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The Truth About Evaluations in Custody Cases


Child custody is often the most challenging and emotional aspect of a separation or divorce. While clients and their ex-partners may be eager to live separate lives moving forward, they both still want to maintain a quality relationship with their child(ren).

The focus of custody proceedings is to implement arrangements that settle who the child will live with, and how much parenting time each of the parents will receive. According to Pennsylvania law, this decision is to be made with the “best interest of the child” in mind. But when clients and their ex-partners have two vastly different ideas of what’s best for their child, deciding on a custody arrangement can be a very difficult battle. In particularly contentious cases, the court may order different types of evaluations in an effort to assist the court with its final decision. One thing to remember in custody cases is that the court will not focus on just one factor to determine custody—the court must consider 16 factors set forth in the law in making a custody determination.
Under Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 1915.8, which applies in custody cases, the court may order a number of expert evaluations including, but not limited to: (1) physical, (2) mental health, (3) custody, (4) drug and alcohol, or (5) home studies. The court may order the child and/or any party to submit to and fully participate in an evaluation by an appropriate expert or experts. The authority to do this may be made upon the court’s own motion, upon the motion of a party with reasonable notice to the other person, or by mutual agreement of the parties.

What is a Child Custody Evaluation?

A child custody evaluation is a thorough analysis of you and your family. It is conducted to provide the court with information regarding what custody and visitation arrangement will be in the best interest of your child. To complete the evaluation, a mental health professional who is trained in behavioral sciences will interview both parents, the child, extended family members, and sometimes teachers, therapists, and other closely involved adults in the child’s life. The interviewer will also closely observe each parent and how they interact with their child and administer psychological evaluations to each party. The role of the evaluator is to remain neutral and objective.
Once the child custody evaluator has completed their observations, interviews, and analyses, they will draft a formal recommendation to the court outlining what they believe to be the best child custody agreement for the parents and children involved. It’s important to note that this evaluation is not legally binding, but it will often be considered heavily by the judge when making a final ruling.

What is a §5329 Risk of Harm Evaluation?

If one parent believes that the other parent, or someone who lives with the other parent, poses a risk of harm to the child who is the subject of the custody action, the concerned parent must bring this concern to the court’s attention. Each party is required to complete a Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification in the beginning stages of the custody matter. If either party or a household member of either party has been convicted of certain crimes, violated a Protection from Abuse Order, or been found to be “indicted” as an abuser by Children and Youth Services, that party can be required to undergo an evaluation pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. §5329 (referred to as a §5329 evaluation) to determine if they pose a risk of harm to the child, prior to being awarded any physical custody of the minor child.

Not every crime will trigger the need for a §5329 evaluation. If the evaluator determines that the party does not pose a risk of harm to the child, then the custody action will proceed as normal. If the evaluator determines that the individual does pose a risk of harm to the minor child, the evaluator will typically recommend treatment or follow-up that should be completed prior to having unsupervised contact with the child. Such recommendations can include counseling, drug or alcohol testing, and many other types of treatment. The Court will consider the evaluator’s §5329 report in determining what forms of physical custody to grant the party who was evaluated.

What is a Home Study?

In custody cases, a home study (also called a “home inspection”) is basically what it sounds like: an evaluation of a child’s place of residence. The study is done to find out what the living conditions are, whether or not they appear suitable and appropriate for a child to live in, and whether or not there are hazards or deficits in the living arrangements that might be detrimental to the child. A home study may be requested by either party or it may be ordered by the judge. Home studies may be performed by various parties, most often an independent agency or advocate who specializes in children and family matters.

Additional Things to Note:

To help you prepare for any type of custody evaluation, here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Understand what the evaluator is looking for: Empathy is the ability to understand how your child is feeling and reacting accordingly. This is a trait that evaluators are looking for in parents.
• Be honest with the evaluator: Do not underestimate how well a trained evaluator can distinguish between genuine and insincere reactions, conversations, and interactions. You should act how you normally would during observations and answer truthfully when interviewed.
• Don’t disparage your ex: If you’re more focused on the bad things your ex does instead of the well-being of your child, this may reflect badly on you. Remember that the primary purpose of the evaluation is to determine what is in the best interest of the child.

Mooney Law has helped thousands of clients over the last three decades with Family Law matters.  We stand ready to help you too.  If you find yourself in a situation of divorce or child custody, contact Mooney Law right away.  we can schedule you for a consultation with one of our experienced Family Law attorneys.  We can meet you in anyone of our offices throughout Central Pennsylvania.  Call today at 717-200-HELP or 717-632-4656.  You can also contact us via email at

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