Child custody refers to an agreement on a schedule of where children live, visitation, and which parent can make decisions for children. There are three main ways child custody can be determined. (1) Parents can make their own agreements. (2) Parents can work with a mediator to negotiate the agreements. (3) In more adversarial situations when parents cannot agree on their own, child custody evaluators will recommend plans to the courts.
Approximately 10% of parents who divorce with children require custody evaluations. When parents cannot agree on a satisfactory custody arrangement and evaluations are in order, a qualified mental health professional with training and expertise in child custody evaluations should conduct the evaluation and make recommendations to the court. In other words, your regular treating clinician
generally should not be making formal custody recommendations to the courts
because it is beyond their scope of expertise.
Typical arrangements allow for shared custody between parents, so that time and decision-making are shared equally. When conflict between parents is ongoing, one parent may be designated domiciliary parent, thereby giving that parent authority to make decisions for the children and often having more time with the children.
What is a Child Custody Evaluation?
Evaluators typically meet with each parent and child separately and together, and sometimes with additional configurations of family members together. This usually involves a minimum of two sessions per family member. These are not covered by insurance. Typical evaluations cost $4,000 to $6,000, but can cost more or less.
Evaluators must be guided by Louisiana law that says that custody decisions are to be made in the best interests of the child. There are multiple factors that go into determining the best interests of the child that can be found elsewhere.
What Should You Look For in an Evaluator?
An evaluator is almost always a licensed mental health clinician, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker. There are no special licenses or accreditations to qualify as a child custody evaluator (though mediators and parenting coordinators are certified). Clinicians should have training and expertise in child custody work and are guided by standards of practice published by their specialty organizations and standard guidelines in the field of child custody evaluation.
Divorce and the Impact on Children
Most children going through the divorce process will experience some concurrent distress. Common symptoms include:
- Sadness, depression
- Feelings of abandonment
- Rage, aggression, acting out
- Wish for parents reconciliation
- Somatic complaints: Headaches, stomachaches
However, it is important to note that the effects of divorce will vary between children and depend on a number of factors, including:
- Age (developmental stage)*
- Individual response of children to parents’ separations
- Quality of parent-child relationships: pre- and post-separation
- Level of conflict between the parents
- Frequent visitation is beneficial for children in low conflict families.
- Frequent visitation has negative effects on children in high conflict families.
- Custody arrangements (how well the arrangements work for the child)
*Special consideration should be given to children who are young, developmentally immature, or have other special needs. Standard custody arrangements for older and typically developing children may not be appropriate for younger and special needs children. Individuals conducting custody evaluations should have expertise in these developmental issues in order to make the most appropriate recommendations regarding custodial arrangements.
Ongoing conflict between the parents can be the greatest source of problems for children. Therapy is useful in helping children make the transition to having two different homes.
To find local experts, use the Find A
Provider page of the Kid Catch Directory. Use the Issues filter box to search for local
experts on custody evaluations. Clicking
on this filter selection will return results of clinicians who advertise
themselves as working with this problem.
Kid Catch cannot guarantee that clinicians who advertise themselves this
way are truly expert.
The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts is a national organization of family court experts. Their website has some general information for parents and children: www.afccnet.org
Garber, B. (2010). Developmental Psychology for Family Law Professionals: Theory, Application, and the Best Interests of the Child. New York: Springer Publishing Co.
Ricci, I. (1997). Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Updated October 24, 2019 (Original version written by Sarah Hinshaw Fuselier, PhD, LCSW and Karen van Beyer, 2013)