Psychological Evaluations in a Child Custody Case
Recently we had the opportunity to attend a CLE (continuing legal education) seminar where the main speaker was a psychologist named Sean B. Knuth (not affiliated with our firm; this link is not sponsored). Dr. Knuth specializes in psychological evaluations for custody cases and we learned a lot about what those evaluations are and when they are appropriate.
What is a psychological evaluation?
For custody purposes, a psychological evaluation is meant to determine what, psychologically, is in the best interest of the children. Usually, the evaluator uses methods such as interviews, surveys, observations of parent-child interactions, and examining court records and medical records to make a determination about the psychological health of the people involved in the case. The evaluator can also make a hypothesis about who should get custody and why.
When is a psychological evaluation necessary?
Custody evaluations are not often necessary. In fact, as Dr. Knuth pointed out, they may actually be harmful to the parties involved. This is because they are time-consuming, emotionally draining, invasive, and expensive. Custody evaluations often take four months or more from start to finish. Not only is this an exhausting process to go through, it can also be extremely expensive. Clients who have already tapped out their funds paying for an attorney may need to pay much more for a custody evaluation. However, a custody evaluation may be useful if one or more of the following issues is involved in the case:
- A history of mental illness in either parent and/or the children.
- Behavioral issues with the children such as angry outbursts or ADD/ADHD.
- Substance abuse.
- Allegations of physical or sexual abuse, or neglect.
- A very contentious, hostile home environment which may be impacting the children’s psychological wellbeing.
- DSS involvement.
Important things to understand about psychological evaluation
The following information from the CLE might be useful to pro se litigants or counsel faced with a case that involves a custody evaluation. However, please note that the following information does not constitute legal advice and is meant to be a general overview only. We highly recommend consulting with a North Carolina attorney to get advice about custody cases involving a potential psychological evaluation.
The psychologist is evaluating, not treating.
There is a big difference between going through a custody evaluation, and going to a therapist for treatment. Anything you say to a therapist in treatment is totally confidential. In a custody evaluation, anything the parties say and anything that the psychologist observes can become a part of their report, which can in turn become a part of the court record. Whatever the evaluator observes may come up in open court at the trial of the case.
Some parts of a custody evaluation may seem similar to therapy. The evaluator will have an interview with anyone they are being asked to evaluate where they will go in-depth on that person’s relationship history, mental health history, work history, childhood, etc. However, unlike a therapist, the evaluator is not there to give advice or help anyone get over their problems. Their job is to observe the current situation and decide, based on the data they collect, what would be in the best interest of the children.
The psychologist is not mean or out to get anybody. In fact, just like a judge, they are supposed to go into the case without having a bias one way or the other. However, they may end up asking difficult questions and pointing out contradictions in the evaluee’s story and behavior. In court, they will present an opinion on the mental health of the people they evaluated for their report.
Attorneys and pro se litigants should be careful about what they ask the evaluator to do.
Everything the evaluator does is determined by the court order for a psychological evaluation. This is something that gets decided at a hearing, so based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the parties involved, their attorneys, the judge, and sometimes the evaluator his- or herself, will all have a say in what gets put into the order.
This is important in a few different ways. For instance, who is the evaluator evaluating? It’s obvious that both parents and the children will need to be evaluated – but what about dad’s new spouse or mom’s new significant other? What about dad’s new teenage stepchildren? What if someone who is not a party to the case, but who is involved in the children’s lives, needs to be evaluated? The order needs to say who must be evaluated to prepare for these issues.
What tools does the evaluator use to collect data?
It’s important to remember that the evaluator is not collecting evidence, he or she is collecting data. Evidence implies a bias one way or the other – data is neutral. The evaluator has to try hard to stay neutral during the process and form an opinion about what is most likely to be true from the data collected. The example that Dr. Knuth used is, if he interviews mom and she says “Billy can’t sit still,” he has to use other data points to find out if that is true or not. Asking Billy’s dad, step-father, teachers, and grandpa can help determine how likely the statement is to be true. If they all agree that he can’t sit still, it’s likely that he really can’t sit still. Observing Billy to see if he sits still or not is also obviously a great data point to collect.
To get all of these data points, the evaluator will usually start by doing detailed interviews with the adults being evaluated. The evaluator will also interview the children, but the topics covered in the interview and the length of the interview will vary greatly depending on the children’s ages and the issues involved in the case.
After conducting interviews, the evaluator may use tools such as the MMPI-2 and BASC-3 to measure the psychological functioning of the people he or she is evaluating. These are widely-used psychological surveys, and there are many others out there.
The evaluator will also observe the children interacting with the parents. He or she might do this in different combinations, for instance, if there are multiple children involved, the evaluator might want to see one-on-one time between the each child and each parent. The evaluator will most likely not have both parents come in for an interview or for observation at the same time.
This video might provide a little more insight into how to prepare for a custody evaluation and what exactly it might involve.