The things normally done in a parenting evaluation consist of interviews of the parents and children; observations of the parent/child relationship; interviews of collateral contacts, such as teachers, relatives, counselors; review of relevant documents; psychological or substance abuse testing, if indicated. Finally, the evaluator writes up a report that documents the process and supports a parenting opinion that is offered as a conclusion.
The parenting evaluation should be a structured process rather than a freewheeling essay. That being said, you would be surprised that lots of parenting evaluations have little structure. Indeed, they often have little logic. By that I mean that the recommendations rarely flow logically from the facts presented. And when you get down to the facts supporting the conclusions, it’s easy to notice that the facts are cherry-picked by the conclusion. In other words, the parenting evaluation usually turns into a argument that leaves out important facts in order to make the conclusion seem more reasonable.
The substance of a parenting evaluation should track the statutory framework for determining a parenting plan. The general statutory framework is that the evaluator should initially determine whether there is a “limiting condition.” This is the legal term restricting a parent’s contact with his/her child. RCW 26.09.191. A limiting condition is a character trait like domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, parental neglect or abandonment.
The initial analysis of a parenting evaluation should recite whether there have been allegations of conduct that may give rise to limiting conditions, the evaluator’s efforts to confirm the allegation, and an opinion as to its validity and gravity. Many such evaluations are not informed by comprehensive background checks of the parents and their current partners.
Although the definition of domestic violence is clearly stated in RCW 26.50.010, King County’s Family Court Services (KCFCS), which prepares a lot of parenting evaluations in King County, last time I checked its evaluations, used a definition of domestic violence that is far broader than the statutory definition KCFCS defines domestic violence in its parenting evaluations as “a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion, that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners.” Thereby, FCS evaluations open the door for limiting a parent’s role in a child’s life based on the wrong standard. If one parent controls the family check book, that could be interpreted by FCS as domestic violence.
According to the statutory framework, if a limiting condition is not found that is severe enough to limit a parent’s residential time with the children, then the evaluation must be based on an analysis of factors set forth in RCW 26.09.187. It is startling that many parenting evaluations have only a fleeting analysis of the statutory criteria. For example, many parenting evaluations dwell on the parent’s developmental backgrounds, which are largely irrelevant. This information would be highly relevant if the evaluation had a therapeutic purpose. But a parenting evaluation has a forensic purpose, which is quite distinct and apart.
Given the evaluation’s impact on a parent’s fundamental right to have a relationship with a child, the law provides few protections to the parent from the impact of a flawed parenting evaluation. The parent has the right to obtain a copy of the evaluator’s file and to cross examine the evaluator at the time of trial. RCW 26.09.220. An aggrieved parent is also permitted to file a response to the evaluation. RCW 26.12.175.
However, the aggrieved parent’s ability to respond to an allegedly flawed parenting evaluation often proves to be elusive. Many aggrieved parents claim that the evaluator misquoted or quoted a source out of context, or was selective in stating the facts. The opportunity to correct the matter is often dire as the report is often delivered close to the date of trial. Pursuant to RCW 26.09.220(3), the report must be mailed out to the parents only ten days before the hearing, hardly a sufficient time for a parent to respond in a meaningful fashion. If the aggrieved parent has the opportunity to obtain the evaluator’s file, he/she is often presented with pages of indecipherable notes.Google+