A forensic custody evaluation is an in-depth analysis from a trained mental health professional that provides detailed psychological information about each member of the family as it relates to their respective roles in the family relationship (including children). Forensic custody evaluations where parents do not agree to the legal or physical custody schedule of a child or if there are allegations of neglect, abuse, mental health issues, parental unfitness or substance abuse. While litigants can choose to have such evaluations of their own accord, often these evaluations are ordered by judges to be used as evidence in complex child custody cases when the parents cannot come to their own agreement about the custodial arrangements. However, a judge may order a forensic child custody evaluation of his or her own volition during the litigation process if he or she finds it necessary, or a parent may request that an evaluation be ordered by the court, but just because one party makes such a request does not mean that the request will be automatically granted.
At all times, the court has an obligation to act in the best interests of a child involved in a divorce and/or custody action. In some situations, a parent may potentially pose a risk to a child due to their own mental illness or emotional instability. Thus, if you believe the other parent may have a psychological issue that could be hazardous to your child, it’s critical to understand your options and how you might wish to approach that situation. However, be warned, whenever you make such accusations against the other parent, that parent may make the same sort of accusations against you.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTING IN CONTESTED CUSTODY CASES
If either party raises significant issues related to parenting capacity during litigation, the court may need to assess the parenting capability of each party and determine whether a parent’s mental state poses a risk to the children’s safety. In this situation, a judge may appoint a forensic custody evaluator to evaluate the family. Thus, psychological testing may play a role in these situations, even when undiagnosed mental illness has not been an obvious concern for either parent. Accordingly, forensic custody evaluators utilize a variety of tests during litigated custody disputes.
Some of the tests that custody evaluators frequently use during such evaluations include:
- The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), which evaluates an individual’s cognitive functioning and identifies potential psychological disorders and evaluates cognitive functioning. The MMPI is a psychological test that assesses personality traits and psychopathology. It is primarily intended to test people who are suspected (but not presumed) of having mental health issues or other clinical issues. It is one of the most administered psychological tests during forensic custody evaluations; however, a frequent criticism about this test is that scoring is not uniform between various ethnic populations.
- The Rorschach Inkblot Test, is a psychological test in which a subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning. However, in recent years some psychological experts do not take the results seriously because they believe the test may be too subjective, but this psychological test is still used and its scoring and interpretation have been updated in recent years. Many forensic psychologists still utilize this test as a validation tool in conjunction with the administration of the MMPI or MCMI.
- The Million Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-III), which uses 175 true/false questions to help identify personality disorders. The MCMI-III is distinguished from other personality tests primarily by its shortness, its theoretical anchoring, multiaxial format, three-way construction and validation plan as well as questions regarding interpretive depth. Because of its simplicity of administration and the availability of rapid computer scoring and interpretation, the MCMI inventory is used on a routine basis. However, because the MCMI was developed and standardized specifically on clinical populations (i.e. patients in clinical settings or people with existing and previously diagnosed mental health problems), the authors of the test are very specific that the test should not be used with the general population or with adolescents. Generally, critics of this test express concerns that it automatically presumes some level of already presumed mental illness in the subject.
- The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). Similar to the Rorschach Test, this test requires participants to view 31 black-and-white drawings of people, and draws conclusions about the subject’s personality based on his or her answers. Along with the MMPI and the Rorschach, the TAT is one of the most widely used psychological tests. Like others, it is a projective test which means it is one in which a person’s patterns of thought, attitudes, observational capacity, and emotional responses are evaluated on the basis of responses to ambiguous test materials. The TAT has been criticized for its lack of a standardized method of administration as well as the lack of standard norms for interpretation.
- The Ackerman-Schoedorf Scales for Parent Evaluation of Custody (ASPECT), comprises 56 items to be answered by the evaluator after a series of tests which includes the MMPI-2 test, IQ testing for children and their parents, interviews, and parts of the TAT, as well as interviews with the parents and children. ASPECT was among the first forensic assessment instruments developed specifically for use in the area of parenting disputes. Its design requires the user to develop multiple sources of data. It is easy to use and interpret. It draws information from a variety of sources thereby trying to reduce the likelihood of examiner bias. It also incorporates standard assessment tools that many psychologists already use. Critics have noted that there is inadequate research to establish the concepts to be measured and their bearing to capable parenting.
- The Bricklin Perceptual Scales (BPS), which focuses on discerning the child’s perception of her parents in the areas of supportiveness, competence, consistency, and other desirable traits using 64 questions, picture-drawing, storytelling, and questions for the parents. The BPS test has received criticism concerning its validity.
Many forensic custody evaluations may only entail a couple of these tests, and while there are others used, it is helpful to understand the ones most often used. It’s also essential to remember that a judge always has the final say in determining custody of a child – not psychologists or custody evaluators.
It may be frightening to learn that you may need to take a battery of psychological exams to help determine how fit someone thinks you are to be a parent to your child; however, working with an experienced divorce attorney before any tests are administered will help reduce your stress.
SHOULD I REQUEST PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTING DURING MY FORENSIC CUSTODY EVALUATION?
If you are asking the court to have your spouse to undergo a forensic psychological evaluation, you should expect him or her to respond in kind. Understand that the court does not cover the cost of a forensic psychological evaluation, so in most cases a judge will decide the allocation of the costs – which will not be insignificant.
Understand that psychological testing utilized may not end up reflecting any significant issues. In many situations, insisting upon a forensic custody evaluation for the other parent can backfire and make you appear vindictive to the court.
When faced with this decision, consult with an experienced family law attorney to see if he or she recommends requesting a forensic custody evaluation. However, if you suspect that the other parent has significant mental health issues impacting parenting ability, it may be important for you to positively identify these factors before the court makes a custody determination. Remember however, psychological testing used during a forensic custody evaluation may not prove helpful, and may even identify some psychological issues in you.