An Open Letter to Parents Facing Child Custody Litigation:
Advice From A Custody Evaluator
For a pdf of this article, click here
© Vicky Campagna, PhD
anxiety of the child custody litigant is all too easily understood: here
you are, an individual who is already likely coping with an acrimonious
divorce, now facing what can seem like a terrifying prospect: the
reduction or even complete loss of custody of your children. It's easy
enough to empathize with you, all right, and it’s equally true that
working through all the many details of divorce litigation can be a
challenge for anyone! How do you stay focused enough to deal with the
problems immediately at hand and then also, with your upcoming custody
are 6 suggestions that you may find useful during this difficult time:
Always remember that the
evaluator’s top concern is coming up with a parenting plan that is
in the best interests of the children. That goal trumps
almost any other point: if Mom or Dad has a close, loving &
supportive relationship with the kids, it’s not going to matter to me,
the evaluator, if his/her home isn’t decorated like Martha Stewart’s.,
or if she never finished high school, or if she doesn’t get along with
her neighbor. This is not to say that those things are not part of an
evaluation, just that they pale in importance to the relationship
between the parents and the children.
Try your hardest to
adopt a cooperative, conciliatory attitude. One of the most
disturbing red flags to an evaluator is someone who is unable to
consider alternate points of view, or to weigh the merits of possible
custodial plans, or who can find absolutely nothing positive whatsoever
to say about his/her ex.
Please be reassured that
the gender of the custodial parent is not a predetermined
outcome. Neither is income level or educational background. What
we evaluators are looking for is the best fit between parent and child
when it comes to custody. Dads can parent their daughters, Moms
can provide a solid home base even if their income isn’t as much
as their ex’s. Someone who only went through the 11th grade
might have better parenting skills than someone with a Ph.D! The key
point is that evaluators do not use a “cookie cutter/one size
fits all” approach when coming up with a custody recommendation.
Come up with a
rational list of concerns about custody. For example, are you
concerned because your ex-wife allows the kids to eat whatever they
wanted to, rather than insisting on a balanced diet? Are you concerned
because your ex-husband can’t read well enough to help with basic
homework tasks? The idea here is not to come up with a litany
of complaints; it is the idea to help the evaluator be aware of
any issues that are relevant but which might not be immediately obvious
in the short time in which an evaluation is completed.
Be aware of the
importance of collateral sources that support your position. Now, this
does not mean your client’s mother or best friend! What we
evaluators want is objective, unbiased information.
People like the child’s teacher, Scout leader, softball coach,
pediatrician, etc. are ideal. You should urge these people to speak
candidly about their personal knowledge (i.e. that which
they have themselves seen or heard, not information---also known
as "gossip"---that they may have picked up from others.
This is critical: please
know that you do not have to look like a “perfect” person/parent!
Custody litigants often think they have to deny any mistakes or faults.
To the contrary, this tactic makes people look like they have no
insight, are defensive, and cannot learn from mistakes! And trying to
look perfect on a psychological test is particularly hazardous: these
tests have unobtrusive ways to detect this kind of faking, which
signifies a lack of honesty on the part of the test-taker.
If you still feel too anxious to be
able to present yourself effectively, it may be appropriate for an
in-person consultation with an evaluator prior to the actual
evaluation. Obviously, this cannot be with the neutral,
court-appointed evaluator; it will have to be with someone else who is
unconnected to the case in any way. I offer such a service: As an
experienced child custody evaluator, I can explain to you what to
expect, how to present your case most effectively, and help eliminate
apprehension of the ‘unknown.’ This service is not coaching: I
do not give test answers or facilitate deception. What I do is
familiarize you with the custody evaluation process, give feedback on
how their approach might appear to an evaluator, and encourage a clear
& forceful presentation of their position, always focused on the BIC.
Most cases can be prepared in 3visits or less.