Child custody evaluations are used in *some* custody cases, but seem to be less and less present in recent years. Child custody evaluations are done by a licensed psychologist usually in the county in which the custody hearing is being heard (or a nearby county). Most counties have a list of custody evaluators that they have commonly used. This process, although lengthy and usually costly, is usually a very good way to have a non-biased third party professional take a deep-dive into the custody matter, including interviewing both parents (or all parties involved), the children, and other professionals and important people in the children's' lives. They often get input from collateral sources, other mental health professionals, doctors, teachers, etc.
Some counties REQUIRE a custody evaluation and others will Order one if the parties agree or if one party presents a motion to require one. The evaluation timeline can take anywhere from weeks to months and the custody evaluator eventually is tasked with the job if giving his/her recommendation on custody for the child. This is just one factor that the Judge will eventually consider, but being a custody evaluator professional carries great weight in some counties.
One reason for the decline in use of custody evaluators could possibly be the cost. Here in Washington County and nearby Allegheny County, the total cost (which can be shared by both parties, or split proportionate to their income) is anywhere from $3,000-$6,000. That is a high cost for most parties in this area. One way the Court has side-stepped requiring custody evaluations has been to appoint Guardian Ad Litems (GAL) through the Court. GAL's are court-appointed attorneys who are appointed to interview and meet with the parties and children and also give a recommendation on their opinion as to how custody shall be shared. Their sole focus is what they believe is the best interest of the child.
Another reason for the decline could be that there is a rise in equal shared custody agreements/orders. Years ago, it is no secret that courts gave preference of custody to the mother. More recently (the past 20 years), the courts have moved away from giving preference automatically to mothers and have put both parents on equal footing. The courts WANT both parents to play an equal role in their child's life as long as both parents are safe and appropriate, but that is not always the case.
Another reason for the move away from custody evaluators, which partially ties in with cost mentioned above, is hearsay. The custody evaluator will provide a detailed custody report, detailing all of their findings, interviews, and their recommendation. However, if the custody evaluator is not present the day of the hearing, technically, the report is all hearsay. That means the parties would have to pay for the custody evaluator's professional fee for time in the court hearing as well adding to the already expensive evaluation.
Finally, another reason for the sharp decline in use of custody evaluators may be that they are limiting their practices to therapy/consulting only. Many times, parties want to subpoena the children's therapists or mental health professionals, but many have contracts signed by the parents before beginning treatment that they will not participate in court. The professionals believe this limits their interaction and ability for the child to really open up to them if the child knows eventually that the professional will be called on to testify in court.
While custody evaluators are still being used, I can attest to that personally, there has been a decline in recent years.
The United States, like most of the world, is in a state of flux. Courts are closed, except for emergency hearings. Attorneys are mostly working from home. Meetings are being held by phone and video conferencing. The main goal is for everyone to stay HEALTHY. However, life still goes on. What happens when the world around you is shutting down, but your family is still dealing with custody issues?
The shutting down of the economy, courts included, came swiftly. Governors ordered stay-at-home orders for residents and Supreme Courts entered Orders for all courts to effectively close to the public. Here in Washington County, the Court of Common Pleas was (and remains) closed to the public, with only minimal staff allowed inside the courthouse. Attorneys have a drop box and have been advised to email certain judges' staffs with question/motions/emergencies/etc. The Prothonotary has utilized online filing, which was previously not active in Washington County. But what if you have a custody schedule and the other parent is refusing to allow your child to come to you during your custodial time? That is the million dollar question.
Normally, parents will have a written custody Order signed by the Judge. The parents must follow that Order, and if they do not, then the parent who has been denied custody may file a Petition for Contempt with the Court. But what if the Court is closed, as it is now? Each county has been dealing with this issue independently. In Washington County, family law judge, Judge Brandon Nueman, was closed for nearly a month for regular motions. Judge Neuman would review emergency motions prepared by parties/counsel and decide if he believed they were a true emergency. If it was deemed a true emergency, Judge Neuman would schedule a telephone hearing regarding the emergency situation. If it was not deemed an emergency, then the parties were out of luck. This left many parents in a state of limbo, with attorneys running out of options.
However, after the first week of courts being closed except for emergencies, many counties made a public statement that custody exchanges were considered "Essential" and children should be following their normal custody schedule from one parent to another as long as no one in the household was sick of exhibiting symptoms.
UPDATE: As of Monday, April 6, 2020, Judge Neuman (family law judge in Washington County) will begin to accept regular family law motions via email and attorneys should be available from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. on motions court days by telephone to present their argument.