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Child Custody Evaluations in North Carolina: A Double-Edged Sword

By Amy A. Edwards

The vast majority of child custody cases are settled out of court.  Parents or custodians sometimes negotiate on their own with attorneys to reach an agreement. Another way an agreement in custody case can be resolved is by mandatory custody mediation where a neutral mediator and both parents meet in an effort to create an agreed-upon custody order.  The cases that fall outside of the vast majority and are litigated in court are the ones that are most complex. For example, it is difficult to “split the baby” when parents live in different parts of the country and both want to have primary custody.  That usually means that one parent will have most of the school year with the child or children, and the other will have most of the summer vacation. These are the types of cases in which parents often consider having a child custody evaluation performed.

What is a Child Custody Evaluation?

Performed by a psychologist, a CCE results in a written report that is provided to the court. The psychologist evaluator will then testify as an expert witness at the child custody trial. The exact details vary depending on what the expert is appointed by the court to do.  But the evaluator usually administers psychological testing, such a personality test called the MMPI-2, for each parent or guardian. The test results identify the strengths and weaknesses of each parent.  The evaluator typically reviews the medical and mental health records of the family members, meets with the family members separately and together to interview and observe them, and contacts third parties such as teachers or third parties who reside in the home. The evaluator might even do a home visit to each parent’s residence. Based on all of this, the CCE report will make recommendations about what is in the best interest of the child or children.

What Does the CCE include?

The CCE report will usually give the judge insight on what the child actually needs, as well as explain each parent’s parenting styles.  To over-simplify it in an example, if a child suffers from anxiety, he or she might need a very structured routine and one parent might be more decisive than the other.  There is usually a list of these sorts of conclusions, followed by recommendations, which almost always include a course of mental health treatment. That treatment must be referred to a third party professional because the evaluator psychologist is used only for court and is prohibited from treating any of the family members. Another recommendation might be for the court to assign a parenting coordinator, who is authorized to make minor decisions when the parents dispute what the custody order requires them to do. Recommendations are otherwise based on each family’s disputes and needs. These might include the frequency of phone calls with each parent, or who is better suited to make medical decisions if the child has serious medical problems.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages?

If the report recommends a schedule or a parenting plan that benefits you, congratulations.  You now have a built-in expert witness testifying on your behalf. However, if the report favors the other parent, you are at a definite disadvantage. Overall, judges are inclined to accept the recommendations.  This is less about rubber stamping the report than it is about having an expert with a string of letters behind his or her name tell the judge why he or she should do what is in the report. Unlike a psychologist evaluator, the judge isn’t going to go to your house, give you a personality test, talk to your child (most likely) or observe each of you with your child. Instead, the judge is usually only getting to see you and the other parent for a few hours while you testify in your dress clothes. CCEs can be extremely expensive, and insurance usually does not cover them. One or both parties might choose to have an attorney depose the expert in a deposition, which adds significantly to the cost.  Judges often expect the parties to share the cost when they appoint the expert to perform the CCE.  After the trial, the judge has the authority to assign the costs for CCE, including reimbursement of one party by the other for the full cost, including the deposition and the expert testimony.

Amy A. Edwards is a family law attorney at Amy Edwards Family Law in Greenville, NC.  She is certified by the NC State Bar Board of Legal Specialization as a Family Law Specialist, and is licensed only in NC. Laws change. This article is current as of 2021.©

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