Child custody evaluations are intended to provide the court with information regarding what custody and visitation arrangement will be in the best interests of the children, when the parents are unable to resolve this issue on their own.
Often called a “best interests” evaluation, psychologists are ethically obligated to recommend what is best for the children regardless of who requests the evaluation. In an optimal post-divorce family, the children would have, and be encouraged to continue to have, a positive, healthy and emotionally supported relationship with each of their parents. In addition, the parents would demonstrate an ability and a willingness to work together cooperatively as co-parents. Children often experience problems adjusting to parental divorce when their relationship with one or both parents is damaged. Sometimes one or both parents continue to engage in conflict over the children, and the children continue to be placed in the middle of parental conflict.
Many factors are examined to assess what is best for the children. The parents are evaluated to determine whether either parent presents with serious psychological problems, but also to evaluate the quality of each of the parent-child relationships, and to identify existing conflict issues between the parents. Parental personality factors are assessed, because some personality characteristics are more likely to contribute to post-divorce conflict between the parents, and because some individual personality characteristics may negatively impact on the children. Parenting style can be a factor as well. Some children need more guidance, and others need encouragement to develop their skills and abilities. The psychologist will also attempt to identify which parent appears to be psychologically closer to each of the children.
The laws governing divorce vary from state to state, but in general, the best interests of the child standard is consistent. The quality of the relationship that exists between a parent and child has a significant bearing on post-divorce adjustment. Psychologists will explore differing parental responsibilities prior to the divorce, as well as the willingness of each of the parents to take on the responsibility for the children, and their ability to take on that responsibility. Parent schedules, and the distance a parent works from the residence or school location for the children is important, if it can affect their ability to respond to child emergencies. If there is a history of domestic violence or child abuse, the psychologist should assess the impact those factors have on the parent-child relationships, as well as the impact on parental cooperation and communication. It has become more common for one parent to make exaggerated or false allegations of improper behavior regarding the other parent in high conflict divorces, so psychologists must take into account whether the courts have determined the validity of any allegations regarding domestic violence or child abuse. This applies to allegations of mental illness and substance abuse as well.
The children are also evaluated in a custody/visitation evaluation. The psychologist will assess their emotional connection to each parent, and identify whether the children present with any significant psychological problems or special needs. As a “best interests” evaluation, school adjustment and behavioral problems are important factors, and counseling may be recommended to assist the children in their adjustment to parental divorce. Other factors, such as their school involvement, the effects of extended family on the children, the presence of stepfamily issues, and whether it is possible for the parents to work together for the best interests of the children are also assessed. If the children are older, and express any preferences regarding the amount of time they wish to spend with either parent, the psychologist must assess the foundation for those expressed wishes. Sometimes children are pressured or encouraged to express a preference, and at other times they express a preference based on poor judgement due to their immaturity. Psychologists need to determine when expressed preferences are likely to affect the best interests of the children, and when they simply reflect the status quo, or a desire to change as little as possible.
In summary, every family is different, and psychologists need to approach child custody evaluations with that fact in mind. In some families, one parent has a significantly closer and more nurturing relationship with the children, and in other families, both parents have been very involved in raising their children, with each parent making important contributions to the positive development of the children. Overall, children benefit from the positive involvement of both of their parents. They benefit most when both parents are able to set aside their marital difficulties and act as responsible coparents for the benefit of their children.