Bram Fridhandler, Ph.D.

(415) 409-9800

Child Custody Evaluations

On this page, you will find information about child custody evaluations and my approach to them.  For a more detailed description, click here

What leads to a child custody evaluation?
Child custody evaluations are carried out when a family court is going to be making major decisions involving children and needs information and guidance from an expert to do so.  The decisions almost always involve the children's living situation and the quality of parenting they receive from each parent.  Frequently, one parent wants to move away and the court has to decide whether the children will move with that parent or stay with the other one.  Another frequent situation is when allegations have been made about harmful parental behavior, such as physical or verbal abuse or a problems with drugs or alcohol. 

Child custody evaluations require a court order, which specifies whether it will be a focused or full evaluation and guides the parents and evaluator throughout the process.  Often,  the parents, generally working with attorneys, will agree that the evaluation is needed and will negotiate what the order will say.  Sometimes, one parent disagrees with having the evaluation.  In these cases, the court may order him or her to cooperate. 

What is usually done during a child custody evaluation?
The parents are interviewed, the children are observed with the parents and also interviewed, if they are old enough, the parents' homes are often visited, there may be psychological testing of the parents and the children, and stepparents or significant others of the parents are often interviewed.  Additional people who have helpful information, such as teachers, pediatricians, therapists, and sometimes friends and relatives of the parents, are interviewed.  Relevant records, such as papers filed with the court, are reviewed.  If drug or alcohol problems appear to be present, testing may be conducted to find out whether the parent is currently using. 

For information from the California Courts about custody evaluations, click here.

What comes out of a child custody evaluation?
The evaluator gives recommendations to the court in a written report, which the parents are able to read.  In some places, the parents receive a copy of the report.  The report also summarizes the information that the recommendations are based on.  The judge then decides whether to accept the evaluator's recommendations. 
What is my approach to child custody evaluations?
In order to help the children and the parents, a child custody evaluation has to be thorough and objective.  In order to make my evaluations as useful as possible, I interview both parents carefully, in order to understand their perspectives, personalities, strengths and weaknesses as parents.  I spend significant time with the children, generally meeting them initially at the home where they spend most of their time and then seeing them in my office.  I ask each parent to join the children in the office for some of the time so I can see what it is like when they are together, and, if the children are old enough, I also talk with them alone. 

In addition, it is my practice to interview outside people who are likely to have important information.  Finally, court papers provide add to my ability to understand the family.  All of these sources of information provide a perspective on the situation and I spend as much time as necessary integrating them into a coherent picture of the children's needs and each parent's impact on them. 

My reports are detailed, typically 30 to 50 pages long.  There are several reasons that reports should be this detailed.  First, the judge and the parents should know what the recommendations are based on.  Second, the judge makes the final decisions, yet she or he can't talk to the most of the people involved and generally doesn't meet the children, so the custody report is the only contact the judge has with these essential people.

Finally, the report should conclude with much more than just a recommendation about "who gets the children."  Children's needs, and parents' strengths and weaknesses, are more complicated than that.  So, my reports include recommendations on multiple topics, such as how to reduce a parent's problems, how to judge when such problems have been successfully addressed, what to do in various situations that might come up in the future, and how to protect children from the pain of losing touch with a parent. 

By being thorough and balanced, and by listening to each parent's concerns, I hope to help families reach a new and better phase in their lives, in which conflict is reduced and the children can concentrate on the challenges and fun of growing up.  

After the evaluation, can parents come to an agreement without going back to court?
Although sometimes parents need the judge to make the decisions, it is best for children if, as early as possible, parents are the ones who make decisions.   The time between getting a custody report and the court hearing can be an excellent time for the parents to go back to being the decision-makers.  A thorough report with a full set of recommendations can be a valuable tool at this time, because the parents can use the report and recommendations in the same way the judge would, deciding which ones they agree on.

Often, a meeting called a "settlement conference" is held by parents and their attorneys to try to work things out.  I can come to this meeting to explain my recommendations and respond to possibilities the parents are considering.  The evaluator's contribution to a settlement conference can help parents find their way to decisions they feel are right for their children.