Forensic Psychologists in Family Law and Child Custody

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), child custody disputes resolve amongst themselves about 90 percent of the time. However, when parties cannot resolve issues like custody and visitation, a forensic psychologist performs a child custody evaluation.

Whether appointed by the court, agreed upon by the parties, or hired for one of the parties (usually in bitterly contested cases), forensic psychologists work to resolve issues regarding child custody in the family courts.

In fact, child custody disputes are often the top issue in family law proceedings. Other issues may include maintenance, support, valuation, relocation, and termination of parental rights.

Practice Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists Performing Child Custody Evaluations

In 1994 (and later updated in 2009) the APA developed the Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings. The Guidelines are meant to be aspirational in nature (i.e., not mandatory), serving to facilitate the “continued systematic development” of forensic psychology and ensure a high level of practice by forensic psychologists.

Forensic psychologists frequently utilize the Guidelines, along with their professional judgment. They are as follows:

  • The purpose of the evaluation is to assist the psychologist in determining the best interests of the child.
  • The child’s welfare is paramount.
  • The evaluation should focus on the parenting attributes and the child’s psychological needs.
  • Psychologists should strive to gain and maintain specialized competence.
  • Psychologists should strive to function as impartial evaluators.
  • Psychologists should strive to engage in culturally informed, nondiscriminatory evaluation practices.
  • Psychologists should strive to avoid conflicts of interest and multiple relationships when conducting evaluations.
  • Psychologists should strive to establish the scope of the evaluation in a timely fashion and should remain consistent with the nature of the referral question.
  • Psychologists should strive to obtain the appropriately informed consent.
  • Psychologists should strive to employ a number of methods of data gathering.
  • Psychologists should strive to interpret assessment data in a manner consistent with the context of the evaluation.
  • Psychologists should strive to complement the evaluation with the appropriate combination of examinations.
  • Psychologists should strive to base their recommendations upon the best psychological interests of the child.
  • Psychologists should create and maintain professional records that are in line with their ethical and legal obligations.

Forensic psychologists should always consider and understand the APA’s Guidelines when performing a child custody evaluation. They should also review and scrutinize all reports in light of the Guidelines. State guidelines for performing child custody evaluations should be considered in addition to the Guidelines. Many states, like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, have state guidelines in place.

The Forensic Psychologist’s Job Description in Child Custody Disputes

Forensic psychologists must gather data in order to adequately assess issues surrounding custody disputes. According to the APA, the more methods of data gathering, the more likely the results of the evaluation will be reliable. Sources of data by forensic psychologists often include:

  • Psychological testing
  • Clinical interviews
  • Behavioral observation
  • Access to documentation from other sources (schools, healthcare providers, childcare providers, etc.)
  • Interviews with collateral sources (extended family members, friends, acquaintances, etc.)

Forensic psychologists consider and document the ways in which a custody dispute may impact the behavior of those being tested. One of the essential jobs of forensic psychologists in child custody disputes involves examining parents as to render a specific opinion about them. The APA Ethics Code requires psychologists to complete an examination before rendering an opinion.

Once forensic psychologists have gathered and studied the pertinent data, they make their recommendations to the court. These recommendations must be in the psychological best interest of the child. They should derive their recommendations from sound psychological data and never base the recommendations on personal biases and/or unsupported beliefs. Instead, they should base their recommendations upon interpretations and assumptions consistent with established professional and scientific standards.

In addition, forensic psychologists should always aim to create and maintain professional records that allow other professionals to analyze or challenge their professional opinions.

Before forensic psychologists can conduct a comprehensive custody evaluation, they must:

  • Fully understand the various types of divorce, including the effects of divorce on children of different ages
  • Demonstrate an excellent legal knowledge of the types of custody and visitation arrangements
  • Possess advanced skills in the assessment of child and adolescent personality, mental illness, parenting skills, and family dynamics required to support a healthy environment for the growth and development of children
  • Be familiar with the legal aspects of custody procedures and understand the various legal definitions of custody according to state law

When conducting a child custody evaluation, they must ensure that:

  • The procedure is equitable and that is offers fair treatment to all parties
  • The same procedures are administered consistently to each party

A thorough child custody evaluation should always include:

  • Any adults directly responsible for the daily care of the children
  • A comprehensive life history
  • An understanding and working knowledge of each parent’s individual psychology and philosophy of child rearing
  • An understanding of the events that led up to the current child custody dispute
  • Evidence of document review (references to medical records, school records, encounters with police, etc.)
  • Psychological testing widely used in custody situations
  • A battery of psychometric measures (e.g., cognitive functioning tests, projective personality tests, objective personality tests, and parenting assessment tests)
  • Individual clinical interviews with the children, provided they do not create undue stress
  • A report that includes a summary section and list of conclusions and recommendations and how the psychologist reached those conclusions and recommendations

Forensic Psychologists Specializing in Child Custody and Family Law: Training and Certification

According to the APA Guidelines, in addition to possessing a state license to practice clinical psychology, forensic psychologists in child custody and family law should always strive to gain and maintain specialized competence in this area of forensic psychology.

Forensic psychologists should continue to stay abreast of changes in the field, which includes an up-to-date understanding of:

  • Child and family development
  • Child and family psychopathy
  • Impact of divorce on children

Further, the APA Guidelines also emphasize that psychologists should remain familiar with the applicable laws regarding child custody.

Forensic psychologists may pursue specialized education and training in child custody and family law through their internship and/or post-doctoral fellowship experiences, by focusing their doctoral psychology degree on child/family law, or by completing additional coursework or training after the completion of their doctoral degree.

The forensic psychology specialty certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology Specialty Certification (ABPP) requires candidates to possess at least 1,000 hours of experience in forensic psychology, obtained by completing at least 5 years of post-doctoral experience, as well as at least 100 hours of formal education/continuing education beyond a doctoral degree.

Individuals interested in focusing their forensic psychology career on child custody and family law may choose to complete their post-doctoral training/education in this field of study, thus preparing them to become ABPP certified in forensic psychology while also allowing them to gain valuable knowledge and skills in child custody and family law.

ABPP certification is conditional upon the completion of a written and oral examination and the satisfactory completion of the credential review process.

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