The Uniform Child Custody Evaluation System (UCCES) provides a method of gathering and organizing information during child custody evaluations. It proposes to standardize the process for evaluations as a remedy for the unsystematic methods and procedures that are frequently employed in these cases. Although it offers a specific process for structuring data collection, it does not specify which psychological tests or assessment instruments should be used. Research examining the psychometric properties of this system is currently lacking. The UCCES recommends that examiners provide a specific custody recommendation to the court, although the ethicality of addressing this “ultimate issue” is a matter of debate in the field.
Harry Munsinger and Kevin Karlson designed the UCCES to standardize the processes of conducting custody evaluations and providing recommendations to the courts. State laws do not specify what information should be gathered and considered during custody evaluations, and the authors argue that this lack of specificity has led to custody examiners performing dissimilar assessments and providing widely different information to the courts. They suggest that the courts are better served by a standardized process that carefully balances information gathered from parents, children, and collateral sources. Such evaluations in principle should be more predictable and equable, and the courts should be better able to compare recommendations from different experts.
Materials in the UCCES packet consist of a set of 25 forms that the examiner uses sequentially to structure the evaluation. Forms begin with client referral, agreement to conduct the assessment, consent to evaluate minors, and parent personal history questionnaires. Some forms are intended to structure the parent interviews, child interviews, behavioral observations, home observations, and collateral interviews. Other forms seek to structure the examiner’s analysis of the validity of individuals’ responses during the evaluation, the suitability of joint custody, and the possibility of abuse or neglect. A form is even provided for tracking all communications relating to the case.
The examiner is encouraged to follow a strict set of procedures, beginning with the initial communications with the attorneys and parents. The actual evaluative process begins with gathering historical information from the parents and any other primary caretakers (e.g., grandparents) and the children. The parents are interviewed together during an initial session. The examiner then interviews each parent and child alone over a series of days. The UCCES manual offers various recommendations for performing the evaluation in as consistent and unbiased manner as possible. For example, it strongly recommends alternating the order of parental meetings or interviews at each session to avoid the suggestion of bias.
Although a strict set of procedures is recommended, the UCCES does not constrain the type or number of assessment instruments administered to children or parents beyond recommending that the standard interview forms should be completed. For example, the use of various objective and projective tests that might inform one’s understanding of the closeness of the children to each parent is encouraged. When the children are interviewed alone, the UCCES manual specifically recommends administration of the Kinetic Family Drawing test, a projective device scored by measuring the distance between the persons in the drawing.
In addition to the interviews, the UCCES recommends making behavioral observations of parent-child interactions with each parent. The manual does not indicate the types of behaviors or interactions that the examiner should track nor does it provide a specific coding or rating system. Professional surveys have suggested that examiners rarely make use of structured rating systems, nor have any custody-specific methods been developed. Home visits are also recommended to verify that the home situation has been described accurately by the parents (e.g., the environment is safe and clean). Finally, the examiner also may perform “collateral interviews” to gather substantiating information from friends, neighbors, babysitters, and/or other individuals who interact with the family.
After performing the standard information gathering, the examiner reviews the forms and determines a custody recommendation based on the principle of “goodness of fit.” The UCCES manual provides a very general operationalization of this legal principle by directing the examiner to consider if the parent lovingly supports healthy individuation and development of the child, encourages and is involved in the child’s interests and academics, and has basic competencies with regard to child care. More detailed operationalizations of the goodness of fit standard are referenced in the manual. Finally, a written report is prepared and sent to the court and both attorneys. The authors recommend that the examiner make a specific recommendation of custody for the family.
Psychometric Properties in the UCCES
No information concerning psychometric properties is provided in the UCCES manual. This is perhaps not surprising because the authors consider the UCCES to be a flexible, evaluative process rather than a specific psychological instrument. Nevertheless, whether UCCES-based recommendations are more reliable or valid than non-UCCES-based recommendations ultimately is an empirical question. A literature search failed to locate any publications specifically evaluating the reliability or validity of custody recommendations made using the UCCES, however.
The authors assume that examiners will use a variety of psychological tests in addition to the UCCES forms, and they exhort clinicians to be aware of the limitations of psychological testing and to adhere to the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing when administering, scoring, and interpreting test data. Despite this caveat, they also suggest that examiners may use various controversial projective tests to inform judgments concerning the child’s psychological closeness to each parent. More generally, many of the clinical instruments recommended for use were not designed to address typical custody-related questions, and several authorities have questioned the relevance and utility of these tests for this purpose.
The Ultimate Issue Debate
The “ultimate issue” refers to the legal question that is to be determined by the court in a particular case. Mental health experts continue to debate whether it is ethical to offer ultimate issue opinions more broadly, as well as specifically in relation to custody cases. This debate centers on several concerns, such as that expert witnesses are not necessarily trained in legal issues and, perhaps most important, that experts giving ultimate issue opinions represent an attempt to usurp the fact finder’s role as the final arbiter of case dispositions. Some experts, including the authors of UCCES, are comfortable providing such opinions. Others believe that experts are not qualified to make such assertions in court and that it is unethical to do so.
- Munsinger, H. L., & Karlson, K. W. (1994). Uniform child custody evaluation system. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
- Otto, R. K., Edens, J. F., & Barcus, E. H. (2000). The use of psychological testing in child custody evaluations. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 38, 312-340.
- Tippins, T. M., & Wittmann, J. P. (2005). Empirical and ethical problems with custody recommendation: A call for clinical humility and vigilance. Family Court Review, 43, 193-222.
Return to the overview of Divorce and Child Custody in Forensic Psychology.