The Role of the Forensic Psychology Professional in Child Custody Evaluations

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Child custodial evaluations are processes in which arrangements are made in the best interest of the child, so that a decision can be made who would be able to meet the specific needs of child during psychological growth and development.  When there is any kind of dispute in the family or between the parents, such kind of an evaluation is performed.  Along with merely deciding who would be in custody of the child, the psychologist should also be able to determine the presence of any other issues such as sexual abuse, neglect, substance abuse, etc, amongst the parents or the guardian.  The forensic psychologist should also be aware of the various legal issues that surround child laws.  There are certain guidelines which can be considered:-

  • Determine the best interest for the child
  • Presence of parental and personal issues may surround
  • Create an ideal environment for the psychological growth and development of the child
  • Evaluate the entire situation from data obtained
  • Be impartial and unbiased
  • Conflicting issues be resolved
  • Informed consent about custodial arrangements and evaluations
  • Adequately support the claims


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            The main aim of the child custody evaluations is to ensure that during the visitation and custody of the child, all arrangements are made in the best interest of the child as the parents would be unable to take care of these issues during the child custody, and the child would be having specific needs.  Such evaluations should be ethically done considering the best interest of the child rather than taking into consideration who is requesting such evaluations.  Some of the factors that are taken into consideration during such evaluations include:-

Presence of a psychological disorder for either of the parent
Evaluating the relationship between the parent and the child
Determine the presence of any conflicting issue
Personality issues
Which parent is psychologically closer to the child
School adjustment
Behavioral problems
Effects of the extended family on the child
Presence of any stepfamily problems (Franklin, 2006)
The need for child custody evaluations include:-

Needs of the child when the custody is being done under dispute
Strengths and weakness of each parent who is claiming the custody
The best arrangements required under the custody of the child
To enable proper psychological growth and development of the child (Campbell, 2005)
Following divorce of the parents, it has been found that there are profound changes in life and the family dynamics, which could have a strong impact upon the growth and psychological development of the child.  Hence, always the court cannot determine the post-decree effectiveness of the parent based merely on the pre-decree effectiveness.  There are a number of other factors that need to be taken into consideration.  Usually, the parent has to have an authoritative response to their children rather than authoritarian or permissive.  In an authoritative style of parenting, the child would be given certain expectations of behavior, while having strong limitations which may be needed to ensure protection of the child.  In a permissive role, the child would be having lesser responsibilities.  The parent would encourage two way communications and would be honest with the child during development, in a authoritative role.  The child should be told its capabilities and what is expected from the child.  The provision of custodial preference of the child is made by the psychologist based on the psychological maturity of the child and the same whether it matches with the chronological age of the child.  However, the parent may be having an undue influence on the preference of the child and it is important to determine by the psychologist as to the effect of this influence.  Parents during conflict have an influence on the development of the child.  Once the adjustment of the child following divorce of the parents improves due to reduction of the conflict, the development of the child would also get better.  Many of the psychologists tend to depend on various psychological tests to determine the parental effectiveness.  However, the same may not only be inappropriate but wrongly advised. Child Appreciation Tests, projection drawings, and Rorschach are some of the tests deemed as unnecessary for the child during custodian evaluation.  There are many new tests that have been developed through new research findings.  These include the ASPECT test, Bricklin Perceptual Scales and the Child Abuse Potential inventory.  All these may be useful to some extent and the psychologists have to often be made based on findings of the test, mental examination of the child, etc (Campbell, 2005).

 Legal issues

            During the child custodial evaluations, the child has to be closely evaluated and often it has been found that the training and the expertise a legal professional would have, would be much different from the skills and the training present with a psychologists.  The psychologist would have to develop a legal thinking and be aware of the various legal situations that can arise.  Often the psychologist may not be able to meet with the legal standards enforceable.  The attorney would often have to select an expert witness and usually this selection is made based on objectivity.  However, most of the custodial evaluations performed today are in fact ordered by the court.  Usually the attorneys and the judges are faced with a number of legal issues concerning the child during custodial evaluation.  These include:-

Sexual abuse
Physical abuse
Poor mental stability of the parent
Alcohol abuse
Drug abuse (Bow, 2004)
During a child custody case, a lot of information would be placed before the judge.  The judges usually want the reports to be comprehensive in nature and be backed by the supporting data.  On the other hand, the attorneys focus on logical support rather than mere scientific support.  In the US, the laws of one state may be different from that of the other state.  However, all the states focus on the best interests of the child (Bow, 2004).

            The psychological evaluator should be aware of the various acts, case laws and the local laws that are applicable in the case of child custody.  From one jurisdiction to another, the laws would vary, and hence it is important for the psychologists to also determine the applicable jurisdiction.  In each state, the custodial evaluator’s required skill and qualification may vary.  The evaluators would be considered as experts.  During the process of evaluation, it is important to maintain the fundamental rights of those involved in the evaluation.  Hence, the conduct of the evaluators should not be discriminatory.  The evaluators also need to keep records of the entire interview and evaluation procedure (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 2006).

Practice of forensic psychology

            The practice of forensic psychology for child custodian evaluation is made based on certain guidelines.  These include general guidelines, orienting guidelines and procedural guidelines.  The guidelines have been setup by the APA and are subject to frequent updating.

            Firstly, all child custody evaluations are made for determining the best interests of the child.  The forensic psychologists have to determine various conditions, situations, factors, and capabilities of the parents and the child and the situation relevant.  The psychologists would be concentrating on the best interests of the child.  Each of the family dynamics and the situations need to be weighed and accordingly decisions made and presented to the court (APA, 2009).

            There may be certain parental interests and personal concerns, but the most important thing, is the welfare of the child.  A parent may be forceful and seek possession of the child.  All the boundaries and priorities that exist need to be identified and presented to the court (APA, 2009).

            During the evaluations of child custody, certain things are noted under the headings: – parenting characteristics, child psychological needs and the situations that are required for the proper growth and development of the child.  If the psychologists are trained in handling these situations, it can lead to the child growing up in an ideal environment.  The psychologist should determine the skills, tendencies, values, etc that are required for good parenting and identify whether this could meet the psychological needs of the child.  The psychologist would also have to identify whether the child requires any kind of professional help from healthcare providers and whether the parent can supplement the child’s treatment (APA, 2009).

            During the forensic examination, the psychologist have to play a great role, much more than merely taking interviews but also to determine how the findings would work in a post-decree situation.  The psychologist would have to interview all the family members, perform relevant tests and later apply the findings to determine how they would apply in a post-decree situation that would be relevant for the child.  The psychologists should also be aware of the law and the legal standards required.  However, if there are complex situations, then in such an instance, psychologists can contact legal experts (APA, 2009).

            The psychologists during evaluation of the circumstances have to be completely impartial and unbiased.  In certain situations, the psychologists may have to make a moral evaluation and may also have to determine their own principles, responses and perceptions.  The psychologists have to identify self biases and also situations in which people may develop impartiality (APA, 2009).

            It is important to avoid any kind of conflicting interests during the child custody evaluations as these can affect the opinion and the manner in which the psychologists is making recommendations.  Often the psychologist has to follow the ethical obligation mentioned (APA, 2009).

            There may be several questions put to the psychologist during the stages of evaluation.  The scope of the evaluation has to be determined by the psychologists and accordingly the psychologist can frame the questions and the course of action.  If these questions are not frame scientifically, there are chances that recommendations would not be met (APA, 2009).

            The psychologist has to obtain informed consent from the person undergoing custodial evaluation.  The informed consent is usually expressed, but there may also be common situations in which the informed consent may be implied or even not decided by the child.  It would be wise on the part of the psychologist to explain the child about the use of the data obtained.  The psychologists would have to cross-verity the validity of such data with other members of the family.  The multiple sources of data would be advantageous in all cases of custodial evaluation.

            All data obtained through individual examination has to be supported by adequate claims from other including statements, witnesses and conclusions.  Usually the psychologist would be interviewing the child and the parent.  The court would usually want the relevant parties to take part in the case (APA, 2009).

            All the recommendations made by the psychologist have to be done after considering the best psychological interests of the child.  This data is obtained from empirical studies or sound observations.  Besides, the psychologist should follow all the legal and ethical guidelines required.  Qualified professionals would be further reviewing the psychological evaluations conducted by the psychologist (APA, 2009).


            The forensic psychologist plays an important role in all cases of child custody.  There are three factors that need to be taken into consideration by the psychologist.  These include competence to handle the case, agency of the child and working under an ethical framework.  A competent psychologist would be able to determine the background, conduct an evaluation, and put the child on a plan.  Such an individual should be able to understand the ways in which the child would be interviewed and the family dynamics that would be acting.  The psychologist should be well-versed with divorce laws and custodial laws.  Usually, the forensic psychologist would be acting out of the child’s best interest and hence he/she has no duty towards the family or the parent.  Usually, the psychologist would be acting as an agent of the child aimed at addressing any kind of pain the child would be facing.  Even the other parties should be aware of this role of the forensic psychologist.  Often ethical and legal issues would interfere with forensic evaluation.  There should be no bias on the part of the evaluator and sufficiently time should be given to act reasonably (Herman, 1997).


APA (2009). “Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings.” APA Council.

Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2006). “Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation.” AFCC.

Bow, J. N. (2004). “Critique Of Child Custody Evaluations By The Legal Profession.” Family Court Review, 42(1): 115-127.

Campbell, T. W. (2005). Issues In Forensic Psychology, Retrieved on July 29, 2010, from Web site:, S. (1997). “Practice Parameters For Child Custody Evaluation.” American Academy Of Child And Adolescent Psychiatry.

Franklin, D. J. (2010). Child Custody Evaluations, Retrieved on July 29, 2010, from Web site:


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The Role of the Forensic Psychology Professional in Child Custody Evaluations. (2017, Feb 23). Retrieved from

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