In contested Minnesota custody cases, courts are authorized to appoint a person to investigate and report on child custody arrangements: a custody evaluator. The custody evaluator functions as a neutral party to gather and present information to guide the judge in making a custody determination. Although it's not required, because of the importance of the issue of custody, and the judge's limited ability to gather neutral information on the case, the use of custody evaluators is very common.
Minnesota requires that custody be determined based on the best interests of the minor child. There are two types of custody: physical (which parent the child primarily resides with--if that applies) and legal (if one or both parents make the major decisions regarding health, education, and religion) for the child. The courts decide these based on thirteen "best interest" factors, such as identifying if the child has a primary caregiver, the child's adjustment to home, school, and community, and the willingness of each parent to facilitate ongoing contact between the child and the other parent.
The custody evaluator investigates the "best interest" factors set forth in Section 518.17 of the Minnesota Statutes. Parents can expect at least one, and likely multiple, in-person interviews with the evaluator. The evaluator will also speak with the children without the parents present, and may also spend time observing the children interacting with each parent at their home. The custody evaluator will speak with other adults in the children's lives, such as day care providers and teachers. The custody evaluator will obtain children's school records and a criminal background check of the parents. If substance abuse or mental illness is alleged, and the allegations are credible, a substance abuse and/or psychological evaluation may be ordered as well.
After a custody evaluator has gathered all the relevant information, he or she will compile a report specifically addressing the "best interest" factors in the statute. The report is presented to the court, and while it is not binding, parents can expect the judge to rely heavily on the information in it. For this reason, it's critical that the custody evaluator chosen has a thorough understanding of Minnesota family law and experience working with families and interpreting family dynamics. Lisa Banas is an experienced family law attorney with a background in social work and working with children in need of protection. Her unique skill set allows her to serve as an efficient, insightful, and fair custody evaluator.