Child Custody Evaluations

The role of a clinical forensic psychologist is not limited to criminal cases. They are often asked to serve in less sexy, civil matters. One such example is in the role of a mental health professional in a child custody evaluation. With the divorce rate in the United States hovering at about 50 percent, the demand for child custody and parental fitness evaluations are also on the rise. When separated or divorcing parents fight over custody of their child, the court system may be forced to resolve the dispute. In recent years, there has been a steady growth in the use of forensic psychologists to aid the courts in settling these disputes (M. J. Ackerman & M. Ackerman, 1997). Though not as newsworthy as other criminal matters, such as sexual offending and psychopathy, many forensic clinical psychologists agree that child custody cases are the most ethically and clinically difficult forensic evaluations they perform. For one, the cases are emotionally charged, both for parents and child, and tension is usually high. Likewise, parents will often pull out all the stops when it comes to custody of a child. For these reasons, the child is left in an emotionally unstable environment, not knowing which parent he will live with, where he may go to school, or why the dispute is taking place. Likewise, a custody evaluation can be very intrusive, often including home visits by social workers, in-depth case histories, and extensive interviews with each parent and child, as well as with any other individual who is close to the family.

The most important factor in considering the role of a clinical forensic psychologist in child custody evaluations is the degree to which interdisciplinary work is essential. In other words, a mental health professional who chooses to do work with the family courts must also possess a keen knowledge of child development, including attachment, social repercussions for each party, and the general effects of divorce and separation on children. Likewise, the evaluations are a time-consuming, expensive ordeal, often taking upwards of 30 hours per case, and averaging over $2,600 per assessment (M. J. Ackerman & M. Ackerman, 1997). In other words, custody evaluations are some of the most integrative work a mental health professional can take part in, but also some of the most time consuming and emotionally taxing.

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A forensic clinical psychologist may be asked to participate in a custody evaluation by a judge, by one party, or may be “shared” jointly by the parties to conduct the evaluation. Clinicians then follow a set of guidelines to evaluate both parental fitness and the best interest of the child, though these guidelines vary from case to case. They generally include interviews to evaluate social history and mental status of parents and child, standardized testing of both parents and child, and behavioral observations often conducted in the home of both parents and child. Likewise, a clinician may use outside sources as well, such as interviews with a child’s teacher, a doctor, or others who have had interaction with the family. Similarly, documents such as medical records, criminal histories, and school records may be utilized as well. These evaluations are almost always nonconfidential, and the findings are reported to the court. Child custody evaluators also must be comfortable making specific recommendations to both the families and the court, according to the findings from the evaluation. Typically, recommendations fall into several categories, including but certainly not limited to custody/visitation recommendations (i.e., full, partial, supervised, etc.), a parenting plan that outlines time shared and responsibilities of the parents, how parents may deal with future conflicts, and therapy recommendations for parents and the child (Stahl, 2002). Further, these clinicians also may be asked to testify and to defend their decisions in court. Though child custody evaluations can be emotionally taxing, time consuming, and ethically challenging, the role of a forensic psychologist in this specialized area is important to the families, the courts, and the children in need of assistance.

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