaluated if you are asking for custody or significant parenting time of the minor child/ren, as this person will likely be around the child/ren. As such, it is your job to look into the criminal background of this person. Mental health and/or chemical dependency issues of this person will also be seriously considered. In some cases, one of the main issues is the background of one of the significant others of one of the parties. For instance, if there is a significant criminal background that involves domestic abuse-related issues or assaultive conduct, Courts will seriously consider this in the custody request of that parent. Sometimes, this can, for some parents, take them out of the possibility of getting full custody. Hard decisions sometimes need to be made relative to a significant other. If this significant other will seriously impact the ability of a parent to get custody that parent may need to make a very difficult decision, and that choice may mean ending the relationship with this significant other.
5) Be Respectful to the Evaluator and About the Other Parent.
Custody and parenting time actions can be extremely emotional, invasive, and difficult to deal for the parents that go through them; however, being emotional with the evaluator is often not a good idea. For instance, if the evaluator asks for information and the parent who is asked for that information acts adversely or angrily, that typically will be held against that parent in the evaluation. An example would be if the evaluator asks for authorization to obtain the mental health records of the parent, and the parent reacts with anger and/or says they will not provide this information, that may be viewed as an adverse inference against the parent in the evaluation and additionally considered adversely by the judicial officer who is dealing with the case. Generally, I recommend that my clients to be cooperative and respectful to the evaluator. Being disrespectful and/or acting with emotion is one of the worst things a parent can do when dealing with an evaluator.
It is understandable that there are high emotions going through a custody evaluation. Obviously, parents who are no longer together likely have reasons for not being together and there may be extreme animosity between the parents; however, going to the evaluator and spending your time degrading or being extremely negative about the other parent is likely not a good idea. It is understandable if the other parent has issues and those issues need to be mentioned to the evaluator, such as, chemical dependency issues, domestic abuse issues, or mental health-related issues. Certainly talking about the other parent’s parenting is also fair-game. However, talking negatively about the other parent, using negative words and/or degrading words about the other parent, although it may feel good to a parent at the moment, will only likely harm that parent’s ability to have significant custody or parenting time. One of the factors that evaluators consider under Minn. Stat. §518.17 is the ability of a parent to promote the relationship with the other parent. This has to be seriously considered. When I deal with my clients, not only do I want them to have a plan for custody and/or parenting time, I also want them to have a plan for the other parent’s parenting time and how that parent’s relationship can be promoted with the child/ren. Understanding that there are often high emotions, I will meet with my client and coach them through the process to attempt to avoid negative comments about the other parent. Courts typically want both parent’s involved with their children and positively speaking about the other parent is important.
4) Be Careful About Written Submissions to the Evaluator.
Parents want the evaluator to hear their case and often want to provide written submissions to the evaluator. As counsel for many parents who go through these evaluations, one of my requirements is that anything that is submitted to the evaluator in writing needs to go through me first. This is one of the most important processes that can occur in a custody and/or parenting time action and the written materials that are presented to the evaluator can often be obtained by the other attorney and used at trial. As such, you want to ensure that the written materials that are presented are respectful, non-emotional and present the facts in a clear and concise way. Sometimes I will even advise against clients sending written materials to the evaluator if those materials will not be helpful to the evaluation and could potentially harm my client. Again, any parent going through an evaluation has to understand that anything presented in writing, it can later be used against that parent.
3) Provide the Necessary and Factual Information.
Minnesota Nice is not necessarily the way parties should be when going through an evaluation. If you have information that is relevant to the determination of the evaluator, but do not want to present it because you would view that has being not nice or as information that you feel is highly sensitive in nature, not presenting it is not necessarily the right thing to do. For instance, if there has been domestic abuse that has gone on throughout the relationship, it is very important to let the evaluator know about that. If there is chemical dependency and/or mental health issues of the other parent, covering those up is not a good plan. If there are significant issues with the other parent that will affect that parent’s parenting skills, the evaluator needs to know about them and those issues should not be covered up in an attempt to be “nice”.
2) Have a Plan.
Often, when I deal with parents who desire custody of the child/ren, although they may desire custody, they may not have a strong plan to present to the evaluator. Evaluators typically dig into this and having a solid and specific plan for custody and parenting time is very important. For instance, if the child/ren need busing or transportation to school in the morning, you should have a plan for that. If the child/ren have special needs, you should have a plan for how you will meet those special needs through medication, therapeutic intervention, etc. If the child/ren has activates, you should have a plan for transportation. You should have a very detailed plan for both the time you’re asking for with the child/ren and the time that the child/ren would be with the other parent. A plan should also be in place for transportation for parenting time, back and forth between the parents. I strongly recommend that my clients have a specific plan for holidays and vacations when they speak with the evaluator. Additionally, a parent should also have a plan for what pediatrician the child/ren will see and what school they will attend and why. Having a very well put together plan of action for custody and/or parenting time should be a pre-requisite to entering an evaluation. When the evaluator asks you, “What is your plan?”, the last thing you want to say is, “I don’t know” or “I will figure that out as I go”. You want to have a very solid plan for custody and parenting time from the start that the evaluator can be told.
1) Understand That Things May Not Necessarily Go Your Way.
Once the evaluation is received, you may not necessarily agree with the recommendations of the evaluator. There are certainly ways to deal with this. One way would be considering having another evaluation done; although, this is a very costly exercise, it is one that may assist you if the matter proceeds to a trial. Another would be challenging the evaluation. Sometimes, evaluators do not properly do their jobs and if the evaluation report is one that is filled with mistakes or seems to be non-neutral, the evaluator can be deposed and questioned about the report or brought into the trial and cross-examined about the report. Understand that just because you get a negative a report does not necessarily mean that your request for custody and/or parenting time will be denied by the Judge. It does become an up-hill battle to overcome an adverse evaluation; however, it is possible. Evaluators are not perfect, they make mistakes and sometimes they do not do their job. It is the job of your attorney to effectively advise you as to whether or not the evaluator has made mistakes and/or not done their job and to effectively deal with the recommendations of the evaluator.
Preparing for and dealing with an evaluation is not an easy step. You need to plan and involve your attorney in the strategy of dealing with the evaluator. This is not to be taken lightly and the involvement of a good attorney is one thing that you may want to consider if you are going through a custody and/or parenting time evaluation.