forensic family evaluators
(a.k.a., "custody evaluators")
"More professionals, at all
educational levels, are performing child
custody evaluations without having obtained
formal training; many practitioners are
performing evaluations that do not meet the
needs of the courts that have appointed them;
with increasing frequency, judges have
expressed concern over the poor quality of the
reports being submitted to them by evaluators;
and problems with the custody evaluation
process have become the subject of front page
articles in newspapers as prestigious as The
New York Times."
Martindale, D. A., &
Gould, J. W. (2008). Evaluating the
evaluators in custodial placement disputes.
In H. V. Hall (Ed.), Forensic psychology and
neuropsychology for criminal
and civil cases (p. 527). Boca Raton, FL:
What is forensic family
family evaluation refers to the application of
standardized psychological observation and
measurement methods to assist the courts to
answer child-centered relationship questions.
Forensic family assessment is distinct from
individual evaluation (e.g., conventional
intelligence testing) in that the focus is
on the quality of relationshipsas
they bear on a child's well-being. They
are also distinct from juvenile justice
evaluations which are child-centered and may
include questions about relationships (e.g.
"Is the child able to establish healthy
relationships?"), but are primarily focused on
a specific minor's culpability, responsibility
and capacity to change .
Forensic family evaluation is a broad
category of professional mental health
assessment procedures that includes what is
conventionally known as "child custody
evaluations" or CCEs. Also included under this
rubric are child-centered, relationship
evaluations that arise in the context of
foster and adoptive care, attachment or
"bonding" evaluations, termination of parental
rights, relocation litigation, reunification
or reconciliation matters, and post-divorce
litigation seeking to re-allocate parenting
rights and responsibilities.
Labels. The phrase
"child custody evaluation" remains in common
use but is more and more eschewed by
professionals and jurisdictions that recognize
that the word "custody" connotes ownership.
The word "visitation" is similarly falling
into disfavor. Although alternatives to these
familiar references can become a mouthful,
"child custody evaluation" is better known as
"parenting plan evaluation" or as
"child-centered family evaluation" (CCFE).
"Visitation" is better known as "access" or
"parenting time." The evaluator is responsible
to present these concepts using language that
is congruent with relevant jurisdictional
conventions, always aware that these
subtleties can fuel or douse the fires of
Forensic family evaluation
by any name is an intense, intrusive, highly
emotionally charged, often expensive and
pivotal moment for any individual or family.
The process is not scientifically reliable or
valid. The voluminous literature in family law
and the forensic mental health fields contain
scant evidence that children who have
undergone family forensic evaluation are any
better or worse for the experience years
later. Nevertheless, forensic family
evaluation is in very high demand and, in some
jurisdictions, can be instrumental in
prompting litigants to settle pending
litigation consistent with the evaluators'
Van Horne, B. A.
(2004). Psychology Licensing
Board Disciplinary Actions: The
Psychology: Research and
Practice, 35(2), 170-178.
Kelly, R. F. and
Ramsey, S. H. (2009). Child
custody evaluations: The need
for systems-level outcome
assessments. Family Court
Review, 47: 286–303.
Vertue, F. M.
(2011). Applying case study
methodology to child custody
evaluations. Family Court
Review, 49: 336–347.
Garber, Benjamin D.
(2016). Exploring a
process-oriented forensic family
observation protocol. Family
Patel, Samir H.;
Choate, Laura Hensley (2014).
Conducting child custody
evaluations: Best practices for
mental health counselors who are
court-appointed as child custody
evaluators. Journal of Mental
Health Counseling, Vol
skilled evaluators, forensic family evaluation
represents the perfect integration of
organization, clinical acumen, scientific
research, social science evaluation, and
professional responsibility. The process
requires a synthesis and depth of knowledge of
child development, family systems, and
jurisprudence. Regardless of motivation, the
forensic family evaluator is engaged in one of
the most professionally risky endeavors in the
field. Those of us who do this work are
extremely likely to face licensing board
complaints and malpractice suits.
Read more here:
D. B. (2007). On being a child custody
evaluator: Professional and personal
challenges, risks, and rewards. Family
Court Review, 45: 103–115.
J. B. (1998). Preventing and managing
board complaints: The downside risk of
custody evaluation. Professional
Psychology: Research and Practice,
G. A. H., & Gollan, J. K. (2003).
Forensic practice guidebook. Family
evaluation in custody litigation:
Reducing risks of ethical infractions
Relevant professional guidelines
family evaluators are held accountable by
courts, licensing boards, and consulting
experts such as Family Law Consulting, PLLC,
to comply with jurisdictional mandates, the
court's orders, and all relevant guidelines
and standards of practice. This includes:
Psychological Association's "Guidelines
for Child Custody Evaluations in Family
of Family and Conciliation Courts'
"Model Standards of Practice for Child
Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers' "Child
Custody Evaluations Standards"
Coupet, Sacha M., The AAML Child
Custody Evaluation Standards: Bridging
of Matrimonial Lawyers, 295 (2012)
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry's "Practice Parameters for
Child Custody Evaluation"
Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations
for Licensed Clinical Social Workers
American Bar Association's "Section of
Family Law Standards of Practice for
Lawyers Representing Children in Custody
What's the question?
order that Mr. and Mrs. Smith engage you to
complete a "custody evaluation" is necessary,
but hardly sufficient. A competent and skilled
evaluator needs the court to clarify the
particular questions to be answered and the
nature of the answers sought. At issue is
whether the evaluator's job is to simply
observe and report, observe and infer
hypotheses, or to observe, infer, and
recommend answers to the ultimate question
before the court, usually regarding the future
allocation of parenting rights and
Time and again, otherwise
adequate family forensic evaluations (and
their authors in deposition or on the stand)
fail to understand and acknowledge these
successive levels of analysis.
Read more here:
Tippins, T. M., & Wittmann,
J. P. (2005). Empirical and Ethical
Problems With Custody Recommendations: A
Call for Clinical Humility and Judicial
Vigilance. Family Court Review, 43(2),
Kelly, J. B., & Johnston, J.
R. (2005). Commentary on Tippins and
Wittmann's "Empirical and Ethical Problems
With Custody Recommendations: A Call for
Clinical Humility and Judicial Vigilance".
Family Court Review, 43(2), 233-241.
Bala, N. (2005). Tippins And
Wittmann Asked The Wrong Question:
Evaluators May Not be "Experts," But They
Can Express Best Interests Opinions.
Family Court Review, 43(4), 554-562.
Dessau, L. (2005). A Short
Commentary on Timothy M. Tippins and
Jeffrey P. Wittmann's "Empirical and
Ethical Problems With Custody
Recommendations: A Call for Clinical
Humility and Judicial Vigilance". Family
Court Review, 43(2), 266-269.
Gould, J. W., &
Martindale, D. A. (2005). A Second
Call for Clinical Humility and
Judicial Vigilance: Comments on
Tippins and Wittmann (2005). Family
Court Review, 43(2), 253-259.
A review of board
complaints, malpractice actions and work
product reviews concerning forensic family
("custody") evaluations spanning over a decade
and numerous jurisdictions across North
America identify a handful of essential
Failure to comply
with relevant ethics, guidelines and
standards of practice
Failure to obtain
adequate informed consent: The
court order is not enough. Evaluators
are ethically obligated to establish
that participants are fully aware of the
nature, scope, meaning and limitations
of the evaluative process in advance of
participation. In some instances,
informed assent may be sufficient. Even
references should be advised in advance
that their contribution is voluntary and
is not confidential.
Connell, M. (2006). Notification of
purpose in custody evaluation:
Informing the parties and their
counsel. Professional Psychology:
Research and Practice, 37(5),
Failure to collect
balanced data. Evaluators are
ethically bound to seek out (and ideally
gather) an equitable breadth and depth
of data on all parties.
impartiality, particularly in the
form of ex parte communications
with parties' counsel.
documentation. Evaluators are
ethically bound to compile a record that
supports the concluding report and can
be reviewed by impartial third parties.
demonstrate consideration of multiple,
interpret the data collected within
systemic, and legal parameters.
interpret the data within
relevant and contemporary theory and
empirical knowledge. For example,
a discussion of "parental alienation
syndrome" or "parental alienation"
without consideration of enmeshment and
estrangement misses the mark.
to respect relevant boundaries. For
example, offering non-emergency advice,
counsel or direction in the role of
Read more here:
K., & Kirkland, K. L. (2001).
Frequency of child custody evaluation
complaints and related disciplinary
action: A survey of the Association of
State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
Professional Psychology: Research and
Practice, 32(2), 171–174.
J. N., Gottlieb, M. C., Siegel, J. C.,
& Noble, G. S. (2010). Licensing
board complaints in child custody
practice. Journal of Forensic Psychology
Practice, 10(5), 403-418.
Test validity in family law
Perhaps you'd agree
that a ruler is an excellent instrument if you
need to measure distance, but useless if you
need to measure time. The same is true of
standardized adult psychological tests. The
most statistically reliable and valid
instrument ever created is only reliable and
valid for its intended use.
Center For Testing about the
instruments that you use
Many forensic family
evaluators administer standardized
psychometric instruments to individual parents
and include the resulting data in the summary
report that is delivered to the court, and
then speculate about if and how these
individual profiles bear on parenting,
co-parenting or the best interests of the
Read more here:
& Simon, R.A. (2018). Individual
Adult Psychometric Testing and Child
Custody Evaluations: If the Shoe
Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Wear It. Journal
of the American Academy of
Matrimonial Lawyers, 30 (2),
and Katz, S. (2013) The Overuse and
Misuse of Psychological Testing:
Why Less is More. American Journal of
Family Law, Vol. 26, No 4.
J. and Pritzl, T. B. (2011). Child
custody evaluation practices: A 20
year follow-up. Family Court Review,
A., Tippins, T. M., Ben-Porath, Y. S.,
Wittmann, J. P. and Austin, W. G.
(2012), Assessment instrument
selection should be guided by validity
analysis, not professional plebiscite:
Response to a flawed survey. Family
Within obvious extremes, the
nuances of I.Q., social, emotional or
personality functioning as assessed via
contemporary individual psychometric
instruments have little or no empirically
demonstrable relationship to parenting,
co-parenting and the best interests of the
child. And those "obvious extremes"? They're
obvious. They'll be self-evident in the
courtroom, in interview and from references.
testing commonly generates diagnoses or
diagnostic hypotheses. Once these data exist
in the evaluator's file -even if they are
never referenced in the summary report- they
will be discovered and exaggerated and
misunderstood and exploited to the detriment
of all. Forensic family evaluation is not a
competition to discover which parent has the
fewest DSM labels.
Family Law Consulting, PLLC, takes great care
when reviewing a professional's work product
to assure that any standardized psychometric
data brought to bear on best interests
considerations are reliable and valid for that
Read more here:
Drozd, L. & Flens, J.
(2005). Psychological Testing in Child
Custody Cases. Haworth Press.
Hagan, L. D., &
Hagan, A. C. (2008). Custody
evaluations without psychological
testing: Prudent practice or fatal
flaw? Journal of Psychiatry & Law,
Otto, R.k.; Edens, J.F.
& Barcus, E.H. (2000). The
use of psychological testing in child
custody evaluations. Family Court
Review, 38(3), 312–340.
Ellis, E. M. (2012). Are
MMPI–2 Scale 4 elevations common among
child custody litigants? Journal of
Child Custody: Research, Issues, and
Practices, 9(3), 179-194.
Work product review.
review" describes the expert consultant's role
providing the court with impartial checks and
balances intended to assure that the forensic
family evaluator's work is consistent with
relevant ethics, guidelines and standards. In
it's most common form, the expert consultant
is hired by counsel for a parent who reads the
expert's summary report as unfavorable to his
or her wishes or needs. However, the same
review process can also occur on behalf of the
"favored" parent, the GAL, or the court
itself. In some instances, the evaluator him-
or herself will hire Family Law Consulting,
PLLC, to conduct a work product review
"Reviewers provide a
monitoring function for the court or a
function of forensic quality control
so the court will not be misled by
expert testimony of evaluators that is
based on flawed data collection and/or
Austin, W. G.,
Kirkpatrick, H. D. and Flens, J.
R. (2011), The emerging forensic
role for work
product review and case analysis
in child access and parenting plan
Family Court Review, 49: 737–749.
Read more here:
D. A., & Gould, J. W. (2008).
Evaluating the evaluators in custodial
placement disputes. In H. V. Hall (Ed.),
Forensic psychology and neuropsychology
for criminal and civil cases (pp.
527-546). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Austin, W. G.,
Kirkpatrick, H. D. and Flens, J. R.
(2011), The emerging forensic role for
product review and case analysis in child
access and parenting plan disputes.
Family Court Review, 49: 737–749.
Austin, W. G.,Dale, M.
expert roles and services in child custody
litigation: Work product review and case
consultation.Journal of Child Custody: Research,
Issues, and Practices,8(1–2),47–83.
Gould, J. W.,
Kirkpatrick, H. D., Austin, W. G., &
Martindale, D. (2004). A Framework and
Protocol for Providing a Forensic Work
Product Review: Application to Child
Custody Evaluations. Journal of Child
Custody: Research, Issues, and Practices,
Kirkpatrick, H. D., Austin,
W. G., & Flens, J. R. (2011).
Psychological and legal considerations in
reviewing the work product of a colleague
in child custody evaluation. Journal of
Child Custody: Research, Issues, and
Practices, 8(1–2), 103–123.
Family Law Consulting PLLC:
Evaluator prophylaxis, tune-up
health professionals are not only wise to
engage in routine consultation with
colleagues, many licensing bodies require peer
consultation or supervision on an ongoing
basis. Family Law Consulting, PLLC, and Dr.
Ben Garber are available to provide
consultation directly to forensic family
evaluators at any point in the process, from
evaluation conceptualization and planning,
through data collection, interpretation,
summary and deposition or testimony. When
necessary, Family Law Consulting, PLLC, will
work with evaluators and defense counsel to
respond to board complaints and malpractice
Consulting, PLLC, and Dr. Garber will
work directly with forensic family
Assist an individual
professional, an entire practice
or consultation group to establish
and systemically-informed forensic
family evaluation procedures from
the ground up, including the
provision of reading in current
research and methods.
Assist a single
professional or group practice to
fine-tune existing forensic family
evaluation process, from the
enabling court order through
testimony, including the provision
of standardized questionnaires and
institution of cutting edge
critique family forensic reports
and/or files in advance of
delivery to the court.
family forensic evaluator in
preparation for deposition,
testimony or in defense of work
product subject to critical
board defense and malpractice
defense counsel regarding the
adequacy of a family forensic
evaluation and the validity of
Consult to licensing
boards in consideration of
consumer complaints concerning
family forensic evaluations,
relevant ethics, guidelines,
standards and practices.