Child Custody Evaluation

When do I need a Child Custody Evaluation/Social Investigation?

A social investigation or Child custody evaluation is carried out when parents are unable to resolve disputes about child custody and need information and guidance from an expert to assist in decision making in the best interests of the children. These decisions typically involve the living situations for both parents and the quality of parenting provided to the child from each parent. A child custody evaluation can be due to many different family situations; if one parent wants to move away, the court has to decide if the children should move with that parent or allegations of harmful parental behavior with or without drugs or alcohol. Child custody evaluations may be used when parenting disputes occur whether the parents are married, never married, separated or divorced.

Child Custody Evaluations or Social Investigations require a court order, which specifies whether it will be a focused or full evaluation and who specifically will be involved in the evaluation. Depending on the family’s situation the parents or attorney can sometimes negotiate what the court order will say. In cases where one parent disagrees with having the evaluation the court may or may not order him or her to cooperate with the social investigation or child custody evaluation.

What is a Child Custody Evaluation/Social Investigation?

A social investigation or child custody evaluation (can also be known as or include family evaluation, forensic evaluation, parenting plan evaluation) is a formal evaluation process conducted by an impartial mental health professional who is qualified to administer, score, apply and provide evaluation/instrument results, information and make recommendations regarding Florida’s statutory criteria 61.13 the best interests of the child(ren) to the court and the involved parties and their attorneys. This process is required by the courts before a judge decides custody decisions; In Florida, the court will make child custody decisions based on what is in the best interest of the child if the parents can’t come to an agreement. Rather than the courts relying only on the self-reported testimony of two parents who each have their own biases and agendas, the court will give considerable weight to the objective findings of an independent child custody evaluator or social investigator. The Child Custody Evaluator must be a neutral and impartial mental health professional, who does not have an existing counseling relationship with either parent or with the child.

The investigator summarizes, compiles all relevant information and makes recommendations and a recommended parenting plan into the written report for the judge to consider when making decisions in cases involving parental responsibility, decision making, time-sharing, and other family law matters.

The court will order that parental responsibility be shared by both parents unless the court finds that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child. Going to court to fight for sole custody or a greater parenting role triggers an extensive, expensive child custody evaluation process. The social investigator or child custody evaluator is not concerned with assessing which parent is “better” or who is unfit to parent, but which of any number of possible custody arrangements would serve the best interests of the child.

If the attorneys are unable to agree on a social investigator or child custody evaluator, each party will submit a list, and the judge will choose the evaluator. If you do not have attorneys and cannot agree which professional to hire for child custody evaluation, each party will provide a list to the judge and the judge will choose one.

Whittaker Family Services, LLC understands that you want to protect your children and preserve your relationship with them. We handle all facets of child custody and visitation. Please click this link to view Christine Whittaker, LMFT resume so you can see her extensive experience and certifications that qualify her to be your Family Divorce Mediator, Child Custody Evaluator or Social Investigator. We provide honest and realistic explorations related to out-of-court solutions in Tampa, Florida.

What happens during a Child Custody Evaluation?

A child custody evaluation includes a series of interviews. Expect to talk to the evaluator alone, with the other parent and the children. Your individual interview will give you the opportunity to present your issues and concerns about the children and the other parent.
The interview with your child may take place in the evaluator’s office or it may occur in your home. The social investigator or child custody evaluator may interview other people in the children’s lives, including stepparents or domestic partners.

Corroborative sources/ Information gathering:
In order to obtain a complete picture of the family the evaluator may request your written consent to obtain school and health records, social service and police information, if not included in the court order. In a social investigation the child custody evaluator may ask both parents to complete a detailed questionnaire related to you and your relationship with your children and the other parent. If drug or alcohol problems are alleged or appear to be present, testing may be conducted to find out whether the parent is currently using or has used in the recent past.

Written tests and evaluations:
As determined by the social investigator or child custody evaluator, psychological testing may be required if information about each parent’s emotional and mental status would be helpful to the judge. An evaluation is conducted by a certified child custody evaluator or a qualified psychologist. The evaluations will be several paper/pencil tests. For more information about the tests types used in our Child Custody Evaluation Service please go to the Child Custody Assessments page.

Home Study:
A home study assess for things such as room-by-room safety, general home safety, neighborhood safety, plus a checklist of life-style issues like homework space, sleeping arrangements, daycare issues and many more.

Document Review:
Each parent or their respective attorney will be asked to submit any and all copies of court orders, recommending counselor reports and custody related filings including any criminal. Both parties and their attorneys are asked to send the evaluator any additional written material they think will be useful in determining the best interest of the children.

One Sided Evaluations:
A thorough social investigation or child custody evaluation requires that both parents be involved in the process. Please be cautious of hiring a separate child custody evaluator as courts may consider these evaluations to be incomplete and one sided. One-sided evaluations may subject your children to added stress.

Child Custody Evaluation or Social Investigation Service in Tampa, Florida. Sad girl.
Young cute children. Child Custody Evaluation or Social Investigation Service in Tampa, Florida.
Social Investigation or Child Custody Evaluation Service in Tampa, Florida. Sad young boy.

Who is the Child Custody Evaluator/Social Investigator?

Child custody evaluators or social investigators in private practice are usually licensed psychologists OR licensed, trained and certified mental health professionals with other credentials such as LMFT, LMHC or LSW. Custody evaluators in court-connected programs are usually counselors or mental health professionals. Your child custody evaluation mental health professional should be familiar with the statutes in your jurisdiction, have expertise in the divorce process (family Divorce Mediator) and its effects on families, and have an understanding of child development issues and the needs of children. Although the evaluator is unbiased and neutral it is helpful when the evaluator’s personality is a match for the children or family so you feel free to ask questions about the child custody evaluation process or their qualifications, training and experience.

The social investigator or child custody evaluator is not concerned with assessing which parent is “better” or who is unfit to parent, but which of any number of possible custody arrangements would serve the best interests of the child.

Home Study / Home Visit for Child Custody Cases

When going through divorce or custody proceedings in court, either party in the proceedings or a judge may order a Home Study as a way to collect more information about the child’s placement and help the judge make a custody decision. This is also known as a court-ordered Home Study/Home Visits. If you need a home study/Home Visit for custody purposes, make sure that the court order specifically addresses any special requests or issues that the court needs more information on.

Social Studies, sometimes referred to as Home Studies / Home Visits, are studies necessary for different types of Custody cases.
As a Supreme Court Certified Divorce Mediator and Certified Child Custody Evaluator I often travel to different areas of Tampa to complete a study or evaluation.

A home study / home visit is a review of you, your spouse, and anyone else living in your home. A home study is required for almost every adoption and custody case. It highlights items such as relationships, interactions with children, your neighborhood, and your childhood. Initially, the home study process frightens some families until they actually complete one. I will do my best to make the process both easy and relaxing. The home study helps the courts, and the agency (if there is one involved), determine if a stable environment exists for a family to receive an adoptive or custody placement. Collecting all the documents for the home study can be time consuming.

You can expect to discuss the following topics during your home study interview(s):

  • Personal and Family Background
  • Previous and Current Relationships
  • Health Status of everyone in the home
  • Home and Living Environment
  • Financial Information
  • Child Rearing and Discipline Practices
  • Values, Expectation Regarding Parenting
  • Child(ren) School Background

In preparation for the home visit and interview, you will be required to compile the support documentation. The documents requested may include the following:

  • Birth Certificates of all Family Members
  • Marriage Certificates (if applicable)
  • Divorce Degree (if applicable)
  • Death Certificates of previous spouses/deceased children ( if applicable)
  • Driver’s License
  • Tax Return for previous 2 years
  • Physician’s statement of health
  • Copies of financial records, stocks etc.
  • Insurance policies: life, health, medical
  • Names, address and phone numbers of 5-10 references, including any children not currently residing in your home
  • Estimated budget with income and expenses
  • Additionally the evaluator may require that you submit to the following background checks:
  • Criminal Background Check
  • Central Registry Check

Please do not obtain these on your own evaluator uses specific protocol. Fees for a Social/Home Study may vary depending on location, type, and number of persons seeking conservatorship. Please contact me to discuss rates for your study.

Professional Resume


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What is my approach to Child Custody Evaluations/Social Investigations?

I strive in being thorough, unbiased, objective, balanced and fact seeking along with listening to each parent’s concerns and the children’s unmet needs. I hope to help families reduce conflict and stress so they can help their children focus on the fun of growing up.
In order to make my evaluations as useful as possible, I interview both parents carefully, in order to understand their perspectives, personalities, strengths and weaknesses as parents. I spend significant time with the children, generally meeting them initially at the home where they spend most of their time and then seeing them in my office. I ask each parent to join the children in the office for some of the time so I can see what it is like when they are together, and, if the children are old enough, I also talk with them alone and perform written evaluations.

In addition, it is my practice to interview collaborative resources/outside people who are likely to have important and useful information. I incorporate any and all available resources in order to understand the family’s functionality, how the family interacts, dysfunctional or functional patterns and the quality of parenting each child receives and the quality of parenting each parent is capable of providing.
Collaborative sources provide a perspective on the situation, I spend as much time as necessary integrating them into a detailed picture of the children’s met and unmet needs and each parent’s impact on them.

The final report with recommendations will not be vague, children’s needs, and parents’ strengths and weaknesses are very complicated and require a fully encompassed recommendation. My reports include summaries and recommendations on multiple levels and topics, for example:

  • how to meet the child’s unmet needs
  • how to reduce emotional damage to the children
  • how to help an unhealthy parent
  • how to guide a healthy parent
  • how to determine when such problems with an unhealthy parent have been successfully addressed
  • what to do in various future situations when a child’s needs are unmet
  • how to protect children from the pain of losing touch with a parent
  • Findings, applications and recommendations from all assessments administered
  • Parent mental health and substance abuse concerns and history
  • Child mental health and substance abuse concerns and history
  • Parenting Plan recommendation and draft
  • Summary of all findings and specific recommendations

I am trained and certified to administer the research based, empirically tested assessments and instruments used to aid in recommendations made in the comprehensive evaluation/investigation. My experience, knowledge and skills, include techniques for interviewing and assessing adults, children and families; conducting home studies; identifying, organizing and understanding collateral sources of information; administering and interpreting standardized questionnaires, surveys and other data collection tools; and report writing. I specialize understanding the complexities interpersonal familial relationships which allows me provide exceptional individualized services in the areas of child development, family systems, the effects of divorce on children and families, other issues common to families in crisis (e.g., domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, etc.). The evaluations and recommendations reflect a clinically astute and scientifically sound approach that legal decisions can be centered around. The purpose of the evaluation is to assist in determining the psychological best interests of the child and the best interests of the child remains the focus of my investigation.

Can parents come to an agreement without going back to court?

After the social investigation or child custody evaluation sometimes parents will impartially agree to custody or a parenting timeshare based on evaluation recommendations and other times parents need the judge to make the decisions for them. As always it is best for children if the parents settle out of court and as early as possible, the time best time for the parents to regain control of their decision making is after getting the custody report and before the court hearing. The parents can use the report and recommendations in the same way the judge would, deciding which ones they agree on. If some recommendations are still left un-agreed upon then you can ask the judge to make a decision on only the un-agreed upon recommendations.

What is the cost of a Social Investigation or Child Custody Evaluation?

A Social Investigation or Child Custody Evaluation typically take one to four months, and cost approximately $1500 to $5000. The cost is specific to each case as determined by the outlined need in the court order, the more children involved in the child custody evaluation or an increased amount of mental health/substance abuse assessments could increase the cost.

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