Question: My husband and I are getting divorced and have 4 children under the age of 12. We have not been able to reach an agreement on custody and temporary orders included that joint physical custody be granted. In addition, there are "parentling evaluations" scheduled . What is a "Parenting evaluation" and what kinds of questions should I expect? Will there be an opportunity for me to provide the evaluator with inforation? Thank you!
The answer depends on what exactly the court said in the context of asking for "parenting evaluations," and your question doesn't really make that clear. But two possibilities immediately come to mind. First, the judge simply may have invited you and your husband to Conciliation Services (housed in the superior court building) in order to meet with a caseworker and express your views of the family dynamics. Although the court frequently orders couples to attend conferences together, nothing prevents individual appointments, especially if domestic violence has occurred in the relationship. At a parenting conference, the case worker may ask a variety of questions about the marriage and children in order to size up what post-decree custody and visitation arrangement would serve the kids' best interests.
Alternatively, the court may have ordered a full-fledged custody evaluation, which involves the appointment of a professional therapist who conducts standardized testing and multiple meetings with the parties, children and - if necessary - collateral witnesses to look at issues such as domestic violence, child neglect, substance abuse and criminal behavior. This process can be long and involved, and take weeks or even months to complete. The court usually directs the parties to split the costs, although state law gives the judge the option of assessing costs like these against a party who is better able to pay. One example of such a law can be found at A.R.S. § 25-403.08.
The custody evaluator writes a report for the court and parties to review. This report is generally admitted into evidence at trial without the evaluator's live testimony at court, unless one of the parties subpoenas him/her for the hearing. Regardless of which method the court selected to evaluate your family, you should remember some basic rules about custody or parenting evaluations:
- Tell the *complete* truth to the evaluator! Do not exaggerate your spouse's behavior (to make him look worse than he deserves), or minimize his misconduct (because you're afraid you will "make him mad" or "rock the boat"). Exaggeration and minimization are scarcely better than a flat lie, and don't do your children any favors. Tell the truth. Whatever you say almost certainly will be recorded in writing, and you will have to live with those statements perhaps years down the road. You're going to want to be able to show your children (when they're 18) that you took the high road - no matter what your spouse did.
- Do not lobby your children to "take your side" when they are interviewed by an evaluator.
- Avoid saying bad things about your spouse when you know the kids are within earshot, and refrain from interrogating them about their interview once they return home. It is unkind, selfish and destructive. Most kids aren't dumb, either. If a spouse has misbehaved in the home, they will know it - even if they never admit it out loud for years to come.
For these reasons, avoid all discussion with your children about the evaluation (and indeed the divorce case itself). The judge will almost certainly forbid it, and even she didn't, it wouldn't be the right thing to do. If your child insists on asking you about it, the standard response is, "The judge told me not to talk about it, and I have to respect her orders. She will decide what is best for the family. I love you and I want what's best for you. That's all I can say!"
February 25, 2007