Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

You want to make sure you are prepared if your case is headed toward a custody psychological evaluation. A psychological evaluation in a custody case can occur for a number of reasons, including issues associated with drug or alcohol abuse,  abuse of a child or parent, the mental health of a parent or child, the special needs of a child, the assessment of child bonding, or even to address significant factual disputes between the parties. 

Often the psychological evaluation is of the entire family.  The evaluator may interview both parents, the child, mental health providers of the parties, anyone who lives with the family, the child’s pediatrician, the child’s school officials, and other collateral witnesses. 

Before submitting an intake form or attending your first interview, you should take some time to prepare.

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses (and those of your co-parent)

You should be prepared to discuss your parenting strengths and weaknesses.  We all have them.  Think of what you do well as a parent and where you can improve.  Be prepared to discuss these in detail with the evaluator, and attempt to come up with solutions that will help improve your weaknesses. 

You should also think of the strengths and weaknesses of your co-parent.  It is important to be able to say something positive about your co-parent, even if it is only that they love your child.  Everyone has good qualities, now is the time to remember some of the good qualities about your co-parent. 

  1. Do not be too defensive

Psychological evaluations are uncomfortable.  You will be asked difficult questions.  Try not to get too defensive.  Not every question is related to something your co-parent said.  Some are standard questions that are used by the evaluator when assessing a custody matter.  You will be asked about uncomfortable topics such as mental health, drug use, alcohol use, the history of your relationship with your co-parent, criminal history, family history, etc.  Be prepared to discuss these matters openly. 

If you are concerned about your history, discuss your concerns with your lawyer.  He or she will help you feel more comfortable about the topic, and will discuss how to remediate any issues you may have.  It is okay to admit to things you did in the past, but be sure to explain why those missteps will not reoccur in the future.  No one is perfect.  We all have flaws.  Being able to admit to those flaws can actually be a good thing in a psychological evaluation. 

  1. Be Ready to Respond to a Request to Sign Releases for Personal Information

The psychological evaluator may want to talk to collateral witnesses.  He or she may ask for permission to speak to the child’s school, pediatrician, therapist, or other professionals.  You should be prepared to sign releases for the child’s information.  If you are concerned about releasing any of the child’s records, discuss this with your lawyer. 

The evaluator may ask for releases for your mental health information.  You cannot be compelled to release your mental health records or treatment information.  However, the court can assume you are hiding something if you refuse to cooperate with the release of this information.  Talk to your lawyer about how much of the information to release, whether you should agree to release all, some, or none of your mental health information.  Another option you may have is to provide a letter from your therapist instead of full release.  You may choose to allow your therapist to talk to the evaluator, but ask that he or she not release any written files.  Your attorney can talk to you about how to navigate these issues.

Keep in mind it is very important to fully disclose your mental health history to your attorney.  Only with a full disclosure can an attorney give you suitable advice based upon your circumstances.

Do not be fearful of your mental health history.  Keep in mind, that most family law professionals (judges included) believe that therapy can be helpful.  Going through custody litigation is stressful.  It is better to be working with a therapist if needed than to need one and refuse to attend therapy.  Remember, the person evaluating you is a mental health professional.

  1. Prioritize your concerns about your co-parent

Be aware of the concerns that are the most significant to you.  Make sure to explain these major concerns fully, while still touching on any lesser concerns.  You want the evaluator to clearly understand the difference between what is a major issue for you and what is just an annoyance. 

  1. Know what to bring with you

Parties often want to provide evidence of the problems they are facing.  Remember that your words are evidence. You do not need documentation of everything.  You should pick four or five communications with your co-parent to bring as examples for the evaluator to review.  You may also want to collect important psychological, educational, or emotional information about your child such as his/her IEP, treatment records, communications from professionals, etc. When talking to the evaluator you can ask if more documentation would be helpful to him/her.  If more documentation would be helpful, you can submit it after the initial meeting. 

  1. Do Not Lie

While this seems obvious, it is important to remember that honesty matters.  Since you will be required to be candid about private and sensitive matters in your life, practice your responses.  Whatever you do, make sure those responses are true.  Losing credibility with the evaluator can significantly hurt your custody case. 

Conclusion

After reviewing these tips, prepare an agenda for a meeting with your attorney.  Discuss your areas of concern, and what you think are your co-parent’s areas of concern.  Having a plan going into the evaluation can help you to participate in the evaluation in a more calm and orderly way.  You will likely still be nervous, but having a plan will make your nerves more manageable. 

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