In a family law case, a home or social study may be called for when the court needs to determine child custody arrangements. Though usually seen in the context of divorce, an evaluation may also be ordered in the case of adoption or whenever an interested party requests conservatorship of a child.
A social study is a tool used to evaluate the circumstances of the child and all interested parties. Factors that come into play include each parent or party's strengths and weaknesses, the parent-child dynamic, any existing inter-parental conflict, and the multifaceted needs of the child. The evaluator in a home or social study is a licensed therapist - an MFT, social worker, or psychologist - who acts as an impartial expert. The results of evaluation can determine the course of the litigation, so it is vital that all parties come into it prepared.
A child custody evaluation can be broken down into two main parts: the questionnaire and the interview. We'll discuss each separately.
Before you fill out a child custody questionnaire, you need to first meet with your attorney and organize your data. Examples of documents you need to gather include school records, medical records, employment records, child care records, counseling records, drug test results, police reports, and journals and diaries. You'll also need to put together a list of people whom you think the evaluator must interview. Include their addresses and contact information as well as a brief explanation of what they can contribute to the evaluation.
The questionnaire will look into your background, marital history, how you handle your parenting responsibilities, and other relevant facts. Keep in mind that there are no secrets in a child custody evaluation. Everything you write down in your questionnaire or say during your interview can be used for or against your case.
When filling out the questionnaire, try to answer as completely as you can, making references to the documentation you provided whenever possible. Use a neutral, matter-of-fact tone and avoid embellishments or comments that attempt to put the other party in a negative light. Always stick to the point and, above all, tell the truth.
During this phase, the evaluator will conduct interviews with all interested parties and collateral sources. However, your own conduct should be your topmost concern. Remember that the evaluator is not acting on your or the other party's behalf. He or she is on nobody's side and must be treated professionally. It helps to make a good impression from the get-go. Be punctual and communicative, dress appropriately, and try to make yourself available at the evaluator's convenience.
Your answers should be concrete and focused on your child's best interests. The evaluation is not about yourself, nor is it about your spouse. When disclosing critical information such as instances of substance abuse and domestic violence, keep your communications matter-of-fact. Try not to overanalyze the evaluator's questions and respond promptly and calmly. A show of emotions is perfectly natural so long as you keep your reactions appropriate to the occasion.
The evaluator may also schedule a date and time for a home visit. This will give him or her an opportunity to see your living conditions and observe how you interact with your child. Avoid coaching your child on what he or she should or shouldn't say. Manipulation of your child at any point during the home or social study will be a point against you.
Finally, keep in mind that at the end of the day, the decision of the court will always be for your child's best interests.