By Renee G Miller
While the purpose of a 730 evaluation is to determine what is in the best interest of the child or children, the final outcome, at times, seems to be anything but in the best interest of all parties involved, least of all the children.
As a psychotherapist who works with families that are, at times, in the throes of a high conflict custody and/or divorce battle, I have had many opportunities to counsel high conflict couples to explore what may be going on at a deeper level when they decide to push for a 730 evaluation. When we are able to explore the underlying issues and to work through them, I often find that the “need to demand a 730 evaluation” becomes less important and the needs of the child or children come back into focus in many situations. The cost of having a 730 evaluation performed can be very high, financially, psychologically, emotionally, and physically to all parties involved, especially the children.
The process of a 730 evaluation may involve psychological assessment of all adult parties who would have access to the child or children in question, specifically the parents, but this may include stepparents, or others who may have primary caregiving responsibilities of the child or children. Interviews of each parent, family members, friends, teachers and other third parties are conducted in order to gather as much information about and from the adults who have access to the child or children.
The children may be interviewed and assessed as well, which can be extremely unnerving, creating a situation where they may feel like they are betraying one or both parents if they say the “wrong thing.” Parent-child interactions are observed with each parent to give the evaluator a sense of how attuned the parents are to the child and how bonded the child is to the parent being observed. Other aspects of a 730 evaluation may include a review of reports and other documents, home visits by the evaluator to observe the parent-child interactions in a natural setting as well as to determine whether the home environment is safe and appropriate for the child or children.
When children become involved in this process, it can be a huge burden for them to carry, and one that will be carried for a lifetime, as they may associate the court’s decision with things they may have said, did not say, or should have said. Children, by nature, are developmentally egocentric until they learn through life experience and modeling by the adults around them that the world does not revolve around them and that they do not have the power or magic to make things happen, good or bad. But until they understand that, they carry the burden of divorce, custody, and continued acrimony between divorced parents in their hearts and souls. It is no wonder they repeat these cycles years later in their own relationship experiences. I have worked with many adult children who are still being impacted by the emotional and psychological wounds obtained as a result of their parents’ bitter divorce.
As one can imagine, 730 evaluations can be very invasive and should only be pursued when the following issues are clear and present:
- Concerns about child abuse and neglect.
- Substance abuse by any adult who has access and caregiving responsibilities of the child or children.
- Untreated mental health or other health problems of any adult who has access and caregiving responsibilities of the child or children.
Further exploration should be considered when any of the following are present, as these may point to deeper issues that have nothing to do with the best interest of the child, but rather with either or both parents’ desire to use the child or children to further their own cause in the divorce or custody battle:
Questionable parenting practices that could have a negative impact on a child.
- These practices must be evaluated by a professional who specializes in child development and appropriate parenting practices and determined by them to have a negative impact on the child or children
- Often a parent who experienced a different style of parenting in childhood will rigidly hold opinions about best parenting practices.
- A professional should validate these opinions before making the decision to involve a child or children in the potentially traumatic experience of a 730 evaluation.
The parents are unable to agree on the custodial arrangement.
- Underlying causes must be explored when parents are unable to agree on custody and visitation arrangements to ensure there are no residual issues from the marital conflict influencing the inability to agree on ensuring that their children have equal access to both parents.
- Children need equal access to healthy parents and healthy adults, in general, to develop a healthy sense of self.
There is a question about the child’s upbringing.
- Again, underlying causes must be explored when parents start the process of questioning the child or children’s upbringing. If child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, or untreated mental or other health problems are not a factor, then it is important to explore this more before pushing for a 730 evaluation.
One parent wishes to move out of state and the other parent objects.
- A 730 evaluation is not necessary in these cases unless there is clear and present danger to a child or children.
- What is more important to explore in these cases is how to create a home environment that encourages equal access to both parents with little disruption to the child’s environment.
- The best interest of the child in these cases takes into account a number of factors, but most importantly, what uprooting their lives will mean for them. Children need to know that their lives are stable, secure, and consistent.
- What helps more in these situations, when the parents are having a difficult time agreeing on custody, is to have a professional help them mediate the best course of action to ensure that the children are able to have equal access as much as is possible for the “moving away” parent.
What is in the “Best Interest of the Children?”
The following factors should be considered when deciding on what is in the best interest of the children:
- Age and health of the child
- Emotional ties between the parents and the children
- Who has been the primary parent
- Amount of time each parent spends with the children
- History of family violence, substance abuse and current living environment
- The employment and ability of both parents to properly care for the child
- Keeping the post-divorce routine as close as possible to the pre-divorce routine as it relates to the child’s living arrangements, primary caregiver, school, community involvement, etc.
Co-Mediation as a Solution to Avoiding the Need for a 730 Evaluation
Before entering into a potentially hostile divorce and custody battle where decisions are left to a third party (Judge) who has no knowledge of the unique needs and situations of the children involved, mediation with a neutral third party should first be considered. Mediation, most often, will prevent the divorcing couple from getting to a point where a 730 evaluation would even need to be considered. Best-case scenario would be to involve a mediator who works closely with a mental health professional who can assist the divorcing couple in addressing any emotional issues that will interfere with their ability to effectively and harmoniously co-parent their children post-divorce. Co-mediators assist with keeping all parties on the task at hand when divorce is on the table.
The co-mediation team typically consists of a mediator who is able to help the couple come to a mutual and respectful dissolution agreement around finances, assets, debts, custody, and visitation. This person is not providing legal advice to either party, although they should have a strong background in, and a history of, practicing Family Law in order to understand the legal issues related to divorce; theirs is the task of helping the couple come to a peaceful, mutually agreed-upon divorce settlement.
The co-mediator, a mental health professional with expertise in working with high conflict couples, is able to assist the couple in staying focused on what is psychologically and emotionally in the best interest of the children. This professional also helps to diffuse unresolved emotional issues that can slow the process of mediation. Likewise, this person should also have proper and formal training and experience in the area of mental health, in order to understand the dynamics of human behavior and relationship conflicts that can hinder the mediation process.
When All Else Fails
If the divorcing couple has not been able to effectively mediate their divorce, and/or there are serious concerns that need to be addressed through a 730 evaluation, then the least invasive approach possible should first be considered. A “mini-evaluation,” often times, can be obtained through interviews of parents, children, key family members, teachers, therapists who have seen the children, or other adults who have witnessed the family dynamic.
This information is often comprehensive enough to get an insider’s view of the family dynamic and can give valuable information about what is making it difficult for the divorcing couple to come to a custody and visitation agreement. This may involve a psychological assessment of both parents, but the testing involved is less extensive and only used for the purpose of determining that there are no serious mental health issues involved. Often, the results of these assessments are only published if there are significant clinical findings.
Whenever possible, mini-evaluations should be provided and preferred over extensive 730 evaluations. They are less invasive, more child-oriented, since they keep the child as uninvolved in the process as possible, and are more cost efficient for the divorcing couple.
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