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At the heart of any divorce proceeding involving minor children should be the consideration of what is in the child's best interest. In high conflict cases, where the divorcing parents cannot come to a mutual agreement regarding the custody arrangement for their child or children, the court will need to get involved to determine the appropriate allocation of physical contact and decision making authority that each parent will have with the child. Often times, in order for the Judge to determine what is in the best interests of the child, he or she will need to order a Child Custody Evaluation.
In California, a Child Custody Evaluation is also often referred to as a "730 Evaluation" because California Evidence Code Section 730 permits the court to appoint one or more experts to investigate, render a report and testify as an expert in order to help the Judge determine what is in the best interest of the child. This type of forensic evaluation is much more extensive and formal than just a court-ordered custody investigation. Specifically, if there are concerns about mental health issues, child abuse, substance abuse, parenting practices that may have a negative impact on the child, move away cases, etc. a 730 Evaluation will likely be needed in order to get a thorough, objective and competent analysis of the parents and an assessment of what is in the best interests of the children.
Qualified examiners include Marriage and Family Therapists, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Psychiatrists and Psychologists. In California, the Judge typically selects the evaluator from an approved panel or a list submitted by the parties (so long as the recommended evaluator meets the list of criteria required). The evaluator will be required to act as a professional expert and must act as a neutral throughout the evaluation. 730 evaluations typically involve observations, review of documents and medical records, clinical interviews with the parents and children, and psychological assessments. Any formal psychological testing, however, must be completed by a trained psychologist. It usually takes at least three months to complete all of the necessary evaluations and to draft a detailed written report.
Since the Judge does not know the family personally, he or she will typically depend on the opinion of the expert to understand the parties and their nature of interaction with the child. Ultimately, the main focus of the Judge is to uncover what is the best interest of the child. Therefore, a 730 evaluation usually includes a written recommendation for what the evaluator believes, based on his or her expert opinion, is in the best interests of the child. While the evaluator does offer his or her input, the Judge is the one who ultimately makes the decision regarding child custody. But, the evaluator's recommendation is usually taken very seriously by the court who may give significant weight to the evaluator's recommendation. The evaluator may also be brought into court to further explain or defend his or her recommendations. In some situations the evaluator may even be ordered to conduct further studies of the issue at hand. In any case, 730 evaluations can play a big role in high conflict custody cases.