For couples who are separating, the most contentious issues are often custody and parenting time. It is not uncommon for parties to disagree on parental designations and what type of parenting time schedule should be exercised. To avoid both the financial and emotional expense of litigating custody and parenting time issues, New Jersey Courts have implemented a process focused on co-parenting education and mediation, which can read about here.
However, in cases where the parties can’t seem to find common ground, it may become necessary to retain mental health experts to assist in performing an evaluation so the parties – or the Court – can determine what is in the best interests of the children.
The Risk Assessment: When parties are separating, one spouse may blame the other party’s alcohol or substance abuse or domestic violence for the breakdown in the marriage. If there is a concern regarding the children’s health and safety while in one party’s care as a result of the alleged abuse, it may be necessary to retain a mental health professional to perform a Risk Assessment. The purpose of a Risk Assessment is not to determine an ultimate custody and parenting time plan. Rather, the purpose of a Risk Assessment is to determine whether the parent being evaluated poses a risk to the children if they exercise parenting time and, if so, how the risks can be managed, which may include supervision, classes, and/or therapy.
The Psychiatric Evaluation: In some cases, it is appropriate to request a Psychiatric Evaluation of one or both parties. This request is typically made when one parent believes that the other has a mental health concern that may impact upon their ability to parent the children. If a Court determines that a Psychiatric Evaluation is necessary, the party undergoing the evaluation will meet with a psychiatrist for interviewing, testing, and will need to provide documentation related to any relevant history. Like a Risk Assessment, a Psychiatric Evaluation does not make recommendations about specific custody and parenting time schedules. However, a Psychiatric Evaluation can have a substantial impact on the ultimate custody arrangement if it is determined that there are mental health considerations that may negatively impact upon a party’s fitness to parent their children.
Custody Neutral Assessment: In limited circumstances, it may be appropriate to retain a mental health professional to perform a Custody Neutral Assessment. Unlike a Best Interests Evaluation, a Custody Neutral Assessment is restricted to a specific purpose. Usually, a Custody Neutral Assessment provides a recommended action to address one particular issue to assist in resolving a custody dispute moving forward.
Best Interests Evaluation: A Best Interests Evaluation (or Custody Evaluation) is an evaluation performed by a mental health professional to determine what is in the children’s best interests. Unlike a Risk Assessment or Psychiatric Evaluation, a Best Interests Evaluation is comprehensive. The mental health expert will interview, test, and evaluate the parties, both alone and with the children. The expert will also contact and interview collateral persons who may have information related to each party’s fitness to parent their children. Ultimately, the expert will make a recommendation as to a custody and parenting time plan that he or she believes to be in the best interests of the children based upon their expertise and the information presented to them.
Any of the foregoing evaluations may assist in providing the parties with a better understanding of the best interests of the children and, therefore, the anticipated outcome with respect to custody and parenting time. As a result, parties are often able to settle their custody and parenting time disputes with the benefit of an evaluation. However, in cases where the parties are unable to reach a settlement, the mental health expert(s) may testify at the time of trial with respect to their evaluation(s).
If you are concerned about the next step in your custody and parenting time dispute, contact an experienced family law attorney at Cohn Lifland to discuss how to protect the best interests of your children.