When faced with increasingly complex and bitter divorce matters involving children, courts frequently turn to clinical professionals to unravel the allegations and mudslinging. Typically conducted by social workers or psychologists, custody and access evaluations are sought to determine the best custody and access plan for children after divorce. To provide the court with a snapshot of the situation that will best meet the needs of the child(ren), comprehensive assessments involve interviews, home visits or observations of parents and children, consultation with people involved with the child and parents and, in most cases, psychological testing of the parents. The assessment wraps up with a report to the court outlining this information and concluding with the assessor’s opinion of the custody and access arrangement that is in the best interest of the child(ren). With recommendations about where the child should reside, how time should be shared, and which parent should hold decision-making, understandably this can be an anxiety provoking situation for those facing such a process.
Parents faced with an order for a custody and access evaluation may find themselves emotionally overwhelmed with the reality of having another person decide the future arrangements for their family. Courts and assessors tend to recognize that this is an uncomfortable position which should be reserved for those situations where settlement is unlikely and more information is needed by the court should the matter go to trial. When this situation presents, there are things that parents undergoing the assessment process can do to make this most beneficial for themselves and their children.
Start with the basics. Remember that, although you do not need to impress the assessor with how wonderful you are, you do need to demonstrate your ability to be cooperative and open. This means, attend your appointments on time and respond to questions honestly and openly. When parents attempt to avoid questions or are evasive in their responses, assessors will interpret this as an obstacle to collaborative, cooperative parenting and a red-flag for personality issues.
Remember that your child(ren) is the reason for the assessment. The assessor does not care about whether or not you are going to agree with the outcome. The assessor cares about the best case scenario for the child(ren). When you are asked any question, be sure to consider your child when you are responding. This means that if you are asked about how your child enjoys time with you, stay focussed on how the child benefits, not how the child meets your needs. Similarly, when you are outlining concerns about your child(ren)’s other parent, remember that the assessor knows that children love both parents and will want to see your ability to safeguard your child(ren)’s feelings and shield them conflict.
Recognize that custody and access evaluations will not result in a win-win situation for parents. Remember that once you enter a custody and access assessment, the outcome does not allow for two satisfied parents. One parent is going to be less that happy with the recommendations, particularly in high-conflict cases where a joint-custody recommendation is unlikely. Assessors do their best to collect, synthesize and sort through information to make recommendations that best support children. Expect that it will be hurtful to see your marriage, separation, parenting style and psychological profile, along with your former partner’s feelings captured in a written report.
Remember that assessors (and judges) consider the importance of a parent’s ability to support the child in having a fulfilling relationship with the other parent. By speaking positively about the other parent, you are demonstrating to the assessor that you understand the importance of the child having a relationship with both parents. This may be the deciding factor in determining which parent holds decision-making power for the child. Any attempts to discredit the other parent in a malicious manner will not be considered in your favor. When providing information about the other parent, stick to facts rather than feelings.
Keep in mind that professionals who conduct custody and access assessments are typically skilled in understanding human behavior and in comprehensively evaluating incoming information. This means that if you maintain complete honesty throughout the assessment process, what you share will consistent with other information that is collected. The assessor is likely to review your individual and couple history. If you don’t recall details or situations, simply state, “I don’t recall”, rather than trying to guess or create information. Similarly, disclose information even if you worry that it will not be favorable to you. It is best for you to be upfront regarding past criminal charges or involvement with child welfare services rather than the assessor learning about it through collateral sources.
Custody and access assessments are not ordered in cases where discussion between parents is effective. While the majority of parents separate in a relatively amicable manner, for those who remain stuck in conflict, the outcomes for children are bleak. Children of high conflict divorce are at risk of depression, anxiety, school-related difficulties and problems with peers. Take control of yourself and your ability self-regulate. If needed, seek a therapist to support you in managing feelings that create conflict. If you are faced with an assessment, use this as an opportunity to find solutions to your conflict rather than utilizing the report to escalate difficulties between you and your former spouse.
While many professionals who conduct assessments also provide therapy, it is important to understand that court ordered assessments are different than therapy. Do not use interviews as a time to work through your anger or resentment towards the other parent. This will not reflect well on you in the evaluation. An assessor needs to be assured that you are able to manage your feelings in a manner that will not have negative implications for your child(ren). While the assessor may be empathetic to your feelings and needs, his/her role is to determine the best option for your child(ren). When meeting with the assessor, stay focussed on parenting issues and your ability to meet the needs of your children.
This point cannot be overstated. The importance of demonstrating how you will meet your child(ren)’s need for time with (and affection from) the other parent is essential. Research demonstrates that when parents do well, children do well. If the assessor is left questioning whether your anger towards the other parent will affect your ability to support the child in loving the other parent, you are creating an obstacle to your own involvement with the child(ren). If the recommendation is one that favors sole custody, the assessor will be unable to recommend a plan that places you in that decision-making role.
Whatever the outcome of the assessment is, remember that both parents are important to children. Use the recommendations as a way to better understand your relationship with your child and your child’s needs. If the recommendations make you feel defensive or upset, stay focussed on your child’s need for resolution and calm between you and the other parent. In these cases, more litigation is not the answer.
Custody and access assessments are valuable resources for courts attempting to make very difficult decisions in the best interest of children. They are, however, also stressful for parents already struggling with conflict. Ensure that you engage with assessors in a child-focussed, cooperative manner to achieve the best outcome for you and your child. Avoid pitfalls that include negative focus on your former partner. The assessor needs to understand your ability to place your child(ren)’s needs first in the post-divorce context. Ensure that you are demonstrating this throughout the assessment process using both your words and behaviors.
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