Charlie Sheen Custody War Shines Light on Role of Psychological Evaluators

It’s hard to miss the headlines this week concerning the all out war brewing between actor Charlie Sheen and his ex-wife Brook Mueller over the custody of their twin sons, Bob and Max. Among Sheen’s accusations are allegations of disregard for the children’s safety during visits with their mother and refusal on the part of Mueller to obtain psychological counseling for the boys, despite documented behavior problems.

While the details of the Sheen-Mueller dispute are complex, it also shows that serious child custody and child welfare issues can crop up anywhere, no matter what your income or profession. Sheen and Mueller are battling through the California courts, but what if a similar situation were to occur between two parents living in New Jersey?

One important first step that can be taken whenever there is concern that one parent is not providing a safe environment for the child is for the court or other parent to request a custody evaluation.

In New Jersey, custody evaluations are generally carried out by a private child custody evaluator (typically a psychologist or social worker) appointed by the court upon request by one or both parents, or as requested by the court. The job of the child custody evaluator is to collect information from multiple sources to determine the child’s needs and whether the parent in question is adequately meeting them, or is putting the child at risk for harm. A child custody evaluator may recommend certain child custody and visitation plan modifications based on his or her analysis of the circumstances surrounding the family.

In general, custody evaluations can be expensive and the parents must pay for them. If parents can’t afford a private evaluation, the court can ask the county probation department to conduct an evaluation, called a “best interests evaluation.” When an issue arises regarding a parent’s ability to provide a safe environment for a child, a “risk assessment” is carried out by a county probation department.

Any of these evaluations or assessments may include interviews with the parents; interviews with other people important to the child, such as grandparents or teachers; review of school, medical, or psychological records; and home visits. In the end, a judge will evaluate the information to see if a change in child custody arrangement is warranted to protect the child’s well-being.

What questions do you have about this process?