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Forensic Psychology

What a Forensic Psychologist Does in a Child Custody Case

Assessing the best interest of the child during family breakups.

Some forensic psychologists perform services as neutral evaluators in domestic relations disputes over divorce and child custody and visitation. Judges may appoint them, or attorneys for the parties may enter into a “consent agreement” so that the evaluation process can go forward.

Child custody evaluations can be informative to the court when nearly everything else has failed to produce a settlement. Reconciliation of the marriage is out of the question. Mediation has failed. And even litigation may be stalled by warring and implacable litigants. A judge is faced with making decisions that will affect nearly all aspects of the lives of people he does not know. Thus the judge may rely on experts to inform him before he makes a final ruling.

It is essential to conduct multiple interviews with the spouses (or partners). The objective is to understand their personalities and identify their strengths and weaknesses as parents. The process entails an assessment of their mental health and child-rearing practices and their willingness to foster their child’s relationship with the other parent.

Considerable time must be spent interviewing children who may be slow to warm up to a stranger. I never ask a child to state a preference as to whom he wants to live with. During interviews, I try assiduously to avoid any line of questioning that suggests that the boy or girl must make a choice. Instead, I inquire about their interests, hobbies, activities, friends, school, relationships within the family, and a variety of other subjects. I interview the child alone, if feasible. (Exceptions occur when the child is an infant or toddler.) I also observe children with their parents and, on occasion, make a home visit.

It is essential to avail myself of other sources of information by interviewing people who know the family well. This may turn into a lengthy process as I interview teachers, counselors, clergy, sports coaches, child caretakers, and medical professionals. Even though there may be a bias, it is often helpful to interview grandparents, other relatives, neighbors, and family friends. Informative documents may include school records, medical and mental health records, parents’ job performance evaluations, and driving records.

In some cases, a judge may order a psychological assessment of one or both parents. This process does not involve interviewing the child. It occurs when there are questions about a mother’s or father’s psychological stability and overall fitness to act in their child’s best interest. I interview the parent in depth, sometimes administer psychological tests, and interview the other parent and access other key sources of information.

Working in the area of child custody can be a minefield for psychologists. They may have to endure suspicion and anger and face false allegations about their procedures or ethics. In rare circumstances, disgruntled child custody litigants who feel defeated and unfairly treated may lash out and report the evaluator to a licensing board.

People are likely to be at their worst when they are facing the stresses of separation and divorce and when the welfare of their child is at stake. Some parents perceive their self-image as being on the line during these disputes. Sometimes, their egos get in the way of doing what is best for their children. Child custody disputes may drag on for months, even years. I am likely to hear such different versions of events that it sounds as though I am dealing with two different families. Understandably, parents are striving to look good and may spend more time slinging mud at the other parent than they do in speaking candidly about themselves and their children.

The forensic psychologist must maintain a focus on the child’s best interest. Once he completes his evaluation, he will disclose his findings in a written report that contains specific recommendations. After the attorneys and the parents review the report, they may reach a settlement. If not, the psychologist will appear in court as an expert witness. The judge makes the final decision.

The best outcome for parents and their children occurs when the parties resolve the issue of custody and visitation without litigation. An evaluation can help them do just that.

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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