When a client and I are discussing the custody evaluation process, many parents ask me if the evaluator will be doing a home visit and/or a parent/child observation. Not all evaluators request a home visit during child custody evaluations, but there is almost always a parent/child observation, either in the evaluator's office, or at the parent's home. Parent/child observations refer to an evaluation technique where parents are seen together with their children, and they are observed usually performing a structured task of some sort (perhaps an arts and crafts project), or they are simply allowed to play with one another in an unstructured fashion. Home visits are where the evaluator spends time in the home of the parent to see the domestic setting, conduct interviews, and possibly a parent/child observation.
Parents participating in a custody evaluation are understandably nervous about parent/child observations and home visits. They worry about how they might be seen or how their home might be viewed, and they tend to be worried about what the evaluator might think if child has a particularly bad day on the day of the appointment. Parents should be aware, however, that it would be very usual to have an evaluation tip one way or the other based on information gathered from an observation or a home visit. The reason for this is that most evaluators understand that the home visit and parent/child observation is conducted under a manufactured setting. Evaluators understand that observing a parent and child either in the office or in the home changes the dynamics of the observation. The evaluator's very presence alters behavior and interactions, and Evaluator's are duty bound under rules of ethics to consider this influence in how much weight they give to these observations in their reports. It is for this reason that the observations and home visits may not carry much if any weight and serve more as a check and balance against other data that has been collected. In fact, the greatest source of observational information occurs when you are being observed informally in the waiting room with your kids.
So how should parents prepare for and behave during their home visits or parent/child observations? There are some things to keep in mind. Before you consider putting on a “show” for the evaluator to show them how you and your children interact, be aware that this will likely not be the evaluator's first experience in a home environment. As a result, your actions may come loud and clear and hollow and fake. Ideally you should conduct yourself in a normal and natural manner.
When the evaluator is observing you in structured setting, such as providing you and your child with a task to accomplish, you need to strike a balance between letting your child work on accomplishing the task while you provide guidance and assistance. Empower and encourage your child and lend a helping hand while letting the child complete the task. Be actively involved in the project without taking over. Try to have fun and relate to your child on his/her level. Don't expect too much of your child and don't be critical of them. Show affection towards your child. Follow the evaluator's instructions and try not to get defensive.
The evaluator will likely want to meet with you and your children in his or her office. Bring homework, games, and food (if appropriate). Your children's own toys will put him or her at ease. Calm your child's nervousness but do not coach him or her on what to say. Just act naturally and demonstrate a proper mixture of discipline and affection, as if you were at any other office visit or appointment.
If your evaluator wants a home visit, be sure that the house is tidy, but it does not need to be spotless. Make sure there is plenty of healthy food in the refrigerator and cupboard. Make sure the children's areas, such as bedroom and play areas, are straightened up and child oriented. Emphasize play rather than screen time.
In all, the best thing you can do is act naturally, and don't stress. Remember, the evaluator's position is to recommend what is in the child's best interest. So, if you prepare with a focus on your child's best interests, then the evaluator will recognize that.
If you have questions about custody evaluations or any other subject in family law, please do not hesitate to contact Murphy Family Law. As a Certified Family Law Specialist, I handle custody cases that involve custody evaluations regularly.