Forensic evaluations for child custody are a critical tool in legal proceedings to determine the needs and best interests of a child and any necessary ongoing treatment to assist with adjustment issues. These evaluations provide important information about the psychological and emotional well-being of the child and the parents involved in the case.
Led by a licensed clinical psychologist chosen by the legal team, forensic evaluations and the pursuant recommendations help the court determine what’s in the best interest of the children when it comes to custodial and visitation arrangements. Researchers have examined the particular burden these psychologists have in protecting and preserving the child’s rights and welfare throughout the entire evaluation and reporting period.
What evaluations are used in forensic evaluations?
Forensic evaluations for child custody or visitation are court-ordered evaluations that provide an independent, neutral assessment of both parents and child. These evaluations are designed to identify and evaluate the critical physical and emotional factors that impact family dynamics, parental ability, and children’s mental health.
Some of the most common evaluations used include:
These evaluations assess the psychological and emotional well-being of the child and the parents involved in the case. They may include assessments of the child's attachment to each parent, the parent's ability to meet the child's emotional needs, and any potential risks or concerns for the child's safety.
These evaluations assess the mental health of the parents and child and may include assessments of any mental health conditions that could impact the child's well-being.
Parenting capacity evaluations:
These evaluations assess the parent's ability to provide for the child's physical, emotional, and developmental needs. They may include observations of the parent-child interactions and assessments of the parent's parenting skills.
Domestic violence evaluations:
These evaluations assess the risk of domestic violence in the home and may include assessments of the parents' ability to protect the child from abuse or neglect. The evaluator will always be a mandated reporter who is obligated to report any disclosures of harm to self or others, interpersonal violence, abuse, neglect, or maltreatment.
Substance abuse evaluations:
These evaluations assess the parent's use of drugs or alcohol and its potential impact on the child's well-being.
How are forensic evaluations conducted?
Forensic evaluations are requested by the court or attorneys involved in a custody case, and can only be conducted by a psychologist on record with the court where the case is being determined. This psychologist acts as a fair, neutral, unbiased party, and all information gathered during the evaluations is given to the court and attorneys.
Confidentiality is waived by all parties involved in custody evaluations, and all documents and records will be included in the final report.
Typically, the process of conducting a forensic evaluation in child custody cases involves these steps:
- The judge and/or attorneys agree on the need for a forensic evaluation and assign a psychologist on record with the court.
- The psychologist gathers information from the parents, child, and other relevant parties such as teachers or other family members, and assesses the child's psychological and emotional well-being through a variety of standardized tests and assessments.
- The psychologist can request and review school, health, and legal records as needed.
- The psychologist prepares a report that summarizes the findings of the evaluation and provides recommendations for the child's well-being.
The psychologist will not provide any recommendations outside the report, and cannot see the family in a therapeutic capacity.
How does child custody court use forensic evaluations?
The results of a forensic evaluation can be presented as evidence in court to help determine the best interests of the child. The admissibility of the results will depend on the specific laws and regulations in the jurisdiction. The evaluator may also be called upon to testify as an expert witness in court.
When making a decision about child custody, courts will decide what’s best for the child's safety, well-being, and overall development. Often, the psychologist conducting the evaluation will make recommendations for interventions or treatment to improve the child’s well-being. These recommendations can include:
- Parenting classes
- Parental treatment for substance abuse
- Developing a parenting plan
- Co-parenting strategies
- Safety and risk management
- Ongoing counseling to help the child with adjustment issues
When are forensic evaluations typically involved in divorce cases?
More than 90 percent of divorce cases in the U.S. settle outside of court. The divorce cases that end up going to court more often than not involve child custody, alimony, or property division. A forensic psychiatrist will often confront special factors or situations that make these cases more complex, such as one parent having a mental health or substance abuse issue, grandparent and stepparent rights, even parental kidnapping – further complicating the process.
Focused on the best interest of the child
“Divorce and separation are difficult for parents and children,” explained Cari Whitlock, HYM Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “Emotions are often intense and children can be confused by the conflict between parents as they attempt to reach a decision on custody matters.
“A forensic evaluation conducted by an unbiased evaluator shifts the focus from parental conflict to the wellbeing of the child. This can greatly reduce the stress for the child and minimize their exposure to conflict. Moreover, evaluations are not only limited to recommendations on custody, but also provide treatment recommendations to increase emotional support for the child and family – creating outcomes that benefit children long term in areas of emotional, academic, and social growth.”