What is the Difference between a Family Services Evaluation and a Private Custody Evaluation in a Connecticut Divorce?

This Week’s Blog by Sarah E. Murray.

I Have a Contested Custody Case: What are My Options for a Custody Evaluation?

In some divorce cases in Connecticut where legal or physical custody is at issue, or where there is a significant custody-related dispute, such as a dispute regarding a parent’s relocation with the children, a custody evaluation can take place. A custody evaluation is performed by a neutral mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker, who is trained to perform custody evaluations in litigated custody cases. The purpose of the custody evaluation is to cull information about the parties and their children that has bearing on the particular custody dispute, to interpret that information for the Court, and, typically, to make recommendations regarding the dispute. A custody evaluation does not take place in every custody case in Connecticut; however, if the parties or the Court decide that a custody evaluation is necessary, there are options for the type of custody evaluation that can take place. Two types of custody evaluations in Connecticut are evaluations that take place through the Family Services Unit and evaluations that are performed privately by forensic psychologists.

Who Decides Whether a Custody Evaluation Will Occur?

Many times, the parties and their counsel in a contested custody case will agree that a custody evaluation should take place. Typically, experienced counsel will agree as to the type of custody evaluation that is appropriate given the particular facts and circumstances of the case. If there is an agreement as to both the decision to have a custody evaluation and the type of custody evaluation, the parties and their counsel will prepare a Stipulation setting forth the scope of the evaluation and will present the Stipulation for approval by the Court.

If there is no agreement that a custody evaluation should take place, or, if there is no agreement as to the type of custody evaluation that is appropriate for the case, one or both parties can file a Motion requesting that the Court order a custody evaluation. If a Motion is filed, the Court will hear argument from both parties as to why a custody evaluation should or should not take place and the type of evaluation that is appropriate. The judge will then decide whether to order a custody evaluation, and, if ordered, the type of custody evaluation. If a private custody evaluation is ordered, the Court will enter orders as to how the evaluator will be paid.

What is a Family Services Evaluation?

The Family Services Unit is an arm of the Connecticut Judicial Branch system that assists the Court in the resolution of disputes in family law cases, including custody cases. They have offices in each courthouse. The Family Services Unit provides several different services to the Court system, including Issue-Focused Evaluations and Comprehensive Evaluations in contested custody cases. An Issue-Focused Evaluation involves the evaluation of a limited disputed issue, and so the information-gathering is usually tailored to that issue. These evaluations typically take the least amount of time to perform because they have a limited scope. A Comprehensive Evaluation is more appropriate when broad custody and/or parenting plan issues are in dispute.

Family Relations Counselors, who work in the Family Services Unit, are trained in mediating custody disputes and in performing custody evaluations. If a case is referred to Family Services for an evaluation, whether by agreement of the parties or by a judge, a Family Relations Counselor will be assigned to perform the evaluation.

A Family Services Evaluation will typically include meetings with both parties, whether jointly or individually, meetings with the children, and home visits. Both parties usually will sign releases so that the Family Relations Counselor can speak with collateral sources, such as the children’s teachers, doctors, and mental health professionals. The Family Relations Counselor may also speak with the parties’ mental health professionals and doctors as well.

How Does a Private Custody Evaluation Differ from a Family Services Evaluation?

In a private custody evaluation, a forensic psychologist performs the custody evaluation, as opposed to the Family Services Unit. One of the biggest differences between a private custody evaluation and a Family Services Evaluation is cost, as the Family Services Evaluation is performed at no cost to the parties, whereas the private custody evaluation must be paid for by the parties. The private custody evaluator will perform many, if not all, of the same tasks as a Family Relations Counselor, as described above, but the private custody evaluator will often perform psychological testing on the parties and the children. After performing these tests, the forensic psychologist will analyze the results, particularly with respect to how the results inform any recommendations as to custody. For a variety of reasons, including the psychological testing, private custody evaluations usually take longer to complete than Family Services Evaluations. Some parties opt for a private custody study, however, because they think that the psychological testing will provide valuable information regarding their case.

Will a Written Report be Prepared in Both Types of Custody Evaluations?

Yes. The written reports prepared in a custody evaluation should set forth in detail the findings of the custody evaluator, the days and times he or she met or spoke with the parties, the children, and collateral sources, and will include his or her recommendations. In a private custody evaluation, interpretation of psychological testing results will be included.

Are the Recommendations in the Custody Evaluation Binding?

Regardless of what type of custody evaluation takes place in your case, the results are not binding on either party. That said, the recommendations in a custody evaluation are given great weight by a Court in deciding custody disputes. It is typical in a custody trial that the custody evaluator testifies in Court and that his or her report is entered into evidence. While a judge has discretion in custody cases and does not have to agree with the custody evaluator, the custody evaluator’s analysis will be presented to the Court for consideration.

Should I Have a Family Services Evaluation or a Private Custody Evaluation?

There is no “one size fits all” approach to custody evaluations, as the facts of each particular case are different. The decision as to whether a custody evaluation should take place, and what type of evaluation is appropriate, is a decision that should only be made after careful consultation with your family law attorney. There are many different factors to consider, including cost and time.

At Broder & Orland LLC, our attorneys have significant experience with custody cases and can provide you with advice regarding the type of custody evaluation best suited for your particular situation. It is important to know your options and discuss the pros and cons of each type of custody evaluation prior to making a decision, as custody evaluations carry great weight in either the settlement of or the trial of custody disputes.