In family law, a forensic psychologist can work as a custody evaluator appointed by the court, or as an independent consultant for one of the parties in a divorce case.
Forensic psychologists have comprehensive, hands-on training in clinical psychology. In addition to completing a four-year college degree, they must earn a master’s, usually in a related field, and a doctoral degree (PsyD or Ph.D.). This process can take six years or longer.
After finishing a doctoral degree, an aspiring forensic psychologist must obtain state licensure, which requires a number of supervised clinical hours and an exam. However, depending on where a practitioner lives, further education may be needed to become a child custody evaluator. To become an independent consultant, establishing a reputation and networking among family law attorneys will suffice, though obtaining training specific to custody and child matters would be advisable.
What does a forensic psychologist do in child custody cases, as an evaluator or a consultant? Read on for a rundown.
Here’s What a Forensic Psychologist Does in Child Custody Cases
Child Custody Evaluator
The rules vary from state to state, but to be eligible for court appointment as a child custody evaluator, a forensic psychologist must have several years of postgraduate experience diagnosing and treating mental disorders. Additional training may be required in custody and child development, depending on the jurisdiction.
Other mental health providers can serve as custody evaluators, but forensic psychologists are usually called in for complex cases, such as when claims of child abuse or drug addiction arise in custody cases and the veracity of either parent is in question. They use investigatory techniques, psychological evaluations, examinations, and scientific rigor to discern the best situation for the child.
Upon completing their evaluation, forensic psychologists carefully document their findings and provide them to the court for the judge’s consideration. The court may agree or disagree with the evaluator’s report, but their opinion is entered into the record as part of the court proceedings.
In addition to serving as child custody evaluators, forensic psychologists may work privately as consultants on custody cases. As a consultant, forensic psychologists may perform psychological testing and analysis, or they might advise clients on the best interests of their child.
Being a psychological consultant for a family law attorney can also involve other responsibilities, such as:
- Assisting attorneys in preparing depositions
- Reviewing cross-examination questions
- Helping clients prepare for their custody evaluation
- Creating developmentally appropriate parenting plans
- Testifying in court regarding new research or best practices
The Importance of Forensic Psychology Child Custody Evaluations
Forensic psychology child custody evaluations involve in-depth psychological analysis of the relationship between a child and each of their parents. A forensic psychologist or other licensed mental health professional will use direct and indirect methods to obtain information, investigating family dynamics, assessing school performance, and conducting interviews with siblings to gather data.
When a custody evaluation calls for psychological tests, forensic psychologists consider which tests will be developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate in a given situation, and fully disclose a test’s limitations when offering results.
When interviewing children and family members, forensic psychologists must work to identify abuse and educate victims’ parents on how to safeguard children against it. If abuse is suspected, forensic psychologists are legally required to alert the court.
Forensic psychologists concerned about a child’s well-being in high-conflict custody situations must initiate timely and inclusive evaluations, interventions, and court actions with the goal of repairing and healing parent-child relationships.
Forensic psychology child custody evaluations are rigorous, methodical, and evidence-based.
Forensic psychologists consider data in context, relying on their professional ethics and experience to guide them in making — or declining to make — recommendations in a child custody case.
The Different Types of Child Custody
There are differences between legal custody, physical custody, sole custody, and joint custody. Legal custody means that a parent or parents have the right to make decisions about a child’s upbringing. Physical custody means that a parent or parents have the right to have a child live with them. Sole custody means that one parent has either sole legal custody or sole physical custody of a child. Joint custody means that parents share the decision-making responsibilities and/or physical custody of a child.
How Long Does a Child Custody Evaluation Take?
Parents at the beginning of this process and eager for resolution may be asking themselves, just how long does a child custody evaluation take? There is no easy answer. The length of a custody evaluation varies depending on the state, situation, and level of urgency.
For example, some jurisdictions restrict the scope of an evaluation, which speeds up the process. Other jurisdictions allow for what are referred to as partial or limited-scope custody evaluations. These evaluations are focused on certain issues or complaints, and they do not include full psychological testing, though basic tests may be administered. If a partial child custody evaluation is ordered, it will take less time than a full evaluation by a forensic psychologist.
Forensic evaluations by their nature require time. The process of gathering information, conducting interviews, interpreting data, and rendering an assessment can last anywhere from three to five months.
The forensic evaluation process includes the following steps:
- Interviews of parents and children, including meetings and home visits
- Psychological testing of parents
- Payment to the evaluator
- Delivery of the evaluator’s report
A forensic psychologist’s report does not always include a recommendation on custody. When they do make recommendations, they must be supported by solid psychological evidence and focused on supporting the best interests of the child.
This article has been excerpted and edited from “What Do Judges Look for in Child Custody Cases?” (Maryville University, 2021) by the Online Bachelor’s in Forensic Psychology & Criminal Justice Department. The full guide is available here: https://online.maryville.edu/blog/what-do-judges-look-for-in-child-custody-cases