Child custody disputes can be emotionally charged and complex legal matters that require careful consideration of the best interests of the children involved. To assist in these cases, the court often calls upon the expertise of professionals such as Parental Responsibilities Evaluators (PRE) and Child and Family Investigators (CFI). These professionals play pivotal roles in helping courts make informed decisions about child custody arrangements. In this article, we will explore the key differences between PREs and CFIs, their roles, qualifications, and the types of cases for which each expert might be best suited.

The Role of the Parental Responsibilities Evaluator (PRE):

A Parental Responsibilities Evaluator is an individual with specialized training in psychology, psychiatry, or a related field at the doctorate level, appointed by the court to assess and make recommendations regarding parental responsibilities in child custody cases. Their role is extensive and includes the following:

Comprehensive Assessment: PREs conduct in-depth assessments of the parents, children, and the family situation. This assessment may involve psychological evaluations, interviews, and observations to gain a deep understanding of the family dynamics.

Psychological Testing: PREs are qualified to perform psychological tests to evaluate the mental and emotional well-being of the parties involved. This can provide critical insights into the capacity of each parent to provide a stable and nurturing environment for the child.

Observation and Interaction Analysis: PREs often observe interactions between parents and children, either directly or through video recordings. They analyze these interactions to assess the quality of the parent-child relationships.

Consideration of Relevant Factors: In addition to the direct assessments, PREs take into account various factors such as the child’s age and developmental needs, the parents’ abilities to meet those needs, the child’s preferences, and any history of abuse or neglect.

Recommendation Report: Following the assessment, the PRE submits a detailed report to the court. This report includes findings, conclusions, and recommendations for the court to consider when determining custody arrangements.

Cost: A PRE investigation can be quite costly with many investigations exceeding $5,000-10,000 on average depending on the number of interviews conducted, assessments performed, and issues presented.  Cost can oftentimes be the driving factor in whether a family can request a PRE investigation.

The Role of the Child and Family Investigator (CFI):

A Child and Family Investigator is another neutral third party appointed by the court to investigate child custody and parenting time disputes. While the CFI’s role shares some similarities with that of a PRE, there are notable differences:

Information Gathering: CFIs focus on gathering information about the family, parents, and children through interviews, document reviews, and other investigative means. They aim to present a less invasive overview of the case to the court through the lens of a particular scope of investigation.

Recommendations for Best Interests: Similar to PREs, CFIs make recommendations to the court regarding the best interests of the child. However, their recommendations may be more limited as a CFI’s investigative scope is oftentimes very specific to questions posed by the court versus a more comprehensive look at the entire family.

Interviews and Observations: CFIs interview parents, children, and other relevant parties, as well as observe interactions between the child and parents or caregivers. These observations contribute to their recommendations, but the CFI cannot conduct drug and alcohol evaluations, domestic violence assessments, or administer drug testing absent direction from the court and particular qualifications to do so.

Focused Investigation: CFIs often conduct a more focused investigation, seeking to address specific issues or disputes in the custody case. Their role is less psychological compared to PREs who are able to evaluate parties and children to provide indicators regarding potential mental health or addiction concerns.

Qualifications and Expertise:

One of the key differences between PREs and CFIs is the level of qualifications and expertise required for these roles:

PREs: These professionals are typically licensed psychologists or psychiatrists with advanced training in child development, family dynamics, and mental health assessments. Their qualifications equip them to perform psychological testing and assessments, making them well-suited to cases involving complex dynamics.

CFIs: While CFIs may have backgrounds in fields such as law, counseling, or social work, their training is focused on child development, child abuse and neglect issues, domestic violence or coercive control elements, and methods of interviewing children effectively. They do not conduct psychological assessments or tests and must notify the court if they believe such testing is requisite. 

Types of Cases for PREs and CFIs:

The choice between a PRE and a CFI often depends on the specific needs of the case, the financial resources of the family, and the preferences of the court. Here are some considerations for which expert might be best suited for different types of child custody cases:


Complex Psychological Issues: When a child custody case involves complex psychological issues, such as mental health concerns or allegations of parental alienation, a PRE’s expertise is invaluable. They can assess the mental and emotional well-being of the parties involved as well as the children.

High-Conflict Cases: In high-conflict custody disputes where there is a history of domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, substance abuse, or criminal activity, a PRE’s comprehensive assessment can provide critical insights for the court.


Information Gathering and Fact-Finding: In cases where the primary need is to gather information about the parties involved and the family situation, but there are no complex psychological issues, a CFI can efficiently conduct a thorough investigation with less cost to the family than a PRE.

Focused Investigations: CFIs are suitable for cases with specific disputes or concerns that require fact-finding and recommendations, such as disputes over parenting time schedules or allegations of parenting or decision-making violations.

Interview-Based Assessment: When questions can be resolved through a review of evidence and interviews with the family and third parties, a CFI is well-suited to the task.


Parental Responsibilities Evaluators (PREs) and Child and Family Investigators (CFIs) both play vital roles in helping the court make informed decisions in child custody cases. The choice between the two often hinges on the nature and complexity of the case. PREs are experts in psychology and mental health, conducting in-depth assessments and psychological evaluations, while CFIs are investigative professionals who gather information, conduct interviews, and make recommendations based on their findings.

In any child custody case, the ultimate goal is to ensure the best interests of the child are met. By understanding the roles and qualifications of PREs and CFIs, a party can better decide what expert may be necessary to protect their children’s best interests in the court process.