Evaluating the Evaluation


Whenever something makes me feel slightly odd and uncomfortable and like I don’t know if I should talk about it, my inclination is to simply put it out there in order to help dispell the awkwardness and sheepishness–to help clear the air.  I think this is pretty healthy.

I have been feeling pretty good about the custody evaluation process so far–the written portion was incredibly in-depth and lengthy, and the first office interview was also a positive experience.  I signed up for all of this, after all, when I decided to file in court on the primary physical custody issue.

So, I’ve been pretty happy with how comprehensive it seems to be.  But I’ve got to say that the home visit was a little off-putting.  It’s not that I objected to having the evaluator come into my home, but the methods employed and the actual experience were, it seemed to me, a little odd.

First of all, I should say that the timing of the visit was somewhat problematic.  We’d scheduled a late-morning time, but had to switch to an earlier slot because of the evaluator’s other obligations.  But the time wasn’t so much of a problem as was the stipulation that we weren’t supposed to do anything involving a screen.

For the record, our normal Sunday schedule goes like this:  Sometime around 8 a.m., I hear a pad, pad, pad of little feet down the hall, and then there’s a sweet little boy in flannel pj’s by the side of the bed saying, “Good morning mommy,” and I roll over and put my arms around him and give him a kiss, and he kisses me.

Then he says, “Is it OK if I play my Wii for a little bit?”  And I say, “OK.”  That’s my cue to start waking up.  The dog comes in and wants to be patted; the cat stands in the doorway and meows, and I kiss H and roll out of bed and into my bathrobe.

I make the coffee, get washed and dressed, open the curtains, pour a cup of coffee, take the dog out, come back in and feed and water both (incredibly starving by the sounds they make) animals.  I wash out the cat food can and put it in the recycling bin.

By this time, H is usually up, too, and we both turn on our computers to check e-mail (generally, I check every day for students’ plaintive cries for help).  I check in on M’s game, and he usually shows me some breakthrough he’s made or some cool feature he’s discovered.

H and I share tidbits of the day’s news.  Sometimes one or both of us will take a turn as second player on the Wii, and M tries to teach us all the moves our particular character is capable of with a remarkable amount of patience for our skill level at such things.

I generally let M play Wii for about two hours on Sunday mornings, feed him breakfast, and we all generally just relax.  Eventually, I ask him to shut things down and get dressed, and we do a few other random and generally relaxed things before we have to head up to Sioux Falls or Brookings to meet his dad.

I should be clear that it’s not that I object to changing our usual schedule, but it did feel weird to be instructed to act naturally and play together at 8:30 a.m. (these instructions came before the visit) but be told that we weren’t supposed to do the things we normally do.

It’s also immensely weird to have to pretend that a third person whom you barely know isn’t sitting in your house watching you “act naturally” doing things you wouldn’t naturally do at that hour with notepad and pen poised.

Especially when that person is sitting watching you eat breakfast (which it is fair to say we do naturally at that hour) at your 32″ x 42″ kitchen table.  Right next to you while you slurp the milk from your bowl.

And, no, thank you, they don’t drink coffee.  Which is fine, but then you wonder if you should be drinking it or if that will somehow affect your parenting “grade.”  Which is a lot of doubt and complexity to handle at 8:30 on a Sunday morning–especially without caffeine.  So, you think maybe it’s better if you just drink the coffee.

In summation, you’re supposed to act naturally and not in the acting-with-an-audience sense even though, of course, you’re not acting naturally by doing what you’re doing, and you do have an audience, one with whom you are not allowed to break the third wall.  Yeah, I’d say it’s a little surreal.

The other thing that was a little weird to me was that the evaluator was quite obviously terrified of my dog.  That some people are afraid of dogs is nothing new, of course, and I always hold Vega back when I have a new visitor and ask if they are OK with her before unleashing her love-mania upon them (at least she doesn’t jump).

But the evaluator’s reaction upon my opening the door (holding Vega securely) seemed to me like full-on, wide-eyed, step-back fear.  When I asked if she was OK with dogs, her response was something to the effect of, usually-I-am-but-she-is-too-big-please-put-her-away.

Which, of course, I did.  But I couldn’t help but feel like maybe I was going to be down-graded as a parent for having a big dog. When she asked M to show her around the house, she did not want to be shown my bedroom (where Vega was), even though H calmly suggested he could go in ahead of them and hold the dog.

Altogether, the visit lasted an hour and a half.  We ate breakfast, played a game M invented the night before–“tower jenga” with wooden ABC blocks, and also a couple sets of checkers. I think we managed to be pretty natural–after all, we were doing things we’d normally do, even if we wouldn’t normally do them at that time of day.

Then the evaluator sat and talked to M alone for a few minutes–he didn’t want to sit with her in his bedroom (which honestly, I thought displayed good sense about strangers), so they sat in the living room, and H and I visited in the kitchen.

I guess I couldn’t help but think about anthropology and Dr. Donna Davis’ lectures on participant observation.  To really learn about a culture, she argues, one should immerse oneself in it–preferably for an extended period of time.  Objectivity is a sham when you’re trying to understand the dynamics of a culture, and I would argue, a household.

I think I might’ve felt more comfortable if the visit lasted a whole day, and if we weren’t having to pretend someone who was there, wasn’t there.  Though I’m not sure that the budget and scheduling of social workers (nor, perhaps, their mental fortitude) could handle such a rigorous immersion into the lives of clients.

Too, it’s really not my way to ignore a visitor in my house.  It felt thwarting and strange to have to studiously ignore her instead of chatting with her, including her in activities, offering her food and drink (I did try with the coffee)–in short, acting naturally toward a guest in my home.

And yes, I did consider her a guest in that, by virtue of my filing in court, I expected such a visit and indeed, welcomed it. But, I’m not sure how much a person can learn about a household and the dynamics of its members in an hour and a half.

I’m sure social workers are trained to learn about as much as can be learned in that space of time, and to recognize that the situation they’re observing isn’t truly a “natural” one–especially given the circumstances under which they’re called upon to perform these evalautions.

All in all, my feelings of strangeness about the visit and the “acting” and the dog aren’t overwhelming, but it was certainly, as I said, a somewhat surreal experience–especially considering that, while the evaluator is not the judge, her findings and recommendations will certainly be considered by the judge.

I’m honestly not too worried that Vega’s size or my caffeine habits or even my willingness to discuss the thing publicly in this blog are going to be deal-breakers or makers in terms of a custody decision.

And I’m not willing to remain awkwardly silent about the weirdness, even if it is an unavoidable weirdness in these types of situations.  I think it helps to bring it out–to share the experience with others who’ve gone through it or may go through it.

After yesterday’s evaluation, the thoughtful four-hour drive to Brookings and back, and today’s lingering feeling of strangeness about the whole thing, I realized again that there’s just not much weirdness I wouldn’t go through for the sake of my son–for his access to opportunities, for his safety, for his happiness.

I guess that means I came through at least my self-evaluation with flying colors.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Claire on December 14, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    If it helps, most of what the person is actually watching is how your son is reacting to you and his comfort level in your house. As long as you aren’t a big ol’ loser, they don’t much care about your life beyond your son’s reaction to being with you. Having a person you aren’t supposed to talk to in the room with you does sound positively awful though, I have to admit 🙂 I hope it all goes in your favor. I’ve been through some awful, awful custody stuff with my ex (and get to swing the bat yet again in May) so if you need an understanding ear at some point, feel free to get in touch. It’s a hard thing no matter the outcome. Just the process tends to bring out some pretty negative feelings, even when you’re trying to stay positive.

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