Complex Issues in Child Custody Evaluations


Philip M. Stahl

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  • Dedication

    To my parents, Perle and Mort, who always encouraged me to do my best, and to my grandmother, Geetcha, who was always sensitive to the needs of others.


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    Giving birth to a book requires much love and labor. I want to first thank Ann Milne and Peter Salem of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. Without their support, I would not have had the opportunity to be a presenter at conferences and learn as much as I have about child custody and child custody evaluations. Second, I wish to thank Jim Nageotte and Margaret Zusky of Sage Publications for their ongoing encouragement of my writing. I have known Margaret for many years, as she was the editor of my first book, Children on Consignment, a book for foster parents about foster children. Margaret helped me with the early editorial tasks associated with this book, while Jim moved the book into print.

    I wish to thank Theresa Schuman and Rosemary Vasquez. Terry and I have worked together on various task forces, and she has maintained an expertise in sex abuse evaluations. Without her efforts, I would not have a chapter on sex abuse allegations. Rosemary and I have worked together in our local community, and she has helped raise my awareness of cultural issues in divorce. She contributed the chapter on culture for the book.

    I particularly want to thank my many friends and colleagues who read early drafts of this book and whose editorial comments and words of wisdom helped me to clarify my own thinking while suggesting other places to look for important information. This includes evaluators Milton Schaefer and Andrea Jeremey of Bay Tree Psychology Associates; Phil Bushard and Joel Glassman from AFCC; John Osborne, Shary Nunan, Karen Hobbs, and Randi Johnson from the Family Resolution Center; Rhonda Barovsky and Benita Smith of Contra Costa County Family Court Services; and evaluators Lindsay Patton, Peggie Ward, Beth Clark, Lynne Markam, and Sherrie Bourg Carter. I would like to also thank my friend and attorney colleague Stuart Goldware; my cousin Eryn Kalish, an excellent editor; and attorneys Dee Samuels, Marcia Lassiter, and Dan Harkins.

    I also want to thank Terry Czapinski, who typed early drafts of this manuscript, and my brother Stan for helping me with computer and technical assistance. I wish to thank the many children of divorce who continue to teach me about their feelings and show me how divorce affects them.

    Finally, I again want to thank my wife, Ruth, whose love and support have inspired me to complete this project. She helped to edit many drafts of this book. I also thank my children, Jason and Rebecca. Jason has provided valuable insight into many of these complex issues along with excellent editorial skills. Rebecca continues to have a keen sense of humor that keeps me focused on enjoying my life, even when I work too hard. Their love and inspiration have helped me stay focused on the needs of all children, no matter what I do.


    Over the past several years, since completion of Conducting Child Custody Evaluations: A Comprehensive Guide (Stahl, 1994a) and the subsequent publishing of two other books on custody evaluations (Ackerman, 1995; Bricklin, 1995), the task of child custody evaluations has become increasingly complicated. There has been evolving research on the effects of divorce on children and on factors that contribute to the success or failure of shared and sole custody.

    At conferences around the United States, in local court-affiliated trainings, and from my own experience, I have observed that custody evaluations have grown more complex. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the typical complex custody evaluation was seen in the area of child sexual abuse. More recently, however, there has been a significant growth in allegations of parental alienation, domestic violence, and high conflict between the parents. In addition, with economic and employment opportunities changing, there has been an increased need for many parents of divorce to consider moving away from the other parent. Courts are increasingly faced with a tough dilemma in this area.

    In many states, legislatures have taken to “solving” some of these problems, though some of their solutions have not worked well for children. At other times, courts have made rulings that seem to resolve other problems of divorce. Whatever the legal or judicial decisions, courts are looking more frequently to the child custody evaluator to help in understanding and providing recommendations for families of divorce.

    My previous book focused largely on the basic issues in child custody evaluations, the processes involved in interviewing adults and children, and the nuts and bolts of providing information to the court. While touching on some of the professional and ethical issues and focusing a bit on the more complex issues, it was beyond the scope of that book to go into such detail.

    In contrast, this book is written for that purpose. By devoting a separate chapter to each of several complex issues facing custody evaluators today, this book is a logical outgrowth from the first one, and it is designed to provide evaluators with the salient information and research on a variety of topics. Each chapter focuses on a different complex task, guiding the evaluator to the important skills necessary for understanding each of them.

    The book will be presented in three parts. Part I is about the complex issues. These include the alienation and alignment of children (Chapter 1), domestic violence (Chapter 2), sexual abuse (Chapter 3), and move-away evaluations (Chapter 4). Each of these chapters will initially present the relevant research and focus on the tasks for the evaluator who wants to practically apply that research to a given family. For many of the issues, a range of potential recommendations will also be included.

    Part II is on children and report issues. These include the effects of high conflict on children (Chapter 5), child considerations in custody evaluations (Chapter 6), and the components of an evaluator's recommendations (Chapter 7). In these chapters, the primary focus will be on the needs and issues of the children, whose interests custody evaluations are designed to protect.

    Part III focuses on advanced professional issues. These topics include the use and misuse of psychological testing (Chapter 8), cultural issues (Chapter 9), testifying in court (Chapter 10), and ethics (Chapter 11). Though some of these issues (e.g., the use and misuse of psychological testing) have been addressed somewhat in other publications, others (e.g., culture) have never been directed to the child custody evaluator.

    The focus of this book is on the complexity of child custody evaluations. I believe that many areas need to be explored when doing child custody evaluations. In most custody evaluations, this will include the following:

    • the psychological functioning of each parent;
    • the history of the parents’ relationship;
    • the parenting skills and relative strengths and weaknesses of each parent;
    • the quality of the relationships between the child and each parent;
    • the child's relationships with siblings;
    • the degree of family violence or abuse, if any;
    • the intensity of the parents’ conflict and the degree to which the child is exposed to the conflict;
    • the temperament, emotional functioning, and needs of the child;
    • the developmental needs of the child; and
    • the ability (or inability) of the parents to work together to meet the child's needs.

    Depending on the particular evaluation, additional areas that may need to be explored are the following:

    • the degree of alignment and alienation in the child's relationships and reasons for such alignment,
    • geographic issues (with move-aways),
    • sexual abuse issues, and
    • the impact of a parent's own childhood on the current dynamics.

    In all evaluations, the evaluator will focus on many of these components. Depending on the evaluation, a range of issues will be explored and reported on. For every child custody evaluation, the pertinent issues must be addressed and integrated into the “best interests of the child.” Each evaluation must be guided by the statutes of the state in which the evaluator lives. The evaluator must know the laws and statutes in his or her state. For example, he or she might need to know if there are rules on relocation or if the statute requires the evaluator to consider domestic violence as more important than frequent and continuing contact. For example, in California, the health, safety, and welfare of the child (in the areas of abuse) take precedence over the need for frequent and continuing contact with each parent.

    The material for this book continues to be based on the sum of my experience, gained from meetings, conferences and workshops, readings, participation on task forces related to custody work, and my own custody evaluations. I have been fortunate to teach at National Judicial College, several family courts around the country, and the California Statewide Office of Family Court Services. Wherever I teach, I learn that the task of child custody evaluations is a complex one.

    I have also learned that some people do not understand how complex and difficult this task can be. As a result, I have some worries. I worry that legislatures may try to oversimplify the issues, through a presumption that any one issue (e.g., domestic violence) is more important than any other (e.g., the child's developmental needs) for a family. I worry when courts try to oversimplify the issues by either encouraging evaluators to be short and brief or making rulings that tend to polarize the problems. I worry when judges, attorneys, and evaluators do not understand that there are limits to the “truths” one can learn in any given evaluation. This tends to cause evaluators to stretch beyond the data.

    I worry when evaluators have little or no training in this complex field, believing that they are qualified to perform child custody evaluations simply because they have read a book or know how to perform family interviews or psychological testing. Novices need experience gained by work in the field, an understanding of the research, and supervision, consultation, or a combination of both. In particular, I have found that evaluations of child alignment and alienation and child sexual abuse require advanced training. For example, issues of alignment are very complex and difficult, as there is a need to focus on each parent and the children individually as well as on the way in which the dynamic surfaces for the family as a whole. Similarly, evaluations of child sexual abuse require familiarity with the research on divorce, sexually abused children, and offenders.

    I worry when evaluators oversimplify the issues in a given evaluation by either relying on limited and discrete pieces of data or misinterpreting the data. I especially worry when mental health professionals testify in court, because it is so easy to avoid taking a position when we have one, just as it is too easy to become rigid and dogmatic in the defense of our conclusions. I worry that mental health professionals do not have enough information and direction on ethical issues, as I often hear about practices that include one-sided evaluations, dual roles, and being a hired gun. I worry about experts who are arrogant and try to bully parents into accepting their work.

    I worry that licensing boards do not understand the special issues pertaining to child custody evaluations as they investigate licensing complaints. They might either ignore valid complaints against a poorly done custody evaluation or misinterpret or overreact to complaints, not understanding the ways in which child custody evaluations differ from other work in the field. They may also not understand the dynamics that are often involved with high-conflict families of divorce.

    Finally, I worry about the children, for whom many decisions are being made with limited research data. I believe that their needs must always come before the competing demands of the parents and that the psychological development of the child is paramount.

    I believe that, before someone can make decisions that affect the lives of children and families, he or she must have an understanding of the elements necessary for a child's healthy growth and development and must have knowledge about the impact that divorce, in particular high-conflict divorce, has on children and families. Evaluators must have a basic familiarity with the legal system in the community in which they work. If you are unfamiliar with your state's laws, I encourage you to talk with local judges and attorneys, contact government offices for the statutes, or look to the Internet for government pages that have those rules. Most states now have their statutes online. For example, at the time of publication, the California laws and regulations could be found at

    A Web page linking many states’ codes can be found at

    I also encourage you to join local, state, and national interdisciplinary groups, such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. Finally, I urge you to study the literature and obtain consultation when necessary.

    It is my hope that this book crystallizes some of the critical issues that have been touched on in other places or ignored altogether in the past. With the information provided on these issues, custody evaluators can tackle increasingly complex tasks with more confidence and thoroughness. As with any work in this field, it is important to recognize that the research is still limited and our understanding grows each year. As we come to understand these complex issues in a more thorough way, the task for the courts and evaluators can grow easier over time.

    What I said in the introduction of my previous book still holds true today.

    I have learned much since 1985, especially from the families with whom I work. I have learned that there are certain principles and standards which must be maintained when doing custody evaluations. I have learned that children cannot be viewed as property, and divorcing parents need to be taught to share their children, … and share in the parenting. More than anything, I have learned that we must understand the family divorce through the eyes of the children. We must understand how the children feel, what they fear and wish, and what makes conflict resolution difficult to achieve. We need to stay focused on the needs of the children, who are vulnerable to the actions of their parents, and who have the most to gain with a healthy resolution of the divorce conflict. (p. x)

    I still have much to learn, and I expect to continue conferencing, training, reading, and networking with others in this burgeoning field. It is my hope that child custody evaluators, mediators, attorneys, and judges can learn more about the many complex issues in child custody work so that we can help parents make appropriate decisions for their children of divorce.

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    Name Index

    About the Author

    Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Dublin, California. He has been a frequent presenter at meetings of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), American Psychological Association, California Psychological Association, and American Orthopsychiatric Association, and at the local interdisciplinary meetings in Contra Costa County, California. As a provider of continuing education for psychologists, LCSWs, and MFCCs in California, he has conducted trainings for child custody evaluators. He has also helped to train evaluators in Las Vegas, Baltimore, and Hartford. He is an active member of the AFCC and is the chair of AFCC's Child Custody Evaluation Committee. He is also on the board of the California chapter of AFCC.

    Dr. Stahl has participated on task forces and committees that promulgated local standards for custody evaluations and helped to establish a program of low-fee custody evaluations by private practitioners. He is on a newly formed interdisciplinary committee that is drafting standards and guidelines for special masters in Contra Costa County, California. He is the author of Conducting Child Custody Evaluations: A Comprehensive Guide (Sage, 1994) and has written an article on ethics in AFCC's Resource Guide for Custody Evaluators (1995) and an article on second-opinion reviews in custody evaluations (Family and Conciliation Courts Review, June 1996).

    About the Contributors

    Theresa M. Schuman, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Concord, California. She has worked in the field of general and forensic mental health for 25 years. She specializes in various aspects of child abuse, including assessment and psychotherapy with child and adult survivors, offenders, and families. Her interests include the use of psychological testing in court evaluations, expert witness testimony, and issues of child custody and divorce. She also serves as a special master with high-conflict families of divorce.

    Rosemary Vasquez, LCSW, has been a bilingual/bicultural mediator with Alameda County, California, Family Court Services since 1983. In her private practice, she has performed child custody evaluations, served as a special master, and worked with children, individuals, and families. Previously, she was the minority services coordinator for Marin County Mental Health Services, and she has been a trainer and consultant on issues of cultural awareness and diversity for corporations. She presently serves on the board of directors of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

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