A custody evaluation or assessment is a formal legal procedure governed by Local Rule 3. The evaluator conducts an extensive investigation of the case and prepares formal recommendations to the court. A separate Findings Report is sometimes also prepared and submitted along with the recommendations. The evaluator is then available to the court as its expert. The work of custody evaluators is not confidential.
My approach is based on the Family Court Services model that was used when I worked there with some additions that I have found to be effective in a private practice setting. The general approach is to complete the investigation and generate the recommendations as quickly as possible so that the parties can get to a final decision and get on with their lives. I always hold out the possibility of settlement and will cooperate with or facilitate any settlement attempts, but I will not allow the evaluation process to be delayed.
I normally begin each evaluation with a telephone conference call with both attorneys to make sure that we are all in agreement on the scope of the evaluation and to identify the materials that I will need and arrange for them to be sent. We will then send out an intake packet with detailed instructions to the parents explaining how the process will work and what we need from them.
I cannot proceed beyond this point until I have a filed-endorsed court order of appointment pursuant to EC 730, retainer checks, and signed services contracts. It is very helpful if the appointment order specifies the limits of the evaluation, if any, the allocation of the costs, and any other special circumstances or requirements.
In conducting the investigation, I meet with each of the parents individually at least once and, unless there are restraining orders, with both of them together. I usually make a home visit at both homes during which time I will interview the children. I will review all submitted documents and interview most of the contacts provided to me.
When I am almost finished, I will usually call a review meeting with both parents to disclose my general findings. This is a courtesy check to ensure that there are no major errors or omissions. Shortly thereafter, I will distribute my official recommendations and, often, a findings report. The procedure from that point follows the steps specified in Local Rule 3.
Custody Evaluations typically take between 45 and 90 days to complete to the point of publishing recommendations. The cost can be from $3,000 to $10,000 with an average of $5,000. The retainer will be the estimated cost of the full evaluation up to and including preparing the recommendations and report and the first review meeting after objections.