Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings

Introduction

Family law proceedings encompass a broad range of issues, including custody, maintenance, support, valuation, visitation, relocation and termination of parental rights. The following guidelines address what are commonly termed child custody evaluations, involving disputes over decision making, caretaking and access in the wake of marital or other relationship dissolution. The goal of these guidelines is to promote proficiency in the conduct of these particular evaluations. This narrowed focus means that evaluations occurring in other contexts (e.g., child protection matters) are not covered by these guidelines. In addition, the guidelines acknowledge a clear distinction between the forensic evaluations described in this document and the advice and support that psychologists provide to families, children and adults in the normal course of psychotherapy and counseling.

Although some states have begun to favor such terms as parenting plan, parenting time or parental rights and responsibilities over the term custody (American Law Institute, 2000, pp. 131-132), the substantial majority of legal authorities and scientific treatises still refer to custody when addressing the resolution of decision-making, caretaking and access disputes. In order to avoid confusion and to ensure that these guidelines are utilized as widely as possible, these guidelines apply the term custody to these issues generically, unless otherwise specified. It is no longer the default assumption that child custody proceedings will produce the classic paradigm of sole custodian versus visiting parent. Many states recognize some form of joint or shared custody that affirms the decision-making and caretaking status of more than one adult. The legal system also recognizes that the disputes in question are not exclusively marital and therefore may not involve divorce per se. Some parents may never have been married and perhaps may never even have lived together. In addition, child custody disputes may arise after years of successful co-parenting when one parent seeks to relocate for work-related or other reasons. These guidelines apply the term parents generically when referring to persons who seek legal recognition as sole or shared custodians.

Parents may have numerous resources at their disposal, including psychotherapy, counseling, consultation, mediation and other forms of conflict resolution. When parents agree to a child custody arrangement on their own — as they do in the overwhelming majority (90%) of cases (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 2007) — there may be no dispute for the court to decide. However, if parties are unable to reach such an agreement, the court must intervene in order to allocate decision making, caretaking and access, typically applying a "best interests of the child" standard in determining this restructuring of rights and responsibilities (Artis, 2004; Elrod, 2006; Kelly, 1997).

Psychologists render a valuable service when they provide competent and impartial opinions with direct relevance to the "psychological best interests" of the child (Miller, 2002). The specific nature of psychologists' involvement and the potential for misuse of their influence have been the subject of ongoing debate (Grisso, 1990, 2005; Krauss & Sales, 1999, 2000; Melton et al., 2007). The acceptance and thus the overall utility of psychologists' child custody evaluations are augmented by demonstrably competent forensic practice and by consistent adherence to codified ethical standards.

These guidelines are informed by the American Psychological Association's (APA's) "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (hereinafter referred to as the Ethics Code; APA, 2002). The term guidelines refers to statements that suggest or recommend specific professional behavior, endeavors or conduct for psychologists. Guidelines differ from standards in that standards are mandatory and may be accompanied by an enforcement mechanism. Guidelines are aspirational in intent. They are intended to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and to help facilitate a high level of practice by psychologists. Guidelines are not intended to be mandatory or exhaustive and may not be applicable to every professional situation. They are not definitive, and they are not intended to take precedence over the judgment of psychologists.

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