By Sara Pitcher
A child custody evaluation is an examination and evaluation by a disinterested third party who can assist the court in determining what would be in the best interest of the child by meeting with the parents and other family members, child, and watching the interaction between them.
Psychologists are often asked to perform such evaluations based on their understanding of the psychological best interests of the child. The American Psychological Association has developed Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings to assist and guide the psychologists in their evaluations.
In order to assist parents preparing for child custody evaluations, it is helpful to understand the Guidelines that the psychologist will be operating under.
The American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for custody evaluations are not mandatory; they are simply intended to facilitate a high level of practice by psychologists.
According to the Guidelines, the clinical training of psychologists equips them for these evaluations and the evaluator should focus on factors that pertain specifically to the psychological best interests of the child.
In order to determine what would be in the psychological best interests of the child, evaluators will often focus on factors such as the family dynamic and interactions, cultural and environmental variables, relevant challenges and aptitudes for all examined parties, and the child’s educational, physical, and psychological needs.
Under the Guidelines, the child’s welfare is paramount. However, a psychologist will often seek to understand the parents’ practical and personal concerns.
In order to maintain the primary focus on the child’s needs, the psychologist will often attempt to identify and state appropriate boundaries and priorities at the outset of the evaluation to prevent or discourage parents from advancing their concerns in a forceful and contentious manner.
In a child custody evaluation, the parents should focus on the child and how different things affect the child, not on the other parent.
The evaluation should focus on parenting attributes, the child’s psychological needs, and the resulting fit between the two. The Guidelines recommend that psychologists evaluate this by focusing on skills, deficits, values, and tendencies relevant to parenting attributes and a child’s psychological needs.
Results from the evaluations should be placed in the appropriate context to assist the court. Useful contextual considerations may include a description of available treatments and whether the treatment is currently being sought, the supplementing of parenting attributes through the efforts of additional caregivers, and other factors that may be relevant.
Goals Of The Psychologist
The psychologist should strive to remain impartial and may use multiple methods to gather data to ensure a fair and more reliable analysis. The goal is to avoid relying on the evaluator’s personal biases or unsupported beliefs. To ensure that these are not the basis for a recommendation, evaluators rely on articulated assumptions, interpretations, and inferences that are consistent with established professional and scientific standards.
Psychologists may directly gather data through psychological testing, clinical interviews, and behavioral observations. Psychologists may also indirectly gather data through access to documentation from schools, health care providers, childcare providers, agencies, and other institutions. They may also make contact with members of your extended family, friends, and acquaintances.
Psychologists should evaluate both parents in order to ensure the basis for their report. Psychologists should not provide an opinion or recommendation regarding a parent without having examined them. If the psychologist believes that it would be an inappropriate role for him or her or that there is insufficient data, the psychologist may refrain from issuing an opinion.
Both legal and ethical standards require psychologists to maintain records developed in the course of child custody evaluations with appropriate sensitivity to applicable legal mandates. Records of testing and interviews must be kept.
How To Help Yourself
Parents facing custody evaluations with psychologists should keep these Guidelines in mind when preparing for a child custody evaluation. Knowing what the psychologist will be looking at and evaluating may help put you at ease.
When undergoing your evaluation, remain calm and collected as you communicate with the evaluator. Do not try to trick or mislead the evaluator as that will often reflect negatively on you and the evaluator will often check or follow up on the information provided by parents.
Psychologists are not out to pick favorites or alienate the child from his or her parents. Parents should strive to remain calm and relaxed and act as they normally would in their custody evaluations.
An understanding of psychologists as child custody evaluators and their focus may help you determine whether a custody evaluation would be an appropriate request for your case or prepare for an evaluation that is already pending.
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