Guidelines for Psychological Evaluations in Child Protection Matters


The problems of abused and neglected children are epidemic in our society (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau, 2008) and create issues that psychologists may be called upon to address. Psychologists are positioned to contribute significantly to decision-making in child protection matters. Psychological data and expertise may provide sources of information and a perspective not otherwise available to courts regarding the functioning of parties, and thus may increase the fairness of decisions by the court, state agency or other party.

As the complexity of psychological practice increases and the reciprocal involvement between psychologists and the public broadens, the need for guidelines to educate the profession, the public, and the other interested parties regarding desirable professional practice in child protection matters continues to increase. Because psychologists may assume various roles and responsibilities in child protection matters, the following guidelines were developed primarily for psychologists conducting psychological evaluations in such matters.

These guidelines are a revision of the 1999 Guidelines for Psychological Evaluations in Child Protection Matters (APA, 1999). These guidelines are informed by the American Psychological Association's (APA) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct ("Ethics Code") (APA, 2002a, 2010). 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. The specific goal of the guidelines is to promote proficiency in using psychological expertise when psychologists conduct psychological evaluations in child protection matters.

Child protection laws address three interests: the child's, the parents', and the State's. Child protection laws emphasize that the child has a fundamental interest in being protected from abuse and neglect.

These laws also address parents' interests in child protection matters. Parents enjoy important civil and constitutional rights regarding the care for their children. Public policy and practice developments in recent years have also acknowledged the role of extended family and kinship systems in child care matters, such as policies favoring child placement with grandparents or other family members rather than in foster care when such placement is consistent with safety of and care for the child. Although the term "parents" will be used in these guidelines for the sake of simplicity, this term is also intended to include persons other than the biological parents who are raising the child, that is, grandparents, other relatives, step-parents, guardians, and adoptive parents, among others.

In addition to the interests and rights of the child and parents, the State also has interests in child protection matters. All states have the right to investigate and to intervene in cases where a child has been harmed or there is a reasonable belief that a child is being harmed. The specific procedures guiding State intervention in child protection cases vary across jurisdictions but may be understood to involve different phases which may, in practice, overlap. Psychologists strive to be familiar with the relevant law, procedures and practices in the jurisdiction(s) where they provide child protection evaluations.

In the first phase, an investigation by child welfare authorities may be triggered by a report of suspected child maltreatment, which may include involvement by parent(s), sibling(s) or others who have access to the child. (Health and Human Services, 2009). If the initial report suggests that urgent intervention is required to assure the safety of the child, child welfare authorities may seek court authorization to take emergency custody of the child pending further investigation.

In the second phase, if the results of investigation indicate that the child has been harmed or is at significant risk of harm, the child welfare authorities may offer voluntary services or seek court authorization to extend protective custody if it was obtained due to the urgency of the initial report. Child welfare authorities may also seek to obtain or extend protective custody of the child based on the investigation's findings. Typically, an initial strategy for further assessment and intervention for the family is developed and then is presented to the family for voluntary participation and/or is submitted to the court.

This process of resolving protective custody issues and determining an intervention strategy may require court hearings and a finding by the court that the parents have maltreated the child or have otherwise failed to care for or protect the child adequately, and a determination that circumstances warrant continued protective State custody of the child. During this phase, the court may periodically review interventions and other reunification efforts, and/or permanency planning for the child in the event that reunification cannot occur. At any point during this second phase, the court may order a variety of case-specific assessments relevant to the child protection issues, or a psychologist may be retained by another entity to conduct such assessments.

In the third phase, if efforts at reunification fail or if the court determines that the facts of the case relieve the State from making reasonable efforts to reunify the family, the case may move from child protection to termination of parental rights and permanency planning for the child (e.g., long-term kinship care, guardianship, adoption). During this phase, assessments commonly focus upon why clinical or social services interventions have failed in achieving family reunification, whether the State has made legally required reasonable efforts towards reunification, the likelihood that the parent(s) will ever be brought to adequate parenting or restored to an adequate parenting capacity they had earlier demonstrated, and/or the nature of any continuing risk of harm to the child due to parental maltreatment of the child or failures to provide the child adequate care and protection. Psychologists involved in child protection evaluations remain aware that the termination of parental rights has a finality prompting both due process protections and higher standards of proof than may be required in other phases of a child protection proceeding (Condie & Condie, 2007).

Child protection authorities are ordinarily required to make "reasonable efforts" to establish or re-establish parenting capacities sufficient to reunite the child with his/her parent(s). Typically, these "reasonable efforts" requirements must be met prior to a disposition of termination of parental rights. States may have different statutory or case law requirements regarding reunification efforts. In conducting an evaluation, psychologists become reasonably familiar with such statutes and case law (Ethics Code 2.01(f)).

During any phase of a child protection case, psychologists may be asked to evaluate different parties for different purposes. Psychologists may act as court-ordered evaluators, or may be retained by the state child protection agency or an organization providing contracted services to the state child protection agency. Psychologists may also be retained by a guardian ad litem or by an attorney for the child if one has been appointed to represent the child. Finally, psychologists may be retained by the parent(s) or counsel representing the parent(s).

As evaluators in child protection cases, psychologists are frequently asked to address the following questions:

  1. What maltreatment of the child, if any, occurred in this case?

  2. If maltreatment has occurred, how seriously has the child's psychological well-being been affected?

  3. What therapeutic interventions would be recommended to assist the child?

  4. Can the parent(s) be successfully treated to prevent harm to the child in the future" If so, how" If not, why not?

  5. What would be the psychological effect upon the child if returned to the parent(s)?

  6. What would be the psychological effect upon the child if separated from the parent(s) or if parental rights are terminated? (See Barnum R., 1997; Barnum, R., 2002)

In the course of their evaluations, and depending upon the specific needs of a given case, psychologists are frequently asked to evaluate the parent(s) and/or the child individually or together. Psychologists seek to gather information on family history, assess relevant personality functioning, assess developmental needs of the child, explore the nature and quality of the parent-child relationship and assess evidence of trauma. Psychologists typically also consider specific risk factors such as substance abuse or chemical dependency, domestic violence, health status of family members and the entire family context. In addition, psychologists review information from other sources, including assessments of cultural, educational, religious and community factors (Ethics Code 9.06).

Particular competencies and knowledge are necessary to perform psychological evaluations in child protection matters so that adequate and appropriate psychological services can be provided to the court, state agencies or other parties (Ethics Code 2.01(f)). For example, in cases involving physical disability, such as hearing impairments, orthopedic handicaps, etc., psychologists strive to seek consultation from experts in these areas. This need for consultation may also apply to other aspects of human diversity, such as, but not limited to, ethnic minority status, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status (Condie, 2003).

Conducting psychological evaluations in child protection matters can be professionally demanding and personally stressful. The demands and stresses of such evaluations may intensify because the evaluation issues may include child abuse, neglect and/or family violence. Psychologists remain alert to how these issues may personally affect them and, when appropriate, seek peer or other personal support, and undertake relevant study, training, supervision and/ or consultation (Ethics Code 2.06).