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Custody Case: The Forensic Mental Health Evaluator

In a contested custody case, often the Court will appoint a neutral mental health evaluator to aid the Court in determining various parenting issues and what type of custody arrangement is in the best interests of the children. This expert is usually a psychologist or psychiatrist and is often referred to as “the Forensic Expert” or “the Forensic”. The Forensic will meet and interview the parties and often conduct psychological testing such as the MMPI-2: the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a very widely used test of personality and the existence of possible mental disorders. The Forensic will usually meet with the children as well and talk to them about the custody issues. The Forensic will often observe each parent and how they interact with the children. Most Forensic Evaluators will meet with each party 3-5 times and meet with the children 2-3 times depending on their ages and the underlying facts and circumstances of the case. They may also interview other “third party collateral sources” such as family members, clients’ therapists, children’s therapists, children’s teachers, and other individuals who may provide facts and insight into the psychology and/or behavior of the parents or the children.

The Forensic usually has discretion on how to conduct the evaluation but it depends on the terms and conditions of the Court Order appointing the forensic. The Forensic is bound to follow the directions of the Court although sometimes the appointed Forensic does not adhere to the Court Order, which can be used by either lawyer in the case to attack the validity of the Forensic’s conclusions. It should be noted that the Court does not need to appoint a forensic mental health evaluator but it is commonplace in contested custody litigation in New York. Certain organizations promulgate certain guidelines for custody evaluations. One example is the American Psychological Association, whose guidelines are available online – click here to view this example of professional guidelines for these professionals.

At the conclusion of the evaluation, the Forensic will almost always provide a written report to the Court. The Report will usually summarize the evaluation and inform the Court of what steps were taken to perform the evaluation, what the parents and children communicated to the Forensic, what any collateral sources communicated to the Forensic, what testing was conducted and the results, and what clinical conclusions the Forensic draws from the data as to the parenting and mental health of each parent and child. Sometimes, the Forensic provides the Court with a recommendation of what type of custody arrangement would be in the children’s best interest. Other times the report is silent as to the ultimate recommendation. The Court Order appointing the Forensic may specifically say whether or not the Judge wishes for the Forensic to provide a specific recommendation or not.

The Court is the ultimate fact finder and is not bound by any recommendation that is provided by the Forensic Mental Health Evaluator. However, often times the Judge will accord the evaluation some weight when making its custody determination. How much weight, if any, is up to the Court and often depends on the quality and thoroughness of the evaluation. Therefore, the Forensic is an important aspect of any custody case where one is assigned by the Court. This individual may have a substantial influence in the future parenting arrangement for your and your children.

If you have any questions regarding child custody, please call Danziger Legal PLLC today.

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