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Child Custody: Types of Psychological Evaluations

Divorce and Family Law – Child Custody Cases: Psychological Evaluations

Highly, contested child custody cases generally mean that the parties and children involved in the case may be subjected to agency review, interviews by child custody evaluators and in some situations psychological testing and interviews with mental health care professionals. Most of the time a psychological evaluation is implemented in contested cases in which the custody of the children is in question and or in instances in which a parents mental status, illness, or other emotional factor is anticipated to or has impaired a parties ability to parent or has placed a child in significant risk or danger, abuse or neglect. In some cases a psychological evaluation will simply be granted due to accusations of a party’s mental or emotional instability. During a psychological evaluation both parties will participate in the interviews and diagnostic process. It is important to remember that a former diagnosis of a mental disorder does not prevent you from being a productive parent or maintaining custody and even if a mental disorder is recognized during the course of the evaluation it must be significant enough to be negatively impacting the children and therefore not in the child’s best interest to be under your care.

The process of the psychological evaluation is a short cut for the courts to decipher possible complex situations with a heavy mental or emotional component. A psychological evaluation allows for a licensed psychologist to determine the best interest of children by closely examining a plethora of information, relationship ties, talking to teachers, pediatricians, nanny’s, stepparents, siblings, grandparents, and other friends and family via interviews or affidavits. If the evaluator believes information to be false or biased then they may exclude the information from their evaluation. Despite what the evaluator recommends it is always ultimately up to the judge how the court will find its ruling. On the other hand, most judges rule in consonance with the psychologist /evaluator. It is for this reason as to why it is important to make a good impression with the evaluator and to be truthful and cooperative when fulfilling your court obligations.

In some cases a party may make false accusations that the other parent has a mental disorder and is not mentally fit to be the primary physical custodian of minor children – and may even require supervised visitation. In such situations it may be possible for the accused parent to refute the need for a psychological examination through a lack of history of mental illness or by a lack of evidence in support of their claims of mental or emotional illness. A pretrial hearing is generally scheduled to determine if such evaluation measures are necessary and during this pretrial hearing evidence may be given to demonstrate why such measures are not necessary or may be requested in bad faith. A psychological examination may be granted if the judge speculates either party possible mental or emotional disorder is detrimental to the children or may alter the outcome of custody. Psychological evaluations are also highly costly and can range anywhere from $9,000 – $100,000 on average. The price of the psychological evaluation process is typically split between the parties. In the event that a psychological evaluation is found necessary by the court and a party does not fulfill their obligation then the court can grant custody to the other parent until the psychological is completed. If the psychologist believes that the requesting parties request for psychological was in bad faith then they may state so to the judge in their final report.

Test Commonly Used in the Diagnostic Process:  

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2)

The MMPI-2 is a test specifically designed to identify psychological disorders and to evaluate cognitive functioning. Primarily the MMPI-2 is used to identify sever or intense psychological disorders that are recognizable to the patient and are symptomatic – it is possible for milder psychological disorders to be missed within the test. The test is comprised of 200 or less questions on a gradient rarely – to always in a written format. This test is rarely administered by itself and is often administered with the Rorschach’s Inkblot test. The results of the test are often considered “highly subjective” as the test alone is not able to positively identify which party will be a better parent.

Millon Clinical MultiAxial Inventory (MCMMI-3)

The MCMMI-3 is designed to identify personality and emotional disorders from a written 175 question true or false test. This test is frequently used in conjunction with the MMPI-2 and Rorschach’s tests. When used in conjunction with the MMPI-2 the MCMMI-3 is able to more accurately detect minor personality and emotional disorders that may not be as identifiable under the MMPI-2 test. Both test to measure and indicate the truthfulness of the answerer and have a scale to measure whether the person is intentionally depicting themselves in a better light to defy the test.

Rorschach’s v. Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

The TAT test is similar to the Rorschach test in that it is a test which reviews an individual’s interpretation of black and white pictures. In the Rorschach’s test the test taker is required to identify objects or figures that they believe are reflected by the ink dots on each card. In the TAT test the test taker is required to review some of 31 black and white drawings resembling people. In exercising the TAT test the test taker is required to decipher the emotions or physical aspects of emotion demonstrated by each card through a description. The TAT test responses are then interpreted by the psychologist and are used to determine an individual’s inner personality / personality arch type.

Bricklin Perceptual Scales (BPS)

The BPS are specifically designed for custody evaluations and are questions intentionally framed for children to answer in regards to their parents. The BPS test is comprised of 64 questions which can be answered through play therapy or verbally asking the child in an open environment. Some of the questions may ask for the child to draw a picture depicting their family, each parent, and writing or telling a story about how the parents solve disputes. The test may be followed up by questions of the parents to either confirm or deny the child’s perceptions. The validity of the test is also considered questionable as the test relies heavily on interpretational information.

Ackerman- Schoedorf Scales for Parent Evaluation of Custody (ASPECT)

ASPECT includes a variety of test, which has been known to include MMPI-2 and IQ testing of both the parents and possibly the child. Other test may also be concluded such as the TAT in conjunction with interviews and possibly evidence that may be presented at trial. Like many of the other psychological tests the ASPECT test has been subjected to heightened criticism due to the interpretational aspect of the information.

Drug Screenings:

Drug screenings can also be used in addition to the previous test to determine illicit drug dependency. Some drugs may not be reflected in the drug screening if they metabolize faster such as those in the amphetamine family. Also recreational drug use may not be reflected in the drug screening if not current or to the level of dependency. To develop more recreational drug use frequent and random test may be necessary. The drug screening may also include prescription medication. Prior to taking the test you should inform the psychologist of any prescription medications taken and provide proof of prescription for any prescription medications in which you test positive for. Lastly, it may be important to inform the psychologist of any medicinal, vitamins, herbal supplements, or pain relievers taken prior to the test or used on a regular basis as they can register as false positives for illegal drugs in the drug screening.

Only a judge can appoint a therapist to make recommendations to the court in terms of a psychological evaluation. In other words any other therapist giving testimony will only be weighed in as evidence and not be weighed in as a recommendation. It is wise in most circumstances to have the judge appoint a specific psychologist for the selection of evaluator to avoid bias caused by either party selecting the evaluator. In cases where either party has selected an evaluator biases have resulted that have been found to specifically damage the other party in terms of biased reports and reports generated from monetary gain or previous patient- client relationships.

Prior to simply agreeing to a psychological evaluation you should consult with an attorney with experience in family law. It is possible for the outcome of a psychological evaluation to impact your current status of custody or alter any future award of custody; as well as, limiting or placing strict regulations on visitation. An attorney will be able to ensure that any test results are true and unbiased and can be readily relied upon in the court for a final deliberation of your child custody case.