Forensic psychologists are important advisors to the lawyers, mediators, and judges in child custody disputes. Unfortunately, messy child-custody disputes are an all-too-common occurrence when parents divorce. In some especially difficult cases, one parent may make an allegation against the other, and sometimes these allegations are made primarily to gain the support of the courts.
As impartial evaluators, forensic psychologists provide psychological assessments with a focus on parenting. The psychologist informs the fact-finder (usually the judge). Because parenting evaluations are supposed to be impartial by nature, they cannot involve themselves directly in the child-custody hearings. In other words, the forensic psychologist cannot approach the evaluation with any investment in the outcome of the case.
In the case of child abuse and/or neglect, the state must often intervene to provide a safe environment for the child until they can either be safely reunited with their parents or they are placed in a safe living environment. In these cases, forensic psychologists can offer thorough evaluations to help identify risk factors for child mistreatment, as well as ways to ameliorate risk.
Parenting evaluations consist of four major components:
1. Interview: Whenever possible, the psychologist must obtain personal history from the person being evaluated.
2. Record review (or review of “discovery”): The psychologist can receive records from a number of parties to the case and can use prior findings to help formulate a case.
3. Collateral consultation: Is the parent involved with a counselor or a parenting agency? If so, it is usually helpful to conduct a collateral interview with that service provider to ascertain the parent’s progress in treatment and what further treatments might be necessary.
4. Psychological testing: Testing is used to help determine if there are underlying risk factors (such as mental illness or low IQ) that might be contributing to the risk to the child.
In all evaluations, the “best interest” of the child is the chief criterion for the judge. A best interest determination can be strengthened with a solid psychological evaluation of a parent.
Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2012). Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law. New York, NY: Worth.