Child Custody Disputes
Tamara R. Dale
School of Education and Social Science, Saint Leo University
CRJ 554: Human Behavior & Judiciary
Written Exercise 7
Dr. William Jordan
December 5, 2020
The courts become involved in child custody disputes whenever two parties cannot agree upon a custody or visitation issue. To decide on the best interest of all involved, judges will often solicit a forensic psychologist’s services to evaluate the family. Child custody evaluations are among the most complex forensic psychologists will be asked to perform. They must evaluate not one client but every family member, and each often has different agendas and goals. Furthermore, there are no generally accepted standardized testing methods for child custody evaluations. Clinicians find it best to rely on interviews, observations, and data collected from third-party sources. This paper uses a fictional case study of a family having a child custody dispute to illustrate a typical family evaluation process from a forensic psychologist’s perspective.
Keywords: forensic psychologist, custody, visitation, Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations, Best-Interests Standard, Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act
Child Custody Disputes
Case Study Bio – Jack and Sally
Jack and Sally met at a single parent’s event. Jack, divorced for two years, had three daughters under age seven. Sally, never married, had a two-year-old son. Jack and Sally married 18 months later and had two children together over the next five years. Sally gave up her pharmacist career to care for the home and six children while Jack’s construction company supported the family. Jack continued to have weekend custody and one month in the summer with his three daughters from his previous marriage. After seven years of marriage, Jack announced he wanted to divorce Sally and remarry his ex-wife. Unbeknownst to Sally, Jack had been having an affair with his ex-wife for three years. Jack wants full custody of all six children, citing that Sally’s son thinks of him as his biological father. Jack and his ex-wife file for custody of all six children and prepare for a lengthy court battle. Sally countersues for custody of all six children, including Jack’s three, indicating his girls have bonded with their step-siblings, and she does not want to break up the family. Neither side is willing to compromise. The court appoints forensic psychologist Dr. Evelyn King to make child custody recommendations. (Saint Leo University, n.d.)
Standards for Child Custody Disputes
In this case study, Jack and Sally and their family represent a growing population in America; divorcing parents and split custody families. Family and child psychologists become involved in child custody cases whenever the parties cannot agree on custody or visitation arrangements. If the decision is left to the court, the judge will often seek a psychologist’s recommendation based on an evaluation of the family (Melton et al., 2018). The American Psychological Association developed the Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations to help clinicians navigate this legal landmine. The Guidelines help avoid pitfalls such as reaching beyond their expertise, evaluating only one party, then rendering opinions on both, or using irrelevant data (Melton et al., 2018).
The court hopes that Dr. King can provide insight into Jack and Sally’s blended family dynamics to help the judge decide which child goes where and for what reasons. Dr. King will gather useful information about the family that could provide a basis for predicting success for various custody arrangements (Melton et al., 2018).
One of the first things Dr. King can do that could save much time is to speak with both parties to determine what precisely each wants and what areas they cannot agree on. This is more of a mediation role, and custody disputes are often solved in this manner. Frequently, parents have a lengthy court battle over custody, only for someone to discover the “real” issue is relatively trivial; a disagreement over a few hours per week in visitation, which parent is to pick up or drop off children (Melton et al., 2018). In Jack and Sally’s case, however, the disagreement is more substantial as both parties seek full custody of all six children.
Most jurisdictions determine custody based on what is believed to be in the child’s best interest, referred to as the Best-Interests Standard. The court is provided some guidance on what is meant by the child’s best interests, but most of the decision is left to the judge’s discretion (Melton et al., 2018). The guideline followed by most states originates in the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, written by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (1970) and approved by the American Bar Association in 1974. The Act states the court shall determine custody following the best interest of the child and consider relevant factors such as (1) the wishes of the child’s parent or parents as to custody; (2) the wishes of the child as to his custodian; (3) the interaction and interrelationship of the child with his parent or parents, his siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest; (4) the child’s adjustment to his home, school, and community; and (5) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved (Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, 1970). It also states that the court shall not consider any conduct of a proposed custodian that does not affect his relationship to the child.
To fulfill this requirement, Dr. King has much factfinding to do. Child custody evaluations are more complex than other forensic evaluations. Other evaluations involve one “client,” whereas child custody disputes require the psychologist to evaluate multiple family members. Then, place all their needs and wants together like a puzzle. Additional information is needed on the family’s dynamics and on each child to make a recommendation to the judge. The wishes of each parent are already known. For each of the six children, Dr. King must know what their wishes are as to their custodian. Though the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act does not indicate how much consideration should be given to the child’s opinion, and each state differs on the age requirement if any. Dr. King must observe the children’s interaction with each parent, sibling, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest, in this case, Jack’s ex-wife. The children’s adjustment to home, school, and community, for example, is either Jack or Sally planning to move far away. The health of all family members, mentally and psysically.
Some known factors about the children are that the two youngest, biologically Jack and Sally’s are between ages 2 – 7 and have lived their entire life as a family. Research has shown that this age group tends to be the most heavily impacted by divorce initially, but less so ten years later (Melton et al., 2018). Sally’s son is ten and has known Jack as his father since he was 2. Jack’s daughters are entering their teenage years and have known this family at least part-time for over half their life. They have lived in a co-parenting situation for even longer, with Jack and their biological mother sharing custody. Research has shown that teenagers are more likely to withdrawal when parents divorce, but less so if they have another adult to reach out to (Melton et al., 2018). This range of ages and factors alone place each child in a different situation.
It is often the case that two parents with relatively comparable abilities to provide for a child’s well-being will vie for custody. Minor differences, such as personalities, education, and financial status, typically set parents apart. Child custody cases may be decided based on the judge’s view of the “most desirable” parental traits. The judge is guided by law; however, a child’s “best interest” is unclear and up for interpretation (Ackerman, 2006). Clinicians should refrain from offering a conclusion about which parent a child would be better off with, even if a judge asks for or even orders an opinion. In the alternative, clinicians should explain any psychological factors relevant to forming an opinion, assumptions about factors and outcomes, and any uncertainties about their opinions (Melton et al., 2018).
The recommended approach for Dr. King to take in evaluating the family is to interview and observe the parents and children and interview and gather relevant information from third-party sources (Melton et al., 2018). The evaluation’s focus should be on parenting capacity, the child’s psychological and developmental needs, and the resulting fit (Ackerman, 2006). First, Dr. King must determine what questions the judge needs answering as not all custody evaluations are alike. Examples that may be included in this case study are; the developmental needs of children at different ages, how to best educate children at various ages about divorce, the effects of parental conflict on children and ways that can be mitigated, parenting plans, the impact of separating step-siblings, or the likelihood that each parent would support the children’s relationship with the other parent (Melton et al., 2018).
The Report and Recommendation
Dr. King’s report should include her recommendations to the court and be tailored to the judge’s referral questions. Recommendations should also offer assistance to the family, such as referrals to services within the community and skills to help parents deal with children in divorce. Dr. King may include an if-then analysis to assist the judge. For example, indicating, “Should parent A be granted more parenting time, then this parenting plan and division of parenting tasks is recommended; should parent B be granted more parenting time, then this (other) parenting plan and division of parenting tasks is recommended” (Melton et al., 2018, p 554). The ultimate custody decision should always be left to the judge.
The judge has several options when considering the custody arrangement. In this family’s case, he is faced with a situation where two parents are requesting custody of their shared children and each other’s biological children. Joint custody is always a possibility and sounds fair to both parties. However, that is a complicated arrangement to maintain, especially if both parties are not on board (Melton et al., 2018). In most cases, practicality and legal presumptions mean one parent ends up with custody. At that point, visitation becomes the topic of debate. Sometimes, one parent or both will claim it would not be in the child’s best interest to see the other parent. If that were the case here, Dr. King’s evaluation would help the judge determine the validity of that statement (Melton et al., 2018).
For a decision to be rendered in Jack and Sally’s case, some information is missing that would be available to the judge. What is each of the children’s wishes? What type of parenting skills to Jack and Sally have as well as Jack’s ex-wife? Are there any perceived issues in either of the homes? Do any of the children have special needs? Is either Jack or Sally planning on moving far away in the foreseeable future? Is each parent able to provide for the children? Has Sally retained employment after taking years off from her career?
It is unlikely that either Jack or Sally would gain primary custody over the other’s biological child. Jack and his ex-wife would retain custody of their three daughters and Sally, custody of her son. Jack’s two daughters have always lived primarily with their mother, who will soon be Jack’s wife again. They are used to seeing their half-siblings on occasional weekends. Giving Sally custody of them would only produce disruption in their life. Since their biological parents are remarrying, they have a chance at a full family again.
Custody of the two children they have in common would probably be determined by which judge ruled their case and the contents of Dr. King’s evaluation. The judge may award either Jack or Sally primary custody of the two children but would most likely keep them together in one household. If there is no reason that visitation with either parent would be harmful to the children’s best interests, a visitation schedule would be put in place. The children have been living as a family for 8.5 years. It does not appear that Jack and Sally will be cooperative with each other on voluntary visitation matters. If the step-siblings want to see each other, a visitation order would have to be in place for the remaining four children as well. After some time, the court can re-evaluate the order, for example, 12 months, to determine if it is still in the children’s best interest. This author did not notice any personal bias swaying the decision made above. Instead, felt it makes the most sense with the information that is available.
Ackerman, M. (2006). Clinician’s Guide to Child Custody Evaluations. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Melton, G., Petrila, J., Poythress, N., Slobogin, C., Otto, R., Mossman, D., & Condie, L., (2018)
Psychological Evaluations for the Court: a handbook for mental health professionals
and lawyers (4th ed.). The Guilford Press.
Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act (1970), written by the National Conference of
Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. https://www.uniformlaws.org/HigherLogic/System/DownloadDocumentFile.ashx?DocumentFileKey=74189616-9a25-f0dc-fbf0-31b7401e21e0&forceDialog=0