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The vast majority of parents who divorce do not need a psychiatric custody evaluation. (Benet, 2004) Rather, they work custody issues out themselves or through the help of a mediator. But in certain circumstances a court may order that a psychiatric custody evaluation be performed in order to best determine the proper type of placement.

Some of the situations that might call for a special custody evaluation include: If a parent has a significant mental disorder; if the child has special needs; the divorce has grown extremely hostile; it’s suspected that one parent may be trying to alienate the child from the other parent or otherwise be playing dirty; there are special issues related to attachment; or if one parent has been accused of abuse or neglect.

The Guardian Ad Litem

Whenever parents are at odds over custody arrangements, it’s common for the courts to appoint a Guardian Ad Litem, which is basically a lawyer for your child. He or she functions as an officer of the court, and acts more or less like a social worker. Their job is to look out for the best interests of your children. He or she will meet with your kids and probably do a home visitation or two, talking with each parent. They’ll then make recommendations based on what they observe and what arrangements they believe would best suit the child.

What’s involved in a special custody evaluation?

A forensic custody evaluation usually consists of psychological assessments of the child as well as both parents. While there are no universally agreed upon standards for conducting such evaluations, they generally consist of the following:

  • A conference with the parents together.
  • Meetings with each parent individually.
  • Psychological attachment tests such as the Family Relations Test (FRT), the Bricklin Perceptual Scales (BPS), or the Perception of Relationships Test (PORT). You may be able to Google these online, or ask your therapist about them.
  • Observations of parent-child interaction.
  • Meetings with the child and each parent individually.
  • Information from other sources such as teachers, nannies, pediatricians, step-parents, grandparents, past or present psychotherapists to the child or the parents, and any other source who may have information about the parent-child relationship.
  • Meetings with the child alone.

The psychologist will work with the child to gather a determination of the child’s perception of each parent. They may ask direct questions such as…

  • Who helps you best with your homework, mom or dad?
  • Who helps you get ready for school?

They may also ask indirect questions:

  • Tell me about some of the things you like and don’t like about your mom.
  • If you could pick one thing to change about your dad, what would it be?

As well as hypothetical questions or projective scenarios:

  • “Let’s make up a story about a baby bird that lives in a nest with mommy bird and daddy bird. One day, baby bird has to take a trip to a faraway land, but she can only take one parent with her, because the other parent has to stay and protect the nest. Which one do you think baby bird would take with her? Why would she make that choice?”
  • Let’s pretend that you were really scared/hurt/upset, who would you go to?

The court appointed psychiatrist will use the information they gather to make assessments about the child’s attachment to both parents, and refer this information to the court. A written report is sent to the judge and each party’s attorney, and the liaison will usually hold a conference with the parents and their attorneys to explain conclusions and recommendations.

Admitting confidential child-therapist testimony in court

Children going through a divorce are often in psychological therapy. Typically, children enjoy the same privileges of patient-therapist confidentiality that adults have. However, if one parent wants the child’s counselor to testify in court about the content of their therapy sessions, he or she can attempt to bring this testimony in as evidence. In order to do this, the court will appoint a special lawyer, called a Negle v. Hooks attorney, who explores the issue to decide whether it’s suitable to waive the child’s confidentiality privilege and have this information come into court.

A word of caution: doing this may or may not serve your interests, but it is likely to irritate and injure your child. As counselor Barry Frieman states, “I had a counseling relationship with a 12-year-old boy whose parents were fighting in court. I was helping him work out his feelings about both parents. After I was forced to testify, our relationship ended. He was reluctant to talk to me or any other therapist because he had no assurance that they wouldn’t make public what he said. Would you go to a therapist and spill out your innermost thoughts if you thought that person would tell everyone in open court?” (2005, p. 45)

So consider things very carefully before you attempt to do this. Remember that divorce is a trauma as serious as any other trauma, and damaging your child’s ability to work with therapists may prevent them from recovering from this ordeal in the best way possible.

Advise on special custody evaluations:

  • Do not overtly attempt to get the court liaison to side with you. Don’t ask the therapist to take your side in disputes. This can be seen as unjust tampering.
  • Keep in mind that custody evaluations are not confidential because the written report is distributed to both attorneys and the judge and may eventually become public evidence during the proceedings. Neither is any court-mandated counseling that may arise. Be aware of this. Everything that is submitted or said to a psychologist becomes available during the proceedings and may be used by either side.
  • Children who are old enough to understand should be told this too. It’s a serious discussion and what they say has consequences, so while they should be honest, it’s not a time to voice dirty laundry at whichever parent they happen to be mad at the moment.

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