Understanding Georgia Custody Evaluations
Author: Burton Miller
A custody evaluation in Georgia helps a Court determine the best custody arrangement for children. Typically, mental health professionals conduct these evaluations, which are officially called forensic child custody evaluations. A Court may use the evaluations in all types of actions where the children’s best interest needs to be determined, including divorces, modifications, legitimations, etc.
Not every Court action where the couple has children will require a custody evaluation. A parent, attorney, or Guardian ad Litem may ask for one. The decision may become a Court-Ordered Custody Evaluation, in which case the Court may use its powers to enforce compliance. The couple may agree they want a Court-Ordered Evaluation, and a Court will typically put its stamp of approval without too much inquiry. On occasion, a Court may choose to order a custody evaluation, even when not asked.
Common Reasons for Custody Evaluations
There are several reasons a Court may order a parenting evaluation. The most common involve concerns regarding:
- Mental illness
- Substance abuse
- Domestic violence
- Parental fitness
- Special needs children
Typically, where there are concerns that a child’s health and welfare have been negatively/adversely affected, a Court may feel the evaluation helps determine the child’s placement and custody.
Who Can Be a Custody Evaluator?
Psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists can all be custody evaluators. The majority of these evaluators throughout the state of Georgia are in private practice. They cannot be people who have had contact with the family in the past. Someone who can give a fresh look at the facts without any preconceived bias or prejudice is preferred. They are generally considered “mental health experts.”
Most will be familiar with the Courts. However, the parents may choose one they agree to use. If they are not able to agree, the Court will select the evaluator. Not all mental health professionals will be comfortable doing this type of work. The parties and their attorneys will scrutinize the work they do and the opinions they have.
Types of Custody Evaluations
There are two main types of evaluations: full custody and focused-issue evaluations. As the names imply, a full custody evaluation takes several months and ends with the evaluator providing a custody recommendation to the judge. A single issue is examined in a focused-issue evaluation and may make no specific custody recommendation.
Full Custody Evaluation
Evaluators in a full custody case typically look at many issues. To do that effectively, evaluators might:
- Interview the parents
- Interview the children (depending on age)
- Visit both parents’ homes
- Conduct psychological evaluations (for children and parents)
- Observe how parents and children interact
- Interview others who know the family
- Consult with professionals who have cared for the family (doctors, etc.)
- Review medical and school records
Most Custody Evaluations given to the Court include a custody recommendation. It may also have a visitation schedule recommendation for the non-custodial parent. Typically, the parents split the evaluation cost, ranging between $3,000 and $30,000, depending on how many children the couple has. A Court may also consider requests for a different payment arrangement.
When an evaluator focuses on only one issue, that person may specifically evaluate:
- Parental fitness
- Psychological issues
- Anger management concerns
- Addictive disorders
These evaluations may not take as long as a full custody evaluation, but one never knows. The cost ranges between $3,000 and $30,000. While parents usually split the cost, the Court may consider a request for a different arrangement.
Special Circumstances for Custody Evaluations
If an evaluator sees signs of neglect, violence, or abuse by either parent, they must report it to the police. The custody evaluation process will generally take longer in these circumstances due to further investigation. Parental alienation can be another special issue to address. Mishandled cases should be discussed with their family law attorney or contact Georgia’s Professional Licensing Department directly to make a complaint.
How Parents Can Prepare for Custody Evaluations
It is wise to seek a family law attorney’s advice to best prepare for a custody evaluation. In choosing an attorney to help you through the process, you should only use a family law attorney who has experience using custody evaluators. Additionally, remember that being honest and not coaching children on what to say are both important. Being calm, respectful, and focused on your children’s best interests also helps to provide a better outcome for everyone involved.
To speak with our team about a planned custody evaluation or discuss your options related to child custody, contact our staff of experienced family attorneys today.