Divorce is exceedingly common in the United States, and it can have long-ranging effects on all parties involved, particularly children. In those relatively rare circumstances in which child custody issues cannot be resolved by the parents, the process can become even more contentious and emotional and ultimately end up in the court system. To inform its decision making in these contested cases, courts may appoint mental health examiners to evaluate families and either recommend a specific custody decision or provide detailed information about the factors affecting a child’s development within potential custody environments. Custody evaluations are thought to be perhaps the most complex and acrimonious referral questions addressed by forensic examiners.
All U.S. jurisdictions determine custody using the “best interests” standard, wherein custody is granted in accordance with the promotion of circumstances that ostensibly are in the best interests of the children. In practice, this standard has been found to be vague and difficult to apply. Some states have begun to operationalize the term best interests by identifying spe-cific factors that have an impact on a child’s welfare. In turn, these factors become the specific focus of the custody evaluation process. Read more about Divorce and Child Custody.
Divorce and Child Custody Research Topics
Custody evaluations can be informed by research from multiple domains. Examiners should be familiar with a wide variety of research findings and incorporate the best data in the evaluation process. Relevant areas of research include the influence of parents on their children’s development, mental disorders and parenting, mental disorders and children, the impact of specific parenting practices on child development, the impact of divorce on parents and children, the impact of parental conflict on children’s adjustment, parenting after divorce, economics and remarriage, the impact of access to the noncustodial parent, and the impact of the type of custody arrangement on children’s development.
A voluminous literature exists concerning how children respond to parental separation and divorce. Unfortunately, clear and unequivocal conclusions (which might lead to straightforward recommendations in contested custody cases) typically are the exception rather than the rule. As such, this summary highlights trends in this literature, with the qualification that these general trends belie considerable variability at the individual level.
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