The Ackerman-Schoendorf Parent Evaluation of Custody Test (ASPECT) was among the first forensic assessment instruments developed specifically for use in the area of parenting disputes. Its design requires the user to develop multiple data sources. The ASPECT laid the foundation for further search for objective, data-intensive assessment in this highly complex area of forensic work.
Description of the ASPECT
The ASPECT is designed specifically to assist the evaluator in gathering information to be used in court-related assessments. It was one of the first instruments to be developed for the complex purpose of assessing a family when parenting time and responsibility are in dispute. This instrument relies on multiple data sources, including some psychological measures with good psychometric properties. It provides a structured approach to data collection and assimilation, ensures that the same evaluative criteria are applied to both parents, and attempts to quantify the results in a way that allows for comparison of their parental competency. In its conception and design, some effort was made to ensure that it was a reliable and valid measure that would convert the highly subjective child custody evaluation process to a more objective, deliberate, and defensible forensic technique.
The ASPECT comprises 56 items to be answered by the evaluator after a series of interviews, observations, and tests have been completed. The tests include the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2), the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test/Children’s Apperception Test (TAT/CAT), projective questions, projective drawings, and intellectual and achievement testing. Parents also complete a 57-item Parent Questionnaire. Selected data from the tests comprise the answers to 15 of the 56 evaluator questions; the other 44 questions address material to be deduced from the Parent Questionnaires, interviews, and observations. There are 12 critical items that are said to be significant indicators of parenting deficits. The 56 items are, according to the authors, equally weighted based on a rational approach and are combined to form a Parental Custody Index (PCI) for each parent. The three subscales, the Observational Scale, the Social Scale, and the Cognitive-Emotional Scale, have not proven to be useful, according to the authors, and should not be used for interpretation.
The mean PCI is 78, and the standard deviation is 10. The authors suggest that if parents’ PCI scores are within 10 points of one another, joint custody with substantially equal placement is recommended; if they are more than 20 points apart, the higher-scoring parent is substantially more fit to parent, and primary placement with the possibility of sole custody should be explored. When scores are between 10 and 20 points apart, the authors recommend more closely scrutinizing collateral information to determine the appropriate custody arrangement. The standardization demographic (n = 200) of the ASPECT was predominately white and relatively homogeneous.
The test manual for the ASPECT reports high levels of interrater reliability. As evidence of validity, the authors claim that in judicial dispositions of 118 of the 200 cases in the normative sample for which outcome data were available, there was a 91% hit rate of dispositions matching recommendations.
Limitations of the ASPECT
There are significant weaknesses in the basic conceptualization and the psychometric properties of the ASPECT, as its authors concede. Critics have noted that there was inadequate research to establish the constructs to be measured and their relevance to competent parenting. Instrument selection for its component parts was done without sufficient analysis to determine whether the data collected added incremental validity to the assessment of parenting strengths. Although a number of the factors to be considered by the user may seem to be logically associated with parenting, some clearly lack such inferential connectedness, and no empirical link is provided.
Further research is needed to support the cut score recommended by the authors, as well as to support the ideas that high PCI scorers are more effective parents, that sole custody is the best arrangement for children of parents who have disparate PCI scores, and that 20 points is sufficiently disparate for a recommendation of sole custody. Finally, further data are needed to support the implicit notion that the ASPECT takes into account all relevant data to be considered by the evaluator in formulating recommendations, if any, to be offered to the court for apportionment of parenting time and responsibility. The ASPECT’s relevance and reliability have not been adequately demonstrated to justify its use for the court-referred assessments for which it was designed.
- Ackerman, M. J. (2005). The Ackerman-Schoendorf Scales for Parent Evaluation of Custody (ASPECT): A review of research and update. Journal of Child Custody, 2(1/2), 179-193.
- Connell, M. A. (2005). Review of “The Ackerman-Schoendorf Scales for Parent Evaluation of Custody” (ASPECT). Journal of Child Custody, 2, 195-209.
- Heinze, M. C., & Grisso, T. (1996). Review of instruments assessing parenting competencies used in child custody evaluations. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 14, 293-313.
- Otto, R. K., & Edens, J. F. (2003). Parenting capacity. In T. Grisso (Ed.), Evaluating competencies: Forensic assessments and instruments (2nd ed., pp. 229-307). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.