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Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Introduction
there may be no dispute for the court to decide. However,if parties are unable to reach such an agreement, the court Family law proceedings encompass a broad range of issues, must intervene in order to allocate decision making, care- including custody, maintenance, support, valuation, visita- taking, and access, typically applying a “best interests of tion, relocation, and termination of parental rights. Thefollowing guidelines address what are commonly termed the child” standard in determining this restructuring of child custody evaluations, involving disputes over decision rights and responsibilities (Artis, 2004; Elrod, 2006; Kelly, making, caretaking, and access in the wake of marital or other relationship dissolution. The goal of these guidelines Psychologists render a valuable service when they is to promote proficiency in the conduct of these particular provide competent and impartial opinions with direct rel- evaluations. This narrowed focus means that evaluations evance to the “psychological best interests” of the child occurring in other contexts (e.g., child protection matters) (Miller, 2002). The specific nature of psychologists’ in- are not covered by these guidelines. In addition, the guide- volvement and the potential for misuse of their influence lines acknowledge a clear distinction between the forensic have been the subject of ongoing debate (Grisso, 1990, evaluations described in this document and the advice and 2005; Krauss & Sales, 1999, 2000; Melton et al., 2007).
support that psychologists provide to families, children, The acceptance and thus the overall utility of psycholo- and adults in the normal course of psychotherapy and gists’ child custody evaluations are augmented by demon- strably competent forensic practice and by consistent ad- Although some states have begun to favor such terms herence to codified ethical standards.
as parenting plan, parenting time, or parental rights and These guidelines are informed by the American Psy- responsibilities over the term custody (American Law In- chological Association’s (APA’s) “Ethical Principles of stitute, 2000, pp. 131–132), the substantial majority of legal Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (hereinafter referred authorities and scientific treatises still refer to custody when to as the Ethics Code; APA, 2002). The term guidelines addressing the resolution of decision-making, caretaking, refers to statements that suggest or recommend specific and access disputes. In order to avoid confusion and to professional behavior, endeavors, or conduct for psychol- ensure that these guidelines are utilized as widely as pos-sible, these guidelines apply the term custody to theseissues generically, unless otherwise specified. It is no This revision of the 1994 “Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in longer the default assumption that child custody proceed- Divorce Proceedings” (American Psychological Association, 1994) wascompleted by the Committee on Professional Practice and Standards ings will produce the classic paradigm of sole custodian (COPPS) and approved as APA policy by the APA Council of Represen- versus visiting parent. Many states recognize some form of tatives on February 21, 2009. Members of COPPS during the development joint or shared custody that affirms the decision-making of this document were Lisa Drago Piechowski (chair, 2009), Eric Y.
and caretaking status of more than one adult. The legal Drogin (chair, 2007–2008), Mary A. Connell (chair, 2006), Nabil El-Ghoroury (Board of Professional Affairs [BPA] liaison, 2007–2008), system also recognizes that the disputes in question are not Michele Galietta, Terry S. W. Gock, Larry C. James (BPA liaison, exclusively marital and therefore may not involve divorce 2004 –2006), Robert Kinscherff, Stephen J. Lally, Gary D. Lovejoy, Mary per se. Some parents may never have been married and Ann McCabe, Bonnie J. Spring, and Carolyn M. West. COPPS is grateful perhaps may never even have lived together. In addition, for the support and guidance of the BPA and particularly to BPA ChairsCynthia A. Sturm (2009), Jaquelyn Liss Resnick (2008), Jennifer F. Kelly child custody disputes may arise after years of successful (2007), and Kristin Hancock (2006). COPPS also acknowledges the co-parenting when one parent seeks to relocate for work- consultation of APA Practice Directorate staff Shirley A. Higuchi and related or other reasons. These guidelines apply the term Alan Nessman. COPPS extends its appreciation to the APA Practice parents generically when referring to persons who seek Directorate staff who facilitated both the work of COPPS and the revisionefforts: Lynn F. Bufka, Mary G. Hardiman, Omar Rehman, Geoffrey M.
legal recognition as sole or shared custodians.
Reed, Laura Kay-Roth, Ernestine Penniman, and Ayobodun Bello.
Parents may have numerous resources at their dis- Expiration: These guidelines are scheduled to expire 10 years from posal, including psychotherapy, counseling, consultation, February 21, 2009 (the date of their adoption by the APA Council of mediation, and other forms of conflict resolution. When Representatives). After this date, users are encouraged to contact the APA parents agree to a child custody arrangement on their Practice Directorate to determine whether this document remains in effect.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to the own—as they do in the overwhelming majority (90%) of Practice Directorate, American Psychological Association, 750 First cases (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 2007)— Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242.
2010 American Psychological Association 0003-066X/10/$12.00Vol. 65, No. 9, 863– 867 ogists. Guidelines differ from standards in that standards resulting fit. The training of psychologists provides them are mandatory and may be accompanied by an enforcement with unique skills and qualifications to address these issues.
mechanism. Guidelines are aspirational in intent. They are Application.
intended to facilitate the continued systematic development the court with information specifically germane to its role of the profession and to help facilitate a high level of in apportioning decision making, caretaking, and access.
practice by psychologists. Guidelines are not intended to be The most useful and influential evaluations focus upon mandatory or exhaustive and may not be applicable to skills, deficits, values, and tendencies relevant to parenting every professional situation. They are not definitive, and attributes and a child’s psychological needs. Comparatively they are not intended to take precedence over the judgment little weight is afforded to evaluations that offer a general personality assessment without attempting to place resultsin the appropriate context. Useful contextual considerations I. Orienting Guidelines: Purpose of
may include the availability and use of effective treatment, the Child Custody Evaluation
the augmentation of parenting attributes through the effortsof supplemental caregivers, and other factors that could 1. The purpose of the evaluation is to assist
affect the potential impact of a clinical condition upon in determining the psychological best
interests of the child.
II. General Guidelines: Preparing for
the Custody Evaluation
chologists equips them to investigate a substantial array ofconditions, statuses, and capacities. When conducting child 4. Psychologists strive to gain and maintain
custody evaluations, psychologists are expected to focus on specialized competence.
factors that pertain specifically to the psychological bestinterests of the child, because the court will draw upon Rationale.
these considerations in order to reach its own conclusions refined, and new techniques are identified. In child custody evaluations, general competence in the clinical assessment Application.
of children, adults, and families is necessary but is insuf- psychological best interests of the child. To this end, they ficient in and of itself. The court will expect psychologists are encouraged to weigh and incorporate such overlapping to demonstrate a level of expertise that reflects contextual factors as family dynamics and interactions; cultural and insight and forensic integration as well as testing and environmental variables; relevant challenges and aptitudes for all examined parties; and the child’s educational, phys- Application.
to augment their existing skills and abilities, consistentwith a career-long dedication to professional development.
2. The child’s welfare is paramount.
Although psychologists take care to acquire sufficientknowledge, skill, experience, training, and education prior Rationale.
to conducting a child custody evaluation, this acquisition is propriate degree of respect for and understanding of par- never complete. An evolving and up-to-date understanding ents’ practical and personal concerns; however, psycholo- of child and family development, child and family psycho- gists are mindful that such considerations are ultimately pathology, the impact of relationship dissolution on chil- secondary to the welfare of the child.
dren, and the specialized child custody literature is critical Application.
to sustaining competent practice in this area. Psychologists to advance their concerns in a forceful and contentious also strive to remain familiar with applicable legal and manner. A primary focus on the child’s needs is enhanced regulatory standards, including laws governing child cus- by identifying and stating appropriate boundaries and pri- tody adjudication in the relevant state or other jurisdiction.
orities at the outset of the evaluation. Psychologists may Should complex issues arise that are outside psychologists’ wish to reflect upon their own attitudes and functioning at scope of expertise, they seek to obtain the consultation and various points during the course of the evaluation to ensure supervision necessary to address such concerns.
that they are continuing to maintain an optimal focus on thechild’s welfare.
5. Psychologists strive to function as
impartial evaluators.

3. The evaluation focuses upon parenting
attributes, the child’s psychological needs,
and the resulting fit.
and emotionally charged disputes over highly personalmatters, and the parties are often deeply invested in a Rationale.
specific outcome. The volatility of this situation is often most valuable contributions of psychologists are those that exacerbated by a growing realization that there may be no reflect a clinically astute and scientifically sound approach resolution that will completely satisfy every person in- to legally relevant issues. Issues that are central to the volved. In this contentious atmosphere, it is crucial that court’s ultimate decision-making obligations include par- evaluators remain as free as possible of unwarranted bias or enting attributes, the child’s psychological needs, and the Application.
Code, Standard 3.05). Psychologists conducting a child monitor their own values, perceptions, and reactions ac- custody evaluation with their current or prior psychother- tively and to seek peer consultation in the face of a poten- apy clients and psychologists conducting psychotherapy tial loss of impartiality. Vigilant maintenance of profes- with their current or prior child custody examinees are both sional boundaries and adherence to standard assessment examples of multiple relationships. Psychologists’ ethical procedures, throughout the evaluation process, will place obligations regarding conflicts of interest and multiple re- psychologists in the best position to identify variations that lationships provide an explainable and understandable ba- sis for declining court appointments and private referrals.
6. Psychologists strive to engage in culturally
III. Procedural Guidelines: Conducting
informed, nondiscriminatory evaluation
the Child Custody Evaluation
8. Psychologists strive to establish the scope
of the evaluation in a timely fashion,
articulate the need for psychologists to remain aware of consistent with the nature of the referral
their own biases, and those of others, regarding age, gen- question.
der, gender identity, race, ethnicity, national origin, reli- Rationale.
gion, sexual orientation, disability, language, culture, and tion will vary according to the needs of a particular case socioeconomic status. Biases and an attendant lack of cul- and the specific issues psychologists are asked to address.
turally competent insight are likely to interfere with data Referral questions may vary in the degree to which they collection and interpretation and thus with the development specify the desired parameters of the evaluation. Failure to of valid opinions and recommendations.
ensure in a timely fashion that an evaluation is appropri- Application.
ately designed impairs the utility and acceptance of the their own biases and, if these cannot be overcome, will resulting opinions and recommendations.
presumably conclude that they must withdraw from the Application.
evaluation. When an examinee possesses a cultural, racial, custody evaluation, psychologists seek when necessary to or other background with which psychologists are unfamil- clarify the referral question and to determine whether they iar, psychologists prepare for and conduct the evaluation are potentially able to provide opinions or recommenda- with the appropriate degree of informed peer consultation tions. It may be helpful to have psychologists’ understand- and focal literature review. If psychologists find their un- ing of the scope of the evaluation confirmed in a court order familiarity to be insurmountable, the court will appreciate or by stipulation of all parties and their legal representa- being informed of this fact sooner rather than later.
7. Psychologists strive to avoid conflicts of
9. Psychologists strive to obtain
interest and multiple relationships in
appropriately informed consent.
conducting evaluations.
consent honors the legal rights and personal dignity of harm, and adversarial context of child custody evaluations examinees and other individuals. This process allows per- make the avoidance of conflicts of interest particularly sons to determine not only whether they will participate in important. The presence of such conflicts will undermine a child custody evaluation but also whether they will make the court’s confidence in psychologists’ opinions and rec- various disclosures during the course of an examination or ommendations and in some jurisdictions may result in professional board discipline and legal liability.
uations, psychologists attempt to obtain informed consent on a professional role, such as that of a child custody using language that is reasonably understandable to the ex- evaluator, when personal, scientific, professional, legal, aminee. If the examinee is legally incapable of providing financial, or other interests or relationships could reason- informed consent, psychologists provide an appropriate ex- ably be expected to result in (a) impaired impartiality, planation, seek the examinee’s assent, consider the prefer- competence, or effectiveness or (b) exposure of the person ences and best interests of the examinee, and obtain appro- or organization with whom the professional relationship priate permission from a legally authorized person (Ethics exists to harm or exploitation (Ethics Code, Standard 3.06).
Code, Standards 3.10 and 9.03). Psychologists are encouraged Subject to the same analysis are multiple relationships, to disclose the potential uses of the data obtained and to which occur when psychologists in a professional role with inform parties that consent enables disclosure of the evalua- a person are simultaneously in another role with that per- tion’s findings in the context of the forthcoming litigation and son, when psychologists are in a relationship with another in any related proceedings deemed necessary by the court.
individual closely associated with or related to that person, Psychologists may find it helpful to extend a similar approach or when psychologists promise to enter into another future to persons who provide collateral information (e.g., relatives, relationship with that person or with another individual teachers, friends, and employers) even when applicable laws closely associated with or related to that person (Ethics do not require informed consent per se.
10. Psychologists strive to employ multiple
methods of data gathering.
court’s resources to encourage relevant parties to partic- Rationale.
ipate in the child custody evaluation process. If a desired examination cannot be arranged, psychologists docu- enhance the reliability and validity of psychologists’ even- ment their reasonable efforts and the result of those tual conclusions, opinions, and recommendations. Uniqueas well as overlapping aspects of various measures contrib- efforts and then clarify the probable impact of this ute to a fuller picture of each examinee’s abilities, chal- limited information on the reliability and validity of their overall opinions, limiting their forensic conclusions Application.
and any recommendations appropriately (Ethics Code, timally diverse and accurate methods for addressing the Standard 9.01(c)). While the court eventually will have questions raised in a specific child custody evaluation.
no choice but to make a decision regarding persons who Direct methods of data gathering typically include such are unable or unwilling to be examined, psychologists components as psychological testing, clinical interview, have no corresponding obligation. Psychologists do have and behavioral observation. Psychologists may also have an ethical requirement to base their opinions on infor- access to documentation from a variety of sources (e.g., mation and techniques sufficient to substantiate their schools, health care providers, child care providers, agen- findings (Ethics Code, Standard 9.01(a)) and may wish cies, and other institutions) and frequently make contact to emphasize this point for the court’s benefit if pressed with members of the extended family, friends and acquain- to provide opinions or recommendations without having tances, and other collateral sources when the resulting examined the individual in question. When psycholo- information is likely to be relevant. Psychologists may seek gists are not conducting child custody evaluations per se, corroboration of information gathered from third parties it may be acceptable to evaluate only one parent, or only and are encouraged to document the bases of their eventual the child, or only another professional’s assessment methodology, as long as psychologists refrain from com-paring the parents or offering opinions or recommenda- 11. Psychologists strive to interpret
tions about the apportionment of decision making, care- assessment data in a manner consistent with
taking, or access. Nonexamining psychologists also may the context of the evaluation.
share with the court their general expertise on issues Rationale.
relevant to child custody (e.g., child development, fam- ily dynamics) as long as they refrain from relating their evaluations occur may affect the perceptions and behavior conclusions to specific parties in the case at hand.
of persons from whom data are collected, thus altering bothpsychological test responses and interview results. Unreli- 13. Psychologists strive to base their
able data result in decreased validity, a circumstance that recommendations, if any, upon the
enhances the potential for erroneous conclusions, poorly psychological best interests of the child.
founded opinions, and misleading recommendations.
consider and also to document the ways in which involve- will result in recommendations. Psychologists may con- ment in a child custody dispute may impact the behavior of clude that this is an inappropriate role for a forensic persons from whom data are collected. For example, psy- evaluator or that available data are insufficient for this chologists may choose to acknowledge, when reporting purpose. If a recommendation is provided, the court will personality test results, how research on validity scale expect it to be supportable on the basis of the evaluations interpretation demonstrates that child custody litigants of- ten display increased elevations on such scales.
child custody recommendations, these are derived from 12. Psychologists strive to complement the
sound psychological data and address the psychological evaluation with the appropriate combination
best interests of the child. When making recommendations, of examinations.
psychologists seek to avoid relying upon personal biases or Rationale.
unsupported beliefs. Recommendations are based upon ar- an individual’s psychological characteristics only after they ticulated assumptions, interpretations, and inferences that have conducted an examination of the individual adequate are consistent with established professional and scientific to support their statements and conclusions (Ethics Code, standards. Although the profession has not reached consen- Standard 9.01(b)). The only exception to this rule occurs in sus about whether psychologists should make recommen- those particular instances of record review, consultation, or dations to the court about the final child custody determi- supervision (as opposed, in each case, to evaluations) in nation (i.e., “ultimate opinion” testimony), psychologists which an individual examination is not warranted or nec- seek to remain aware of the arguments on both sides of this essary for the psychologist’s opinion (Ethics Code, Stan- issue (Bala, 2005; Erard, 2006; Grisso, 2003; Heilbrun, dard 9.01(c)). The court typically expects psychologists to 2001; Tippins & Wittman, 2005) and are able to articulate examine both parents as well as the child.
the logic of their positions on this issue.
14. Psychologists create and maintain
uators may not be “experts,” but they can express best interests opin- professional records in accordance with
ions. Family Court Review, 43, 554 –562. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617 ethical and legal obligations.
Elrod, L. D. (2006). A move in the right direction? Best interests of the Rationale.
child emerging as the standard for relocation cases. Journal of Child requirements for the appropriate development, mainte- Custody, 3, 29 – 61. doi:10.1300/J190v03n03_03 Erard, R. E. (2006). Tell it to the judge: A reply to Wittman & Tippins.
nance, and disposal of professional records. The court National Psychologist, 15, p. 1.
expects psychologists providing child custody evaluations Grisso, T. (1990). Evolving guidelines for divorce/custody evaluations.
to preserve the data that inform their conclusions. This Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 28, 35– 41. doi:10.1111/j.174- enables other professionals to analyze, understand, and provide appropriate support for (or challenges to) psychol- Grisso, T. (2003). Evaluating competencies: Forensic assessments and instruments (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
Grisso, T. (2005). Commentary on “Empirical and ethical problems with custody recommendations”: What now? Family Court Review, 43, tained or developed in the course of child custody evalua- 223–228. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.2005.00020.x tions with appropriate sensitivity to applicable legal man- Heilbrun, K. (2001). Principles of forensic mental health assessment. New dates, the “Record Keeping Guidelines” (APA, 2007), and other relevant sources of professional guidance. Test and Kelly, J. B. (1997). The best interests of the child: A concept in search of interview data are documented with an eye toward their meaning. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 35, 377–387. doi: eventual review by other qualified professionals.
Krauss, D. A., & Sales, B. (1999). The problem of “helpfulness” in applying Daubert to expert testimony: Child custody determinations in REFERENCES
family law as an exemplar. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 5,78 –99. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.5.1.78 American Law Institute. (2000). Principles of the law of family dissolu- Krauss, D. A., & Sales, B. D. (2000). Legal standards, expertise, and tion: Analysis and recommendations. Newark, NJ: Mathew Bender.
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Source: https://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/child-custody.pdf


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