I had the pleasure of attending the American Bar Association’s Family Law CLE in Austin and was really impressed with all the presentations I attended. One presentation in particular, however, stood out to me because the topic addressed comes up from time-to-time in the cases I handle here in Travis County, Texas. The presentation was entitled, “In it to Win It! Litigation Skills to Optimize Your Success in Child Custody Trials” and featured a presentation by a well-regarded child custody evaluator from Houston, Texas. The tips I picked up from the presentation and my experience working with child custody evaluators prompted me to share some of the following thoughts:
A child custody evaluation is not required in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship. In fact, this tool is seldom utilized. The primary reason for the lack of frequency is because child custody evaluations are often very expensive. They’re expensive because they may only be performed by professionals that meet very strict statutory requirements. The custody evaluators I’ve used historically are clinical psychologists; experts in their field. Should the parties have the means to employ a child custody evaluation, they should consider the pros and cons of such action. First, the parties may agree to using this tool. The cons – in addition to the expense – are the potential delay. We in Travis County have some of the finest child custody evaluators in the country, and because of that – they are in demand. A child custody evaluation can take months, as the evaluation is often comprised of psychometric testing of the parties; multiple, intense interviews of the parties and the children (if old enough); review of collateral documents (mental health records, report cards, etc.); and interviews with collateral witnesses (friends, family, teachers, coaches, counselors, etc.).
The reason why people will wait for the results (explained, below) and bear the expense of this process is because this is a powerful comprehensive tool for the court (the ultimate trier of fact in the SAPCR) to review and consider when making decisions that are in the best interest of the child or children. This process is not hindered by the restrictive rules associated with litigation. There are no Texas Rules of Evidence or Procedure. There are games played in discovery responses. There is no lawyer for the client / participant / parent to hide behind when confronted with harsh realities presented by the evaluator. The children have a voice and collaterals, who might otherwise be hesitant to testify in open court about their observations, may be more comfortable sharing their perspective with the evaluator over the phone or in an informal meeting.
The end result of the evaluation (depending on the order from the court initiating the process) is a report issued by the child custody evaluator containing his or her recommendations as to what is in the best interest of the child. The recommendations are supported by the evidence gathered and the testing performed. Though not outcome determinative, the report (and potential testimony of the evaluator) can be very persuasive on the trial court about what possession and access or rights and duties to award the parties.