This report summarizes a recent NIJ-funded study that concluded many court-appointed custody evaluators in disputed child custody cases lack adequate training in domestic violence.
These study findings are reported in the grant report "The Need for Mandatory Domestic Violence Training for Court-Appointed Custody Evaluators" (October 2, 2017). Custody evaluators conduct family assessments and recommend custody and visitation arrangements that are in the children's best interest. When custody cases involve allegations of domestic violence, the court must balance the goal of protecting children and victimized parents with the goal of granting custody arrangements that allow children to maintain relationships with both parents. Few states require evaluators to have training on domestic violence and its impact on victimized parents and children exposed to violence. Consequently, the wide variation in the professional training, expert knowledge, and investigative approaches of the psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists who conduct custody evaluations may lead to inconsistent outcomes for families. The reported research assessed the safety of the parenting plans recommended by evaluators by examining the extent to which the plans contained elements that protected the victimized parent during visitation exchanges and the children during visitation. The study found that evaluators' custody recommendations were not influenced by the severity of domestic violence or by the evaluator's investigative thoroughness. The best predictor of parenting-plan safety was the evaluators' assessment of ongoing risks of serious domestic violence. This assessment was largely dependent on evaluators' characteristics, including their knowledge of domestic violence and their beliefs about the underlying causes of domestic violence. The analysis of court-ordered arrangements found that they largely conformed to the evaluators' recommendations.