Conducting Child Custody Evaluations: A Comprehensive Guide


Philip Michael Stahl

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  • Back Matter
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  • Dedication

    To Ruth, my wife, who found me on the eastern coast, and to my wonderful children, Jason and Rebecca, who have inspired me for years.


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    In 1981 I was thinking about a topic for my doctoral dissertation. I had worked as a therapist with many children of divorce, and Michigan was completing a new custody law, with a presumption for joint legal custody. Although joint custody was new to Michigan, Californians had been implementing it for a number of years. My research was on the attitudes and beliefs about joint custody among judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, and families who were practicing joint custody arrangements. I learned that little had been written and little was known about custody and shared parenting at that time.

    In order to expand my own knowledge, I joined a group of other professionals known as the Michigan Inter-Professional Association on Marriage, Divorce, and the Family (MIPA). I later became active in an international group, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). Both of these groups were formed to promote healthy resolutions for divorcing families to improve the consequences for the children. Through my early experiences with these groups I recognized the need to learn more about child custody and the need to network with attorneys and judges who have such an impact on divorcing families.

    In 1984 I took training in divorce mediation. In the fall of 1985 I began to work for the Macomb County Psychodiagnostic Clinic to assist them with their growing need for custody evaluations. My interest in the task of custody evaluations and the need for reducing the destruction on children kept growing. By the time I moved to California in the spring of 1987, my goal was to continue learning more about divorce and custody and to continue working with others to promote healthier resolutions to divorce.

    Over the years I have completed more than 800 custody evaluations. I have worked in both the public and private sectors in two divergent communities. Although I am no longer a member of MIPA, I currently serve with the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts as a member of the custody evaluation committee, a cochair of the private practice committee, and a member of the national Board of Directors. My need to learn from and network with other mental health professionals, attorneys, and judges remains as strong as ever.

    I am concerned that despite the increase in custody evaluations, there is still little written on this subject. Attorneys and judges need help in learning more about child development and the psychological effects of custody battles on the children. New evaluators have limited understanding of the ethical dilemmas in working with families of divorce and little awareness of the many professional issues involved in doing custody evaluations. The material for this book is based on the sum of my experience gained from networking meetings, conferences, workshops, readings, participation on task forces related to custody work, and my own custody evaluations.

    Readers may note that I have frequently changed gender throughout the text of this manuscript. I have attempted to be gender neutral, and there is no attempt to imply anything gender specific by the use of pronouns at any point of the text.

    The families with whom I have worked have taught me a great deal. I have learned that there are certain principles and standards that must be maintained when doing custody evaluations. I have learned that children cannot be viewed as property and that divorcing parents often need to be taught to share their children. I look forward to the day when the courts and the laws get away from the legal concepts of custody and visitation and focus instead on helping parents learn to share parenting. Above all, we must view 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 from a healthy resolution of the divorce conflict. It is my hope that from this book evaluators and other mental health professionals, attorneys, and judges can learn more about the many issues in child custody evaluations, so we all can reduce the pain for the children—the real pawns in the game of their parents' divorce.


    I thank initially Karol Ross, friend and early mentor, from whom I learned my beginning skills as a custody evaluator. She told me about MIPA and AFCC and sparked my interest in networking and conferencing with these two organizations. I want to thank Marquita Flemming of Sage Publications for encouraging me to write this book and various colleagues from AFCC, especially Hugh McIsaac, Dorothy Howard, and Ann Milne, for supporting me. 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 and encouraged me to complete this task, including Judges Susan Snow and Josanna Berkow; evaluators Milton Schaefer, Phil Bushard, Andrea Jeremey, and Melisse Eidman; my friend and attorney colleague, Stuart Goldware; my cousin Eryn Kalish, an excellent editor; and my wife, Ruth, whose love inspired me to get back to work on this manuscript, after contributing to an 8-month hiatus when we met.

    I also want to thank Terry Czapinski for her typing of the first drafts of this manuscript, Eileen Abels and my brother Stan for helping me with computer and technical assistance, and the many children of divorce who have taught me about their feelings and shown me how divorce affects them.

    Finally, I thank my own children, Jason and Rebecca. Jason has a singular way of helping me see important and special aspects of life, and Rebecca maintains a sense of humor that keeps me enjoying all that I can, even when I work too hard. Their love and inspiration have helped me stay focused on the needs of children in all of my endeavors.

    Philip MichaelStahl
  • Glossary of Legal Terms

    • Appeals court The court that hears an appeal after a trial court has made a judgment. The appeal is usually based on a determination that the trial judge misinterpreted the law or misused judicial authority when rendering a decision.
    • Case law Law that is formed by the aggregate of cases rather than by statute.
    • Code A collection of laws or statutes that are classified according to subject matter.
    • Conciliation court A court that aids in resolving marital disputes and provides counseling services for couples considering divorce.
    • Court order Direction of a judge entered in writing.
    • Cross-examination The examination of a witness who has already been questioned by the opposing attorney.
    • Custodial parent The parent who has the physical control, care, and custody of a minor child.
    • Custody The care, control, and maintenance of a child.
    • Custody evaluation An investigative procedure to gather and analyze facts regarding the family for the purpose of making a recommendation to the court regarding child custody and/or visitation. A custody evaluation may be initiated by order of the court or by stipulation of the parties, pursuant to local court rules.
    • Deposition The questioning of a party or witness, under oath, outside of the courtroom, usually in one of the lawyer's offices.
    • Dissolution of marriage The act of terminating a marriage by divorce.
    • Divided custody Arrangement in which each parent is custodian of the same child for different periods of time, with cross rights of visitation.
    • Domestic violence Physical or mental abuse of a family member.
    • Evidence Testimony, writings, objects, or other material offered to prove the existence or nonexistence of a fact.
    • Evidence code A section of state law that governs the procedures under which evidence can be obtained in a legal proceeding. In California, Section 730 of the Evidence Code sets the rules for appointing child custody evaluators.
    • Ex parte A judicial proceeding, order injunction, or conversation undertaken for the benefit of one party only, without a full hearing or both sides present.
    • Expert witness One who by reason of education or specialized experience possesses superior knowledge of a subject and is therefore determined by the court to be an expert on a specific area, such as child custody.
    • Family court services County-run programs for mediation and evaluation services, usually under the auspices of the local courts and by rules promulgated by state agencies or laws.
    • Family law Legal matters involving family issues—divorce, paternity, guardianship, dependency, adoption, and domestic violence.
    • Finding A determination of a fact by the court based on the evidence presented.
    • Guardian ad litem A special guardian appointed by the court on behalf of a minor child.
    • Hearing Public administrative or judicial proceeding, usually less formal than a trial, with definite issues to be tried, in which witnesses may appear and parties have the right to be heard.
    • Joint custody Joint physical and legal custody of a child.
    • Joint legal custody Custodial arrangement in which both parents share the rights and responsibilities to make decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of a child. A parent who shares legal custody cannot have his or her rights of parenthood terminated.
    • Joint physical custody Custodial arrangement in which the child spends time with each parent for significant periods of time.
    • Judgment The final decision of a court determining the rights and obligations of the parties.
    • Legal custody The right and responsibility to make the decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of a child.
    • Local rules of court Rules adopted by individual courts to define more specifically the general procedural rules that are set out in the various state rules of court.
    • Mediation The process by which parents voluntarily discuss and try to settle disputes, often related to child custody and visitation, with the assistance of an attorney or mental health professional trained in mediation skills.
    • Noncustodial parent The parent who does not have physical custody of a child.
    • Order to show cause (OSC) An order to appear in court and present reasons why a particular order should not be executed. If the party fails to appear or give sufficient reasons why the court should desist, the court will take the action requested.
    • Petition A formal application to the court requesting judicial action on a certain matter.
    • Petitioner The person who initially files a petition to the court.
    • Physical custody The right of a person to have a child reside with him or her and make the day-to-day decisions regarding the child's care during the time that the child is in his or her care.
    • Precedent A rule of law established for the first time by a court for a particular type of case and thereafter referred to in deciding similar cases.
    • Presumption An assumption of fact that the law requires to be made from another fact or group of facts. It is either conclusive (not subject to opposition) or rebuttable (capable of being rebutted by presentation of contrary proof).
    • Privilege The right not to disclose confidential statements made between certain persons who have protected relationships. These include statements between a husband-wife, patient-physician, attorney-client, psychotherapist-patient, and priest-penitent. For a child, the court usually becomes the holder of the privilege during a litigious divorce action because parents cannot agree.
    • Recommendation conference In some jurisdictions, the process in which the judge and attorneys review the recommendations of a custody evaluator and try to reach settlement on the issues.
    • Respondent The person who answers a petition in the form of a response.
    • Restraining order An order of the court forbidding a party from committing particular acts, either until a hearing can be held (temporary) or for a specific period of time (such as 3 years).
    • Settlement An agreement by persons who have been in dispute.
    • Sole legal custody Custodial arrangement in which one parent has all the rights and responsibilities to make the decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of a child.
    • Sole physical custody Custodial arrangement in which the child resides primarily with one parent, with specific visitation rights to the other parent.
    • Split custody Custodial arrangement in which each parent has the physical custody of at least one child of the marriage, with specific visitation rights by each parent with the noncustodial child or children.
    • Statute A law established by the legislature.
    • Stipulate To agree.
    • Stipulation An agreement made by the parties and/or their attorneys, settling some or all of the contested issues or procedural matters. Often the appointment of a custody evaluator is made by stipulation between the parties.
    • Subpoena An order to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony or produce a document at deposition or trial.
    • Supervised visitation Arrangement in which a court orders a parent to visit a child only in the presence of a designated third person.
    • Temporary restraining order (TRO) An emergency remedy of brief duration that a court may issue in exceptional circumstances until the court can hold a hearing on the matter.
    • Tender years doctrine The outmoded presumption that custody of children of “tender years” (usually under 7 years old) should automatically be awarded to the mother.
    • Trial A judicial examination and determination of issues of law and fact between parties to a lawsuit.
    • Trial court The local court that initially hears all cases in dispute. If an attorney or party believes that a trial court judge has exceeded judicial authority or inappropriately applied the law, an appeal can be made to the appeals court.
    • Visitation rights Permission granted by the court to visit children. Visitation rights may be granted to parents and any other person having an interest in the welfare of the child, including but not limited to grandparents, stepparents, and other relatives of the child.

    Appendix 1: Sample Forms, Letters, and Court Orders

    • This appendix includes:
    • Sample Custody Evaluation Face Sheet
    • Sample Referral Form/Special Master Appointment
    • Sample Cover Letter
    • Sample Child Custody/Parenting Evaluation (Agreement)
    • Special Master Program: Parent Information Sheet and Agreement
    • Sample court order for private custody evaluation
    • Sample court order for appointment of Special Master
    Custody Evaluation Face Sheet

    Name of mediator/evaluator: _________

    Recommendation: __________

    Who cares for your child(ren) when you are not at home: _____

    Describe your child(ren).

    Describe your relationship with your child(ren).

    Describe your (ex)spouse's relationship with your child(ren).

    How do you discipline your child(ren)?

    How does your (ex)spouse discipline your child(ren)?

    Describe your strengths as a parent.

    Describe your weaknesses as a parent.

    Describe your (ex)spouse's strengths as a parent.

    Describe your (ex)spouse's weaknesses as a parent

    What will your (ex)spouse say about you?

    How would you recommend sharing parenting with your (ex)spouse?

    Any other comments/questions (use back of form, if necessary):_____

    I authorize ____ to evaluate me and my children to assist the court in determining the most appropriate parenting plan for our “family.”

    Signed: ________Date: __

    Referral Form Marin County Superior Court Special Master Appointment

    Current Custody and Visitation Arrangement

    Special Needs of the Children (Please Indicate Which Child)

    Sample Cover Letter

    As we discussed, I plan on seeing you and your ex-husband for an evaluation related to your divorce beginning on___. I will be scheduling a future appointment with each of you and appointments with you and your son after we meet. I am enclosing a form that I would like you to complete prior to the appointment and bring with you to the office. The information that you provide will allow me to do a more thorough job in assessing your family and your needs.

    In order to do a thorough evaluation, I will need to know information about each of you. In addition to the time that I spend with all of you, I will be administering psychological testing as part of the overall evaluation. You will be asked to sign a release of information form that will provide me with access to medical, school, legal, and other information to acquire a complete understanding of you and your family.

    I believe that it is in a family's best interests to develop their own postdivorce parenting arrangements whenever possible. 1 become part of the process when a family's own attempts to resolve these issues has reached an impasse and an evaluation is needed to assist the attorneys or court in determining the children's best interests. It is my belief, and research shows, that it is best for children when parents can agree on parenting arrangements. My evaluations are designed to promote resolution of conflicts in this area. Along with this, it is best if neither of you discusses this evaluation with your son until after we meet, so that it does not become a source of further anxiety for him.

    As we discussed, the fee for this evaluation is expected to be $___, and I expect this to be paid when we meet. As I understand, you are each responsible for one half of the fee and will each be paying $___. In the event that I spend significantly more time than anticipated, I will inform you of any further charges. When I have completed my evaluation and all fees have been paid, I will mail my written report to your attorneys and the court. In the event that I am required to testify in court, I will testify only to my evaluation and I will bill my usual and customary hourly charges for all time associated with the testimony and its preparation.

    I hope this addresses a few of the questions that you may have. Please bring the enclosed form with you to the appointment. If you have any questions in advance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Licensed Psychologist


    Child Custody/Parenting Evaluation

    In order for this evaluation to be of help to you and your family, the following conditions must be met. I recognize that these conditions may seem very stringent and formal. However, it has been my experience that very clear agreement at the start of this kind of evaluation will help you and your family by ensuring the fairness of the evaluation and by minimizing potential confusion or disagreement.

    • The evaluator will need to interview all members of the immediate family. This includes the mother, father, and children. The evaluator may also need to interview other parties who are important for a full understanding of your family and the current situation. These might include present or prospective parent surrogates (e.g., stepparents) and closely involved grandparents or other relatives. Usually the interviews of the parents and surrogate parents will require 2 to 3 hours each; interviews and testing with children will require 2 to 4 hours each. The evaluator will also need to observe the family as a whole or in subgroups at the office and/or at a prearranged time at each home. By mutual agreement, the following people will be available for interviews:
    • In order to allow exploration in depth of issues concerning your family, the parties must agree to a modification of the traditional rules of confidentiality. Specifically, the evaluator, at his or her discretion, must be able to reveal to one party what has been said by another. This does not mean that all information will be automatically revealed or that certain information cannot be discussed in private. It means only that the evaluator reserves the right to share the information that is needed in order to explore important or disputed issues thoroughly.
    • Prior to beginning the evaluation, the parties must agree on all sources of information to which the evaluator will have access. I must have signed releases from all the adults allowing my office to obtain reports from other professionals who have been involved with your family. This would include, at the evaluator's discretion, medical doctors, hospitals, counselors, therapists, teachers, schools, and other agencies. A release form is attached for you to fill out and sign.
    • Unless otherwise specified as an addendum to this agreement, all parties waive their rights to claim privilege with respect to the proper use of this evaluation and report. That is, the report and any information supplied to the evaluator by any party in the course of this evaluation will be available to the court and to both attorneys.
    • The cost of this evaluation is:______
    • Should your case require them, the fees for depositions and court appearances are:______
    • In order to ensure that financial factors do not delay or complicate the evaluation, I require a payment of ____ at the time of the initial interview. Payment in full is required before the report can be released.
    • I will attempt to do the entire evaluation as quickly as possible. It is usually (but not always) possible to provide the written report within____ days of the date of the initial interview.
    What to Expect
    • The initial interview will usually be with each parent separately. Each adult will usually be interviewed in two or more office visits. The children will then be seen individually and family sessions then scheduled. Please note that the findings will include psychological observations, discussions of your strengths and weaknesses as parents, as well as current and future-oriented recommendations concerning the issues that are in dispute (e.g., recommended form of custody, amount and timing of contacts with the children, where the children should live, etc.)
    • Following those meetings, the final report will be prepared and sent to the court or family court service. The judge or conciliation worker will then make the report available to both attorneys. Because of the potentially sensitive nature of the report, both attorneys are requested to respect the report's confidential nature and to refrain from sharing it with either of you.

    These agreements are necessary in order to allow me to work with your family in a fair and effective way and to provide to you, to your attorneys, and to the court a thorough and objective evaluation.

    Having read this document carefully and discussed it with your attorney, please indicate your understanding of it and agreement to its terms by signing it below and returning it to me, along with your share of the initial costs. Following receipt of the signed agreements, release forms, and fees from all of the parties involved, I will contact you in order to schedule your interviews.


    I have read the above, discussed its provisions with my attorney, and agree to proceed with the evaluation as described. I am attaching $__, representing my __% of the initial costs, and I agree to pay the same percentage of any reasonable costs above that amount, in accordance with the payment schedule described above.

    Attached: Release forms

    Special Master Parent Information Sheet and Agreement

    Dear Parents:

    I am writing this letter as an introduction to what you can expect in our Special Master work. When I get appointed as a Special Master, either through court order or stipulation of the parents, it is usually following disputes related to custody and visitation which have become intractable, often lasting for many years. This takes a heavy emotional toll on both you, the parents, and your children. It will be my job to try and help you reduce the future toll on all of you. By explaining my philosophy, it will be clear to you how I intend to work, how I set my priorities, and I hope it will clearly set out your responsibilities and mine in this process.

    As a Special Master, 1 have a multifaceted job in which I am part detective (as parents tell me different stories, it is my job to try and understand the “whole truth”), part educator (I try and help parents understand how to share their children, understand their child's developmental needs, resolve problems, and move on in their lives following the divorce), part mental health professional (1 try and understand your feelings and attitudes about your experiences and understand your childrens’ feelings about their experiences), part judge (I make decisions), and part advocate for your children (their needs will be my first priority in the decisions that 1 make). I will often need to talk with other professionals, such as doctors, therapists, school personnel, or others, and may need to meet with your children to understand their feelings and opinions. The task is a complex yet important one, because of the ongoing dispute between you and the other parent.

    By the time you have decided on a Special Master, you have probably spent thousands of dollars on attorney fees and court costs, and are reluctant to spend more money in this process. It is likely that several thousand dollars were also spent in a custody evaluation before my appointment. My fee is _ per hour for all of the work I do. By your order, I will bill each of you 50% for my services. When you see a bill, it will reflect your personal charges, and an identical bill will have been sent to the other parent. I ask for a retainer of $____ before starting my work, and as I continue my tasks and you incur new fees, I expect bills to be paid by the 15th of the month in which you receive them. If bills are paid promptly, no further retainers will be required, but if not, I reserve the right to request a continuing retainer once the previous retainer is used up. In general, 1 bill for all my services, including phone calls with parents, attorneys, the judge, and other collateral people; letter writing; sessions with parents, children, or anyone else who I might see; and any other peripheral work that I do for your families. If you have any questions about my bill, or any of my charges, please do not hesitate to ask about them. I will charge only one of you for missed sessions, and if the order allows for it, I reserve the right to allocate a different percentage on my billing if it appears that one of you is generating the vast majority of my work. Even with this in mind, most people find that my costs are significantly less than the cost of two attorneys and court costs.

    In order to balance my availability of time, it takes a while to understand your family and its needs. I prefer not to waste your time, your money, or my time and it is my hope that all work in which I am involved is used productively. For some families, this might mean that I do little or no work for several months at a time while things are moving smoothly. For other families, there is an ongoing need to make decisions, provide for conflict resolution, and give direction regarding other problems that you encounter. In general, I respond to phone calls within 24 hours, but if you have an urgent matter, please inform my answering service of the urgency. If you ever wish to leave a very detailed message for me, simply tell the answering service that you would like to put the message yourself into my voice mail, and they will connect you directly to my voice mail. Otherwise, all messages will be taken by my answering service. On occasion, it may take more than 24 hours to return your call, and if it has taken more than 48 hours, please call again, as there could have been some mix-up. There are times when I am out of town or expect to be unavailable for several days, and I generally inform my answering service of all such instances. Although I have no control of whether they communicate this to my clients, I have found that most of the time the answering service will inform you if I am out of town when you call.

    In order to reduce wasted time, I try and determine relatively early whether or not I can provide mediation services that, while somewhat more costly, enable you, as the parents, to make decisions for your children. If it looks rather quickly that you will remain at odds with one another, I will attempt to listen to each of you about your ideas and your concerns on issues pertaining to your children and then make a decision as quickly as possible. Hopefully, this process will feel very different than the court process, which has probably been emotionally and financially costly, and which may have taken months for decisions to be made. In general, when an issue is presented to me, I will make decisions rather quickly. If they are about more complex issues, I will inform you of a deadline in which I intend to make decisions, and then I will make every effort to meet that deadline. By reducing the time it takes me to make decisions, we can reduce fees, and hopefully the emotional and financial costs of your experience.

    In general, the scope of my work is best identified by the court order or stipulation. Typically, Special Masters work to solve disagreements about such issues as schedules, overnight visitation, choice of schools, extracurricular activities, troubles at transfers, holiday scheduling, parenting differences, health issues, children's therapy, and/or problematic behaviors on the part of one or both parents. To the extent that your order allows, I will be happy to address issues related to any of the above, or any similar issue that ultimately affects your children. Under current Contra Costa County Guidelines, if the two of you have stipulated to this Special Master agreement, it is my expectation that, when I make a decision, it is binding. In contrast, if you have been ordered into this Special Master agreement by the court, you have the right of appeal to the judge. Irrelevant of how I was appointed, I would like to set forth my guidelines for making decisions. When you reach an impasse on something, I expect you to contact me and let me know as soon as possible. I will then discuss the matter with each of you, and if there is something in the court order that sets a precedent and helps to define the issue, I will take that into account as I think about my decision. My other priority is to understand how the issue affects your children. I will always look to the impact on your children for any decision that I make before I look to the question of fairness for either of you. Because it is my belief, and California law is clear in its intent, that the “best interests of the children” are paramount, if there is a clear way of determining what is best for your children, I will use that as my first choice.

    If there is no clear understanding how the issue impacts your children, and there is nothing in the order that gives me direction, I am likely to make decisions based on what seems “fair.” In such circumstances, I am likely to alternate between you based on other decisions I have made. Because I keep extensive notes of all my contacts, and a record of all decisions made, it will be easy for me to determine what seems fair once I have been involved with your family. Over time, it is likely that each of you will take turns being pleased with, or being upset with, my decisions. This is an expectation that I have when I start working with high-conflict families of divorce. With that reality in mind, I certainly encourage you to ask questions about my decisions and how I reach them, but I also expect you to learn to accept and go along with them if we want this experience to be more successful than your previous experiences in the courts.

    Finally, it is important to recognize each of our responsibilities in this work. My primary responsibility as Special Master is to help educate the two of you and make decisions that are in your children's best interests. My responsibility is to respond to your calls as quickly as I can, and unless I am out of town, this will usually be within several days. My responsibility will be to set timelines for which I will make decisions, and then make every effort to meet those timelines. Ultimately, my responsibility will be to adhere to the scope of my role as outlined in your court order or stipulation and assist in the process of conflict resolution.

    On the other hand, your responsibility is to keep me informed of your concerns. Although I cannot read your minds, I can read your letters and respond accordingly. If you have questions about the Special Master process or my understanding of your family situation, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you have concerns about the other parent, please do not hesitate to contact me. Although it is my belief that each of you needs to have the opportunity to do the best job of parenting that you can without concern about the other parent's interpretation of your parenting job, it is clear that each of you needs a place and an opportunity for voicing concerns, and I am the one to whom you need to voice them. Another responsibility of yours is to follow both the court's and my orders. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to act in a way that promotes conflict resolution and eases the pain and burden on your children. By statute, it is your responsibility to promote a healthy relationship between your children and the other parent and to avoid interfering in any negative way in that relationship. This is not only part of the California law, but it is clearly in your children's best interests. Finally, as indicated earlier, it is your responsibility to pay your bill on time in order that I can continue working in this capacity with your family.

    It is my hope that, as we work together, we can find a new way of resolving conflicts and moving on in your post-divorce life successfully. If we all work as outlined, I hope that your children can be raised with less emotional trauma than they have already experienced.

    By your signature below, you acknowledge receipt of this letter and agree to pay for all services performed by Dr.___as Special Master for your family.

    In the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Contra Costa

    The parties stipulate that the following agreements may be made an order of the court. Local Court Rule No. 13B sets the policy and procedure for child custody evaluations. This stipulation and order supplements those procedures and policies.

    • ___ is appointed the Court's expert for purposes of conducting a custody evaluation in this proceeding pursuant to Evidence Code §730.
    • The parties shall cooperate in the evaluation. As part of the evaluation, the parties shall participate in such testing and interviews as the expert directs, including making themselves and the children available as needed for testing and interviews. Interview schedules and administrative details of the evaluation are at the sole discretion of the evaluator.
    • The parties shall make financial arrangements with the expert forthwith. The evaluation will not commence until after the parties have made financial arrangements for payment acceptable to the expert.
    • The costs of the evaluation shall be advanced by
      • ____subject to allocation at the time of trial OR
      • Paid in advance as follows:

        _____ _____

        FATHER to pay ($ or %) MOTHER to pay ($ or %)

      Failure to attend scheduled sessions and or failure to cooperate shall be subject to court review in allocating costs or reimbursing the cooperating spouse.

    • No party or attorney for a party shall initiate oral or telephonic contact with the evaluator other than for purposes of scheduling or administrative details, or in response to a request from the evaluator, unless by conference call with both attorneys or pro per party(ies) on the phone simultaneously with the evaluator or all parties and their attorney(s) present. No communication shall be made in writing by any party or their attorney unless data or information in writing or background materials are specifically requested by the evaluator. The parties shall comply with the request of the evaluator for documents or correspondence as long as it is with notice to the other party and his or her attorney and providing that copies of all documents and/or correspondence are provided to all parties or their attorneys. Only documents as specifically requested are to be provided, and all parties shall have an opportunity to rebut or present opposing documents on a time schedule to be set by the evaluator with copies provided to the other party and/or his or her attorney. A person in propria persona shall have no advantage by his or her status to speak to the evaluator without the represented party being included in the communication as part of the process. Any such communication shall be limited to relevant issues or facts about which the evaluator has specifically requested information. The same process shall be utilized in the event the evaluator wishes to initiate contact with a party in propria persona or the attorney(s). The evaluator is free to ask for whatever information or documents are felt appropriate and necessary to conduct the evaluation. All parties and the evaluator are free to call each other about scheduling or other nonsubstantive matters. The evaluator is free to call any witnesses he or she wishes in order to get information about the evaluation, but any documents supplied as a result of the inquiry shall be copied to all other parties and/or their attorneys. Nothing in this section shall preclude the evaluator from calling a party or any witness to clarify a point raised during an interview or to answer questions as needed to corroborate information or to complete the evaluation. That contact is at the evaluator's sole discretion. The evaluator may conduct individual interviews or sessions as he or she sees fit.
    • At the conclusion of the evaluation, the expert shall prepare a written report. An original shall be sent to the Family Court Services with copies to the court and both counsel. Pending further order of court, counsel for the parties may permit their clients to read and review the report in the presence of the attorney. Parties in propria persona may review and read the report at Family Court Services. No party may be provided a copy of the report without court order. No report may be attached to a pleading without leave of the court. Any violation of this provision may be the subject of sanctions and/or contempt to the attorneys and their clients.
    • The parties are restrained and enjoined from discussing the evaluation or the written report with the children or discussing the report and evaluation in the presence of the children.
    • The parties are enjoined and restrained from discussing in the presence of or with their minor children specific facts, issues, or positions relating to custody or visitation in a manner that disparages the other party or with the intent to influence the child with respect to custody and/or visitation.
    • As part of the evaluation, by executing this stipulation, the parties waive the psychotherapist-patient privilege as to the children's therapist(s), section 1014 Evidence Code. The parties are also waiving any psychotherapist-patient privilege as it relates to their own therapist(s). If the children's therapist wishes to raise the privilege on behalf of his or her patient(s) because of a concern relating to the best interests of the minor child/children, the therapist may request and obtain an in camera hearing with the court for purposes of showing why otherwise confidential information should not be disclosed. If there is a conflict relating to the release of information, the court may appoint an attorney for the children to protect and represent the children in the proceeding limited to the release of information, or for such other purposes as the court deems appropriate. If the court appoints an attorney for the children or if there is an attorney for the children, the attorney may also raise the issue of privilege and disclosure as set forth above. The judicial officer hearing the in camera proceeding relating to privilege shall not be the same judicial officer that will hear the trial or other matters in the case. The best interest of the child/children shall be the criterion for determining whether the questionable information should be released to the evaluator or to determine the terms and conditions of the release and use of information presented.
    • The court reserves jurisdiction over the evaluation process to resolve any disputes that may arise. The attorneys and/or party(ies) in propria persona shall meet and confer prior to contacting the court for resolution over problems that arise during the evaluation. If the dispute is not resolved, the parties shall schedule a conference call with the court giving the court at least two (2) days advance notice. If the parties wish to submit documents in writing, a formal hearing may be scheduled in the usual manner, which may or may not include an order shortening time for hearing.
    • Any violation of the above provisions may be cause for monetary sanctions or may be punishable by contempt, or both.

    So Stipulated


    Superior Court of California, County of Marin

    Pursuant to the stipulation of the parties hereinafter set forth, and good cause appearing therefor,


    • ____ is appointed Special Master under Evidence Code §730, Code of Civil Procedure § 1280, et seq., and Code of Civil Procedure §638 until resignation of____ or written agreement of the parties, further Court Order, or ____, whichever first occurs.
    • This appointment is based on the expertise of the Special Master as a licensed mental health professional. The Special Master shall have authority to make decisions on the following issues:
    • [ ] Legal custody of minor child(ren)
    • [ ] Physical custody of minor child(ren)
    • [ ] Time-sharing/visitation actual schedule
    • [ ] Vacation and holiday schedule
    • [ ] Education and schooling
    • [ ] Child care, day care, and baby-sitting
    • [ ] Religious training, affiliation, and attendance
    • [ ] Daily routines and issues: bedtime, diet, etc.
    • [ ] Restraining orders
    • [ ] Clothing use and allocation
    • [ ] Recreation
    • [ ] After-school and enrichment activities
    • [ ] Discipline
    • [ ] Health care issues
    • [ ] Other
    Quasi-Judicial Immunity

    The Special Master is a Court Officer/Referee. The Special Master has quasi-judicial immunity. The Special Master cannot be sued based on his or her actions in this matter. The Special Master cannot be compelled to testify and is not subject to subpoena pursuant to Evidence Code §703.5. However, the Special Master may choose to testify if the Court so requests, or upon application of the Special Master to the Judge notifying the Court of the Special Master's desire to testify. Such testimony shall not constitute a waiver of the Special Master's quasi-judicial immunity.


    Both parties shall participate in the dispute resolution process as defined by the Special Master and shall be present when so requested by the Special Master. The Special Master shall conduct hearings as an Arbitrator, that is, they may be informal in nature, can be by telephone or in person, and need not comply with the rules of evidence. No record need be made, except the Special Master's statement of decision or order. Upon the request of either party, the Special Master shall allow testimony to be taken or either party to be represented by an attorney, or other actions required by Arbitrators.

    The Special Master shall have the authority to determine the protocol of all interviews and sessions including, in the case of meetings with the parties, the power to determine who attends such meetings. The Special Master may order the child(ren) of the parents to participate in adjunct services including physical and psychological examinations and assessments and psychotherapy; alcohol and drug monitoring/testing and___

    The Special Master may utilize consultants and/or assistants as necessary to assist the Special Master in the performance of the duties contained herein.


    If the Special Master is appointed by agreement, then, unless his or her powers are limited in some way by the agreement, or unless the agreement provides for an alternate method of judicial review, the Special Master may make all decisions subject to the following forms of judicial review.

    • If the decisions relate to conflicts between parents that do not substantially affect the best interests of the children, the Special Master may make direct orders, approved as made by the court, and reviewed only by a standard of abuse of discretion. These orders will be effective when made, and continue in effect until set aside by a court of competent jurisdiction. These types of decisions include, but are not limited to, dates and times of pickup and delivery for visitation/time-share, division of vacations and holidays, method of pickup and delivery, transportation to and from visitation, participation in visitation (significant others, relatives, etc.), child-related issues such as participation in the selection and provision of child care, day care, and baby-sitting, bedtime, diet, clothing, recreation, after-school and enrichment activities, discipline, health care and management, and alterations in schedule that do not alter the basic time-sharing arrangement or percentage.
    • If the decision relates to any other issue of parenting or time-share that does not substantially alter the previous time-share, does not alter an award of physical or legal custody, or does not substantially interfere with a party's relationship with his or her child(ren), the decision shall be made by statement of decision or arbitrator's award. Such types of decisions include, but are not limited to, large alterations of vacation and holiday time-shares, religion and religious training, private school education, mental health care and management, or major health decisions. The decisions shall be submitted to the court, which shall approve them as made and enter them as orders. These decisions may be reviewed on such grounds as would permit review if the underlying decision had been made by a subordinate judicial officer or referee, that is, by the filing of objections that set out the issues to which exception is taken, and the filing of a motion comparable to a motion for new trial under C.C.P. §57. The motion may be made to the Special Master or to the Superior Court and shall be determined in the same manner as a motion for new trial. The statement of decision/arbitrator's award is effective when made and remains in effect until set aside or altered by a court of competent jurisdiction.
    • If the decision alters an award of physical or legal custody, substantially alters a previous time-share, substantially interferes with a party's relationship with his or her child(ren), or allows one parent to move with the children to a distance that would interfere with currently existing time-share arrangements, the decision shall be approved by the court. The decision is not effective until entered by the court as an order, and may be presented in the form of an Order to Show Cause why the recommendation should not be adopted. The objecting party shall carry the burden of proof as to why the recommendation should not be adopted.
    • Hearings granted to review the decisions of a Special Master should, in general, be submitted on declaration, subject to cross-examination, as any other family law motion, unless oral testimony is requested pursuant to local rules.
    Communication with Special Master
    • The parties and their attorneys shall have the right to initiate or receive ex parte communication with the Special Master. Any party may initiate contact in writing with the Special Master, provided that copies are provided to opposing counsel simultaneously.
    • The Special Master may communicate ex parte with the Judge, at the discretion of the Special Master and the Judge. The Special Master may request that the Judge appoint counsel for the child(ren).
    • The parties shall provide all records, documentation, and information requested by the Special Master, and if unavailable, shall sign any and all releases for records and information requested by the Special Master.
    • [ ] counsel for [ ] Petitioner [ ] Respondent shall provides copies of all:
      • [ ] pleadings
      • [ ] orders
      • [ ] correspondence (between____)

    related to the issue assigned within___calendar days of the date this order is filed.

    Data Collection

    Special Master may interview all members of the immediate or extended family of both parties.

    Special Master may interview and request the participation of other persons who the Special Master deems to have relevant information or to be useful participants.

    The parties consent to release of records and information from and shall sign appropriate releases there for:

    • child(ren)'s current/previous pediatrician
    • child(ren)'s current/previous psychologist/psychiatrist
    • child(ren)'s current/previous teachers
    • hospital and medical records

      child(ren)'s current/previous physician

      mother's current/previous physician

      father's current/previous physician

    • police department
    • mediator
    • prior Special Master(s)
    • mother's current/previous therapist
    • father's current/previous therapist
    • custody evaluator(s)
    • other
    Child(Ren)'s Therapist

    The Special Master is appointed guardian ad litem of minor child(ren) for limited purposes of whether any minor child(ren)'s therapeutic privilege should be waived by the court for the purpose of obtaining information [the testimony] from the child(ren)'s therapist.

    • The Special Master may obtain information from the child(ren)'s therapist outside the presence of the parties and their counsel.
    • The Special Master may refuse to disclose to the parties the details of the information received from the child(ren)'s therapist if revealing the information will be detrimental to the child(ren) or the child(ren)'s therapy.
    • This waiver of the therapeutic privilege shall not extend to any other proceedings except those before the Special Master and may not be used to compel the therapist to testify in court.

    Charges and Costs

    The Special Master's fee for serving as Special Master is $___ per ___ minute period (per session). Time spent in interviewing, report preparation, review of records and correspondence, telephone conversation, travel, court preparation, and any other time invested in association with serving as Master other than for court appearances and settlement conferences will also be billed at the $___ per session rate. The Special Master's fee for court appearances and settlement conferences is $___ per session while in court and at the conference and $___ per session travel time to and from his or her office.

    It is understood that despite the fact that the Special Master may prepare reports and/or testify in support of one party, both parties will continue to be responsible for the payment of fees associated with such services at the allocated percentage designed below. In the event that the testimony and/or written report of the Special Master is required for any hearing, settlement conference, or court action by one or both parties, the Special Master's fees for such services shall be paid by both parties, in advance, according to an estimate provided by the Special Master, according to the specified share of cost percentages. Ultimately, the court shall determine the proper allocation between the parties of the fees of the Special Master for such services and may require reimbursement by one party to the other for any overpayment to the Special Master.

    The Special Master shall be reimbursed for any expenses he or she incurs in association with his or her role as Special Master. These costs may include, but are not limited to, the following: photocopies ($___/page), messenger service, long-distance telephone charges, express and/or certified mail costs and excess postage to foreign countries, parking, tolls, mileage, travel expenses, and word processing ($___/hour).

    Payment shall be expected at the time services are rendered and must be made no later than___ business days from the receipt of an oral or written statement from the Special Master of the outstanding balance unless otherwise approved by the Special Master, in order to avoid an interruption of services and/or letter to both attorneys and/or the court regarding noncooperation and/or any other relevant action deemed necessary by the Special Master. The Special Master shall provide written monthly billing statements to both parties.

    Prior to the initial interview, the parties will provide the Special Master with an advance deposit totaling $___. This advance deposit (without accrued interest) shall be returned to the parties after the Special Master has received a letter from both attorneys that his or her services are no longer being enlisted and requesting return of the deposit balance. This deposit will not serve as an advance retainer, in that the aforementioned fees will not be drawn against it, unless there has been a failure to pay the Special Master's fees. In the event either party fails to pay the Special Master's fees, the entire advance deposit may be used by the Special Master to cover the outstanding balance of either or both parties, regardless of their percentage contribution.

    Any objection to the Special Master's bills must be brought to his or her attention in written form within___ business days of the billing date; otherwise the billing shall be deemed agreed to.

    The parties assign to Special Master a lien in the amount of his or her fees.

    In the event that arbitration proceedings or a legal action becomes necessary to enforce any provision of this order the nonprevailing party shall pay attorney's fees and costs as may be incurred. The Special Master may proceed by noticed motion to the court in the event his or her fees are not timely paid.


    Except as otherwise provided herein, the fees of the Special Maser shall be shared by the parties in the following manner:

    ____shall pay ___% of the Special Master's fees, expenses, and advance deposit, and____shall pay___% of the Special Master's fees, expenses, and advance deposit.

    The Special Master shall have the right to allocate payment of his or her fees at a percentage different from the above if he or she believes the need for his or her services is attributable to the conduct and/or intransigence of one party.

    Telephone calls to the Special Master by either party are part of the process and appropriately paid for by the parties according to their percentage share as ordered, unless otherwise determined by the Special Master.

    In the event that either party fails to provide twenty-four (24) hours telephone notice of cancellation of any appointment with the Special Master, such party shall pay all of the Special Master's charges of such missed appointment at the full hourly rate, at the discretion of the Special Master.


    The Special Master may be disqualified on any of the grounds applicable to the removal of a Judge, Referee, or Arbitrator.

    The Special Master's decision or action taken may be vacated or corrected on any of the applicable grounds specified in C.C.P. § 641, 1286.2, and 1286.6.

    Any complaints or grievances from either party regarding the performance or actions of the Special Master shall be dealt with according to the following procedure:

    • A person having a complaint or grievance regarding the Special Master/Expert must discuss the matter with the Special Master/Expert in person before pursuing it in any other manner.
    • If, after discussion, the party decides to pursue a complaint, he or she must then submit a written letter detailing the complaint or grievance to the Special Master, to the other party, to both parties’ attorneys (if any), and to the attorney for the child(ren), if one exists. The Special Master/Expert will then provide a written response of the grievance to both parties, both attorneys, and the attorney for the child(ren).
    • The Special Master will then meet with the complaining party and his or her attorney (if any), to discuss the matter. The complaining party must then submit a letter to the Special Master stating that the grievance is satisfactorily resolved, or detailing the reasons why the grievance is not resolved, within ten (10) business days of the above meeting. If the grievance is resolved, no further action shall then be taken regarding the grievance by the complaining party.
    • If the grievance is not resolved, a meeting to include all involved attorneys, both parties, and the Special Master shall then occur. Subsequent to this meeting, the complaining party must submit a letter to the Special Master stating that the grievance is resolved or listing the reasons why it is not, within ten (10) business days from the date of this meeting.
    • If the grievance or complaint is not resolved after this joint meeting, the complaining party may proceed by noticed motion to the court for removal of the Special Master/Expert as specified above.
    • Complaints and grievances referred to above shall include, but not be limited to, allegations of bias, unethical conduct, unfair billing practices, overcharges, unprofessional conduct, “malpractice,” or any other complaints regarding the performance of the duties of the Special Master/Expert.

    The Special Master may submit a bill to reflect his or her time and costs involved in defending against the complaint, which shall be paid by the parties within ten (10) days of receipt thereof.

    The court shall reserve jurisdiction to determine if either or both parties and/or the Special Master shall ultimately be responsible for any portions or all of said Special Master/Expert's time and costs spent in responding to the grievance and the Special Master's attorney's fees, if any.

    Substitution of Special Master

    The Special Master may resign at any time he or she determines the resignation to be in the best interests of the children or the Special Master is unable to serve out his or her term, upon thirty (30) days written notice to the parties. The remaining term of the Special Master shall remain in full force and effect and shall be filled by a new Special Master unless otherwise mutually agreed by the parties, or unless the Special Master determines that the Special Master process is not in the best interests of the child(ren). Upon notice of impending resignation, the Special Master shall recommend to the parties at least three (3) qualified Special Masters. The new Special Master shall be chosen by agreement of the parties or, if the parties are unable to agree, the Judge to whom the case is assigned shall choose a new Special Master to fulfill the remaining term of this stipulation.

    Appendix 2: Sample Questions to Ask Parents

    General Questions during the Evaluation

    Why are we here?—Used to generate discussion about all of the issues, especially the conflict between the parents. In almost all evaluations, it is the first question I ask parents in the initial individual interview. From that single question, I find myself asking other leading questions based on the information that I hear. Sometimes in the first interview, there is no other formal question asked, as I take the answers from the parent and go where they lead me.

    What was your marriage like before the problems began?—Gets the parents talking about their historical relationship with the ex-spouse. It provides an opportunity to find out if there were times of peace before the discord and to find out when things started to go awry.

    Tell me about your children.—Obviously, used to begin talking about the children. I often ask this question when a parent is in the middle of complaining about the other parent. In this context, I use the question to see if the parent can stop talking about flaws in the other parent. Look for changes in affect; for example, does the parent smile more and relax when talking about the children, or stay angry and demeaning?

    What do you like about (other parent)?—Again, often used to see if the parent can focus on anything positive about the other parent.

    How does your arguing with (other parent) affect (child)?—Gives a clue to parents’ ability to understand the effects of the couple's conflict on the children.

    How do you suppose your feelings about (other parent) affect your child?—Provides sense of parents’ ability for insight into this issue.

    Given what you say, I don't understand why you stayed married to (other parent).—Used to confront some of the issues being raised. See if the parent can accept any responsibility for problems between them.

    What do you sometimes do to contribute to the problems between you and (other parent)?—Same as above.

    Questions regarding Parent-Child Relationship and Parenting Strengths and Weaknesses

    What does (child) need?—Gives overview of parents’ ability to conceptualize and verbalize their child's many needs, including the need for a relationship with the other parent. I try and use the answer to that question to confront something that I have heard in other interviews, especially with parents who tend to idealize themselves or their children. Useful in determining which parents truly understand children and their needs as opposed to those parents who want to control, hurt, or punish the other parent by taking the child away from them. Pay special attention to parents who answer this question by staying focused on the negative qualities of the other parent rather than their own positive understanding of the children.

    What gives you pleasure as a parent?—Gives a clue about how the parent benefits from the relationship with the children.

    What were your mother's (father's) good qualities as a parent?—Gives a clue to the feelings associated with the parenting that each parent received and some insight into the relationship between the parenting received and the parenting given.

    What were your mother's (father's) bad qualities as a parent?—Same as above.

    Tell me about (describe) your children.—As before, look for affective indicators of joy in the parent-child relationship.

    Tell me about a typical day when the children are with you.—Helps to understand about the structure a parent follows, if there are typical times for meals, bedtime, rules, and so forth.

    What are some things you would like to change about (child)?—Helps find out about the relationship with the child, openness regarding problems, or idealization of the child, a sign of defensiveness.

    What are some of your rules that (child) doesn't like?—Same as above.

    How do you discipline (child)?—Same as above.

    What can you do to make things better for (child)?—Same as above.

    What would you like to change as a parent?—Gives a clue to parents’ willingness to look inward regarding their flaws.

    What concerns, if any, do you have about (other parent's) relationship with (child)?—Gives the parent an opportunity to express his or her concerns.

    What can (other parent) do to satisfy those concerns?—Gives a clue to a parent's ability to view the other parent as capable of growth and change.

    What will (child) need in 5 years? In 10 years?—shows parents’ ability to look forward to the future developmental changes of their child.

    How is (child's) health?—Obvious.

    What are your child's favorite activities and interests?—Gives a clue to parents’ knowledge of child's activities and interest. Used to compare what parents say about the child with the child's own description of favorite activities and interests.

    What makes (child) feel sad (happy, excited, scared, worried, etc.)?—Gives a clue to the parents’ ability to understand the child's feelings and respond on a feeling level with their child.

    What is your child's favorite foods? What is the bath routine in your house? What is the bedtime routine in your house? Where does your child sleep? Tell me about your child's early development. Were there any problems with toilet training? Does your child have any speech problems or show other signs of regression or anxiety? Has your child started to play with friends?—Typical questions I ask parents of children of preschool age in order to understand their ability to deal with age-appropriate issues.

    How does your child like school (teachers)? How does your child get along with his peers? How does your child express himself if he's angry? Is your child afraid to be alone for a short time? Does your child have nightmares or other signs of emotional distress? Has your child started to sleep over at friends’ houses? How does your child follow rules (deal with authority)?—Typical questions I ask parents of school-age children in order to understand their ability to deal with age-appropriate issues.

    How does your child deal with authority ? Do you think your child is excited (afraid) to get more independent? Does your child push your rules and limits very much? Is your child open to talking with you about sex (drugs, peers, school, etc.)? Is your child responsible for her age? Does your child have any ideas what she will do when she is finished with high school? Does your child have a job outside the home?—Typical questions I ask parents of adolescents in order to understand their ability to deal with age-appropriate issues.

    Questions about the Coparenting Relationship

    How do you and (other parent) make decisions about school (doctors, vacations, religious training, etc.)?—Explores the ability to make joint decisions, or not, between the parents on behalf of the children.

    When you were married, how did you make decisions about school (doctors, vacations, religious training, etc.)?—Explores any change in the coparenting relationship from when they were married.

    How are the rules in your household the same (or different from) the rules in (other parent's) household?—Gives clue to the way in which the parents are aware of the style of parenting in the other parent's household and whether there are major differences that the child must encounter during transitions.

    When you try to talk with (other parent) about (child), what happens?—Gives a clue to the quality of the communication between parents.

    If you have school or medical information for (other parent) about (child), how does it get to him or her?—Provides an idea of the style of sharing information (over the phone, in writing, through the child, or not at all).

    How does (child) treat you in front of (other parent)?—Gives a clue to the quality of the child's loyalty conflicts when the parents are together.

    Who attends (child's) events and how does (child) deal with it when you and (other parent) are at the same event?—Same as above.

    From material I have heard from the other parent or the children, I will always ask questions to confront things I have heard from each parent. This is critical in my understanding of truth for the family.

    What can you do to help disengage from (other parent) to help your children?—A good clue for how each parent understands this necessary step for ending the conflict.

    What can you do to share in the parenting with (other parent) more cooperatively?—Indicates how each parent understands this next step in cooperative parenting.

    Final Question

    Finally, at the end of my last interview, I always ask the following:

    We've talked about a lot of things. Is there anything else you want me to know or is there anything you would like to ask me?—Gives parents a last opportunity to make sure I know everything that is important to them and to ask me questions that are on their minds. For those parents who are extremely critical, it usually gives them one last time to criticize the other parent. For those who are child focused, it gives them a final opportunity to express feelings and thoughts about their children and their needs.

    Appendix 3: Sample Questions to Ask Children

    Do you know my name? Why you are here? Do you know what I do (what psychologists do)? What did your mom (dad) tell you about me? How do you feel about being here?—The first questions I ask children are used to break the ice, to provide the children with some information about me and what they are here for, and to begin to understand if their parents have been open with them or have given them propaganda about the evaluation. I am quite suspect when I hear in the first few moments statements about custody (e.g., “I want to live with my mom”), especially when I am asking these quite general questions.

    Where do you go to school? What grade are you in? How are your grades? What do you like (dislike) about school?—Gets the focus off of the divorce, turning it onto the child's own life.

    Who is your best friend? Tell me something about your friends. What do you like to do with your friends?—Same as above.

    What are some of your favorite activities? Do you play any sports (music)? What are some things that you love to do? What are some things that you sometimes have to do that you don't like doing? Do you have any favorite video games (TV shows, movies, etc.)?—Same as above.

    Who gets you up in the morning? Who else is up then? How do you get breakfast? How do you get ready for school? How do you get to school?—Basic questions about the morning routine.

    How do you get home from school? What do you usually do after school? When do you do your homework? Who helps you with (or supervises) your homework?—Basic questions about the after-school routine.

    What time is dinner? Who fixes dinner? Where do you eat dinner and with whom?—Basic questions about the evening routine.

    What time is bedtime? What do you do to get ready for bed? Does anyone read to you at bedtime?—Basic questions about the bedtime routine.

    Do you know what divorce means? How do you feel about your parents’ divorce?—Gives a clue to the child's understanding of divorce and how much parents or friends talk about divorce. This question helps to begin an understanding of the child's feelings about the parents’ divorce.

    Tell me something you like (don't like) about mom (dad).—May indicate the child's ability to talk openly about feelings toward each parent. Very important in understanding the nature of the child's psychological splitting of parents into good and bad, if any.

    Who do you talk to when you get scared (worried, happy, etc.)?—Gives a clue to the emotional connectedness of the child with either parent and/or other people in the child's life.

    How do you know when mom (dad) is mad? sad? worried? happy?—Indicates how parents express their feelings.

    What does your mom (dad) do to help with homework?—Gives a clue to the parent-child relationships.

    What happens when you get mad at your mom (dad)?—Same as above.

    What does your mom (dad) do when she gets mad at you?—Same as above.

    What kinds of punishments does your mom (dad) use?—Same as above.

    How do you feel when your mom says bad things about your dad (and vice versa)?—Gives a good clue about how the child handles angry parents and loyalty conflicts. My question assumes that this goes on. In those instances when it does not, the children are quick to tell me so.

    How do your parents treat/feel about each other?—similar to above; also gives a clue to how much parental stress or animosity the child witnesses.

    If there was one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?—Provides an opportunity to assess self-esteem, fantasy life, and other inner feelings of the child.

    If you could have three wishes for anything in the world, what would you wish for?—Same as above.

    If there was one thing you could change about your mom (dad), what would it be?—Gives a further clue to the parent-child relationship. (Asked again when seen conjointly with parent.)

    How do you like to spend your time with your mom (dad)?—Same as above. (Asked again when seen conjointly with parent.)

    Do you and your mom (dad) have any favorite things to do together?—Same as above. (Asked again when seen conjointly with parent.)

    What ideas do you have about how to split your time with mom and dad?—Gives a clue to the child(ren)'s thoughts about this question, without asking with whom they want to live. Especially useful for older latency, preadolescent, and adolescent children who have their own thoughts and ideas and may want the evaluator to hear them.

    With young children, I tend to ask fewer questions and to observe them more in their play. I use a dollhouse to set up various situations and encourage their interaction. By observing their affect and their play responses, I get a clue to parental availability and emotionality. If there are siblings, I ask similar questions about sibling relationships, differences in their perceptions of how the parents treat each of them, and the amount of support the siblings provide one another.

    In addition to the questions that I ask children and parents when seen together, I often encourage them to engage in an activity together (such as play with Legos, draw a picture, play a board game, or do some other task). This gives me a chance to directly see their one-on-one interaction and support of one another, as well as the parent's level of directiveness or freedom toward the child. Sometimes I see parents who claim to be active participants with their child who have little idea how to freely interact with their child in my office. While doing all of this, I look for clues to the affection between the parent and child and how much their interaction resembles what both parents and child have been telling me.

    Appendix 4: Sample Reports

    The following are two entire sample reports from custody evaluations that I have completed. They are presented to give readers a sense of how reports flow from beginning to end. As with all other examples, names have been changed and dates omitted to protect confidentiality.

    Sample 1
    Custody Evaluation
    Name:Cooper, Judy and Jim
    Dates of evaluation:
    Evaluated by:Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D.
    Referral Information

    This evaluation was requested in order to assist in diagnostic understanding and to aid in determination of appropriate custody and visitation planning for minor children Meredith, age 12 (b._/_/_) and Kristen, age 7 (b._/_/_).

    Brief Background and History

    According to information available to me, Meredith and Kristen currently spend one week with each of their parents and have been on a similar schedule since the parental separation in 19_. History reveals that Mr. and Ms. Cooper met when Ms. Cooper was married to another man and that their affair produced a pregnancy with Meredith. Soon after Meredith was born, Ms. Cooper and Meredith went to Baltimore with Ms. Cooper's first husband but they separated and divorced, and Ms. Cooper came back to California. This couple was married in 19_, and Kristen was conceived soon thereafter. Apparently, the marriage was never a good one, and within 3 years Mr. Cooper had filed for divorce after Ms. Cooper alleged that he was physically abusive to her. Mr. Cooper denies all allegations of physical abuse made by Ms. Cooper.

    Both Mr. and Ms. Cooper report that things were going reasonably well for a while. However, each gives a different story as to what began to go wrong. Ms. Cooper indicated that she developed concerns about Mr. Cooper's functioning and that circumstances in her life caused her to want to move up north. She was working toward establishing herself in business, living up north while the children were at their father's and then living back here when the children were with her. This past summer, she wanted to move up north, but Mr. Cooper blocked this because of their joint custody. Over the next few months, problems continued to increase, with Ms. Cooper alleging renewed abuse by Mr. Cooper and Mr. Cooper being frustrated by his perception of her anger at him. Whereas Ms. Cooper is beginning to express concerns about moderately neglectful behavior by Mr. Cooper, Mr. Cooper is concerned that she is attempting to alienate the children from him and is creating a situation in which the girls are reluctant to love him as they used to. Each is beginning to blame the other for the problems that the girls are experiencing, and each reports different kinds of problems with the girls at this time.

    In order to better understand all of this and assist in determination of appropriate custody, visitation, and other possible needs for the children, this evaluation was requested.

    Evaluation Procedure
    • Conjoint interview, Mr. and Ms. Cooper, _/_/_.
    • Individual interviews, Mr. Cooper, _/_/_ and _/_/_.
    • Individual interviews, Ms. Cooper, _/_/_ and _/_/_.
    • Conjoint interviews, Meredith and Kristen, _/_/_ and _/_/_.

    Phone calls with attorneys; Dr. Jones, therapist; and Ms. Julia Smith, mediator.

    Review of written materials supplied by Mr. and Ms. Cooper.

    In addition to the above, I administered the following psychological tests to each of Mr. and Ms. Cooper:

    • Bender Gestalt
    • Projective drawings
    • Rorschach
    • MMPI
    Psychodiagnostic Interpretation

    Ms. Cooper presented as a generally cooperative, somewhat frustrated woman who expressed many concerns about Mr. Cooper and his relationship with the girls. As she talked, affect was somewhat anxious, but she maintained relatively good eye contact with me. For the most part, she expressed a great deal of concern about Mr. Cooper and seemed to suggest that he was responsible for most of the problems between them. On the other hand, she was able to acknowledge that sometimes she can be stubborn and unwilling to compromise. She also acknowledges that she possibly overreacts at times, as well.

    Ms. Cooper presented two major themes about her concerns regarding Mr. Cooper. First, she is concerned that he has been controlling and emotionally and physically abusive to her throughout their relationship. She expressed concerns about two incidents of physical abuse, one at the time she separated from him and one quite recently. (Please note that Mr. Cooper has denied both of these allegations.) Even more than this, however, she presented a strong case of emotional badgering and control that she felt she has experienced throughout their relationship. She expressed frustration that this has been very difficult for her and that it has taken her a considerable amount of time to recognize that he is wrong when he is badgering her and that she no longer needs to put up with his emotional abuse.

    It is Ms. Cooper's assertion that Mr. Cooper also treats the girls in this demeaning and controlling way and that, just as he never listened to her feelings, he doesn't listen to theirs, either. She believes this because of things the girls tell her as they frequently complain about him to her in this way. She fears for the girls because she knows how difficult this was for her as an adult, and she believes it must be even harder for the girls, who are children.

    Along with this, Ms. Cooper expressed concern that Mr. Cooper does not provide reasonable structure for the girls. Although she is not claiming that he is negligent, she does not trust his judgment. For example, he will let Kristen and a friend skate to the park by themselves, which she feels is unacceptable. She is fearful that he allows them to engage in behavior that ends up risky, especially with problems in today's society. In contrast, she would rather they be left alone in their home, where she feels they are under less risk. She described an incident in which the girls and some friends were at Mr. Cooper's river cabin and a man exposed himself to the girls. Although she acknowledges that Mr. Cooper's response was appropriate (apparently he yelled at him and was very upset with the man, and he was very comforting to the girls), she believes that he does not prevent such problems by paying attention to where they are and what they are doing sufficiently. In general, Ms. Cooper would rather that Mr. Cooper use better judgment to prevent any risk to the girls.

    Ms. Cooper also indicated that the girls have frequently expressed frustration to her that they spend too much time with their paternal grandmother. Although they enjoy some of their time with their grandmother, they express that it is too much time. She also said that the girls are frustrated that their grandmother is sometimes mean to them, as they report that she calls them names, and so forth. Ms. Cooper feels that Mr. Cooper's business comes First and that he is not as focused on the girls and their needs as she is. She made it clear that much of this is the result of things the girls say to her rather than her own perceptions of Mr. Cooper. In spite of this, she acknowledged that she has had her own conflicts with Mr. Cooper's mother for years, as she used to feel that her former mother-in-law would simply intrude too much in their lives. Ms. Cooper currently feels that Mr. Cooper will listen to his mother more than to her about the girls. Thus, although Ms. Cooper asserts that these issues are the children's and not hers, it is clear that she harbors a tremendous amount of resentment toward Mr. Cooper and his mother for their behavior during and since the marriage.

    Ms. Cooper indicated that she originally did not want to make a big deal about these issues and has not wanted to change the custody arrangement until now. She says that she always regretted the fact that she was a party to her older son (currently age 21) having little to do with his father (her former husband). She does not want to take the girls away from their father, nor does she want to be perceived as such; she just wishes that things could change. She acknowledges that Mr. Cooper has wanted to try therapy as a way to solve some of the problems, but she does not trust him. He had picked a previous therapist several years ago, and Ms. Cooper felt betrayed by both Mr. Cooper and the therapist. Thus, although she will go along with therapy at this time, she wants to make sure that he is not in control of it. In fact, she acknowledges that it may be necessary for some therapeutic assistance to focus on the girls’ wishes and concerns.

    The more Ms. Cooper talked about some of the issues, the more balanced she sounded. Although there was a way in which she initially sounded histrionic as it related to her concerns regarding Mr. Cooper, as she began to talk about the children and their feelings she certainly seemed more in touch with their needs. For example, she said that Mr. Cooper will often refuse to allow the girls to call her, and she believes that this is wrong. Second, she feels that adults do not listen to the girls and their feelings very much, and that the real outcome of this evaluation must be that the children feel heard. She talked about Meredith's and Kristen's anxiety and stress and focused on some symptoms that she believes reflect this anxiety. She talked of her perception that there is too much instability in their lives, caused not only by the shared custody arrangement, but by her perception of the instability in Mr. Cooper's own life. She reports that, all too often, the children spend the night overnight or very late at night at their grandmother's because of Mr. Cooper's work. She described the girls’ perception that their father is inconsistent and tends to have angry outbursts. Ms. Cooper is quite concerned about all of this and does not feel that there is any stability in his life. As she talked about these concerns, affect was more appropriate and there was a much less histrionic quality to her description of these concerns. Similarly, she showed a good understanding of the children's need to have a good relationship with their father; she just wishes that he was more in touch with their feelings and less prone to outbursts.

    As she talked more about the children and their needs, she expressed the belief that they must learn to feel good about themselves. She is concerned that they feel powerless about their situation in life. That is one of the main reasons she hopes that they get listened to in this evaluation. She recognizes that the children probably do need therapy, and she would be more than happy to participate in such therapy as long as it is not controlled by Mr. Cooper. She seemed to understand that it is up to each parent to work out with the girls the things that they do wrong. She believes she tries to understand the children and their feelings, but fears that their father does not. Ultimately, Ms. Cooper believes that the children need consistency, stability, and fairness in their lives.

    Ms. Cooper grew up in a family of five children. Her father was in the military. Apparently, he was very authoritarian, and as a child, she grew up hating authority. She described two different periods of her childhood in which things were very different. Prior to age 13, she said that her mother was very responsible and “taught me to have lots of self-respect.” However, around age 13, her father began philandering, and her mother began drinking. She acknowledges that this led to a lot of conflict for her and probably contributed to some of the inconsistencies she has had in her own personal life. However, she believes that she is trying to move forward in her life and let things be so that the children can grow more naturally. She also seems to recognize that some of the frustration and anger that she felt in her childhood is likely to impact her feelings toward Mr. Cooper, especially as it relates to her perception of his control and demands.

    Clinically, based on all available information, Ms. Cooper presents somewhat of a mixed picture. On the surface, she shows evidence of mild anxiety and insecurity. She tends to struggle with issues of control and passivity, which is probably contributing greatly to her difficulties in her relationship with Mr. Cooper. There is a mildly histrionic quality to the way she approaches him, though there is no evidence that she is like this in general. She has a tendency to lack insight into her emotions and appears to be mildly constricted regarding her own emotions.

    Underneath, however, she also shows evidence of strong feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy in comparison to others. This shows up largely in her Rorschach responses, and I suspect it also contributes to the ways in which she feels so vulnerable as it relates to the girls’ structure with their father. There is a tendency on her part to project her own feelings onto the children, especially as they relate to Mr. Cooper. In many ways, it is difficult for her to see her own role in the problems with Mr. Cooper. In spite of this, there is evidence that she shows good awareness and understanding of the children's feelings. Together, this mixture makes it somewhat difficult to separate her own needs and feelings from theirs. I see no evidence that she is alienating the children from their father. I do suspect that as the children express their concerns to her, she exaggerates these concerns in her own mind because of her own issues.

    Mr. Cooper presented as a generally friendly, cooperative man who also was reasonably anxious throughout the interviews. As he talked, he was somewhat defensive, noting that he has been put on the defensive by many of Ms. Cooper's allegations. In general, he denies all allegations that he is physically abusive, either to her or the girls, and denies allegations that he has been neglectful of the girls. He acknowledged a couple of incidents in which Ms. Cooper alleged abuse, but he indicated that she was assaultive of him and then blamed him for being assaultive. He feels that she often overreacts to situations and that this makes it very difficult for him a lot of the time. He believes that he has been a good father to the girls, and although he acknowledges frustration and insecurity in being a single parent and that he has made mistakes at times, he feels that overall both he and Ms. Cooper are relatively equal in their parenting ability.

    In fact, his major theme throughout the interviews was that he believes that the custodial situation should remain as is. Although he expresses some concern that Ms. Cooper is attempting to alienate the girls against him, he does not believe that either one of them should be removed from equal time in the girls’ lives. Instead, he would like to see them in therapy, with both him and Ms. Cooper working with the therapist to improve things for the girls. He fears that any change in the custody would be detrimental to the girls because they are used to the weekly alternating schedule and both parents have something to offer the girls. He disagrees with Ms. Cooper's assertion that the girls are having difficulty with their homework or misplacing things, and even if they do on occasion, he feels that it is not enough reason to change the shared custody arrangement.

    In addition to this, Mr. Cooper spent a great deal of time talking about himself and many of the issues present in this evaluation. He acknowledged that, as a child, he had significant problems growing up in a dysfunctional family and that at as an adolescent and young adult he did have some run-ins with both alcohol problems and the law. He was assaultive at that time, and it got even worse after his brother was killed. However, Mr. Cooper indicated that he went into therapy for about 3 years at that time and began to work on many of the issues in his life. He says that he has learned to be less constricting of his emotions and is trying to express himself better than he used to. He acknowledged that he has significant difficulty with this when he has to deal with Ms. Cooper, but he denies that he is assaultive to her. Although he acknowledges that Ms. Cooper believes that he might not be a good enough father, he fears that her main motive is one of money and that she is very angry at him for interrupting her possible chance to move up north with the girls. He says that the girls have been more distant with him since this, for which he blames her. He is concerned that her anger at him is spilling over to the children and causing them to change some of their feelings about either the shared custody or their relationship with him.

    Mr. Cooper acknowledged that he is quite angry at and distrustful of Ms. Cooper. He recognizes that some of this goes back to the beginning of their relationship together but also feels that much of it is connected to the behavior currently. He believes that Ms. Cooper is extremely angry at him because he prevented her move up north this past summer and that she is trying to control him now as a result. He feels very torn by all of this, because he always wanted to do what was right for the girls and fears that ultimately this is going to backfire for the girls. He recognizes that the girls feel frustrated by him some of the time, but does not believe that taking time away from him is the correct answer. Instead, he sees therapy as the more appropriate solution. He feels stymied by Ms. Cooper's refusal to go along with this in the past.

    As he talked more about the girls, it became clear that he frequently feels insecure and inadequate as a parent. He acknowledges that he and his daughters often get into power struggles, which do not get settled easily. As he put it, “Either they run over me or I run over them.” He knows this is hard on the girls, and he struggles with how to improve things. He has taken two parenting classes on communicating with children. He believes that he has learned a lot from these classes about how to deal with his daughters. He does not believe Ms. Cooper knows about or cares about these efforts that he makes, or else she might be more accepting of him as a father. In a way, he goes back and forth between his own insecurity and his need to show Ms. Cooper that he knows what he is doing and that he is a good father. It is interesting that when he talked about the girls’ safety, he sounded as if he truly believes he is correct. He described the amount of independence he allows the girls and the watchful eye he carries at other times. He knows that he and Ms. Cooper have differing views, but he believes that he has done a careful job of assessing risk and monitoring the children for safety.

    Ultimately, when asked what the children need, he replied “two parents who can get along and make decisions for their benefit and who don't display hostility that they see from both of us.” He talked more about this and was easily able to acknowledge his own role in some of these problems, but feels that Ms. Cooper does not see her own role in the problems between them. (As indicated earlier, I feel that he is correct in this assessment.) Yet, as he talked about this, he was unable to talk about how he sometimes prevents the children from calling their mother or sometimes gets too angry at them. He also believes that they need stability and both parents actively involved in their lives and fears that the mistake will be made to solve the problem by cutting his time with the girls. As he talked about this, however, although it was clear that he was concerned about the children and their needs, there was a somewhat narcissistic way in which he was also concerned about his own loss of the girls if they are taken away from him for some of the time. This is connected not only with the loss of time, but apparently with his sense of insecurity about his own role as a father, which he fears will be diminished if the girls are with him less.

    Clinically, based on all available information, Mr. Cooper presents as a man with a very poor self-image who feels highly insecure and inadequate about himself in many ways. This is revealed both in the testing as well as in the interviews. There are simultaneously strong feelings of vulnerability noted, as well. Mr. Cooper was able to deal appropriately with his feelings of insecurity and there was no defensiveness noted, but there is strong evidence of conflicts with hostility and aggression, self-confidence and personal insecurity. As indicated, he often feels conflicted and insecure in his relationship with his girls and has a very hard time dealing with stress as it increases. Unfortunately, he tends to bring about some of this stress, and at such times he tends to feel emotionally overwhelmed. As this occurs, he tends to get constricted emotionally and then struggles with his typical defenses of rationalization and intellectualization, becoming more suspicious and impulsive at times. Although there is no evidence that he is abusive to the girls, at such times I suspect he becomes scary to the girls and less rational in his discipline. Meredith gave an example in which he had gotten quite angry at Kristen—grounding her and ordering her to do 150 sentences. He ultimately backed down and had her do only 25. In this way, he tends to react impulsively at first, but then tries to pull back and utilize his healthier defenses in a more appropriate way. This is a struggle for him, however, and appears to be endemic to his personality rather than simply a function of situational stress. Finally, because of his limited insight into all of this, even though he is highly motivated for therapy, his ability to use therapy in a productive way is hindered by his excessive rationalizations and limited insight into the intensity of his feelings of vulnerability.

    Meredith and Kristen were seen conjointly for the first appointment. Meredith was seen alone for the second interview because Kristen was sick. Both of the girls were quite open when seen conjointly, and Meredith was also quite open when seen by herself. In general, they talked about several themes. For the most part, they made it clear that they hate it when their parents fight and argue and that they are really tired of it. As one of the girls said, “Divorce sucks,” elaborating that her parents fight too much. They made it clear that they do not blame either one of their parents for this and that they feel that both parents need to take responsibility to stop the fighting. Unfortunately, they feel caught up in the midst of it because they hear about it from both parents and also because they often feel that their parents fight because of them. This causes the girls to get depressed at times and to feel somewhat powerless to change anything.

    Another theme that was consistent throughout the interviews was their perception that their father yells too much. Clearly, they perceive him as an angrier parent than their mother, and they have a hard time dealing with this. Although both parents get on them and at times they get frustrated with each of their parents, the general perception was that they have a harder time with their father because his outbursts are too often. In addition, they get the feeling that their father's outbursts are less connected to their inappropriate behavior and more connected to his mood. This makes it harder for them, because they never quite know what to expect from him. They also seem to feel that he puts them in the middle a little bit more than does their mother, in large part because he often refuses to allow them to call their mother when they want to. They find this extremely annoying and frustrating. Finally, the girls also expressed frustration with the equal division of time with both of their parents. Although they made it clear that they would like to be with their father some of the time, both of the girls expressed the desire to live primarily with their mother. This is mostly because of their perception of their father's anger and their belief that when they talk to him about it, he may change for a little while, but then always goes back to the old way of acting. They have a very difficult time with this, and they are tired of waiting for him to change. In fact, they're afraid that he may never change.

    In general, as the girls talked about all these issues, affect was mildly sad and anxious. There was no evidence as they talked that these were feelings of their mother. Instead it was quite clear that these were their own feelings that they were expressing. They have told both of their parents a lot of these feelings, and there was no real evidence of emotional constriction noted. In fact, there was a very healthy quality in the way in which the girls were able to talk about their frustrations with their parents and their desire for change. The biggest source of frustration appears to be their perception that even though they express their feelings, they do not get heard very well. Nonetheless, this does not lead to constriction, only frustration, which they seem to handle reasonably well most of the time.

    Summary and Recommendations

    In a way, both Mr. and Ms. Cooper are accurate in some of their observations, especially about each other. Mr. Cooper is accurate in his representation that Ms. Cooper overreacts somewhat to his parenting and does not like him. He is accurate in recognizing that she is easily angry at him and on occasion says negative things about him to the children. Ms. Cooper is accurate in her perception that Mr. Cooper is somewhat inconsistent in his parenting in that he struggles with discipline and is all too often impulsive or angry toward the children. Unfortunately, neither parent seems to have a very good understanding of his or her own role in the problems between them and the way they tend to escalate their hostilities in a way that is very painful to their children. They get locked into power and control struggles and stimulate each other into overreactions. Although we will never know, for example, whether or not Mr. Cooper pushed Ms. Cooper off the porch, the fact that hostilities escalate to the conflict point is a reflection of the critical level that their friction reaches.

    Regardless of parental behavior, however, the children's feelings are very real. They are overwhelmed by the hostility between the parents, and as conflicts mount, children tend to choose sides, right or wrong. They cannot tolerate the conflicts and the ambivalence that they feel. Because they perceive their mother as more fair and more even toward them, they are choosing her side in this conflict. They need to be with her more because they believe that if they are with their mother more, the conflicts between their parents will reduce. Along with this, it appears that they also believe their guilt about being in the middle will also diminish.

    Unfortunately, just because children see things a certain way, it does not mean that it is best. Like Mr. Cooper, 1 am concerned that if the girls are with their mother more, it will only reinforce the feelings that he is a bad parent and the greater cause in these problems. That will be tough to break, and in essence, we will end up with a good parent and a bad parent, something that is not in the children's best interests. Similarly, like Ms. Cooper, I am concerned that if we do not honor the girls’ feelings, they will continue to grow in their sense of powerlessness and will begin to feel more inadequate just as each of their parents do. In short, there are no good solutions here.

    Nonetheless, a choice must be made as to what is in the children's best interest. Clearly, there needs to be an opportunity to help resolve the issues in this situation and to reduce everybody's source of tension. In addition, the children need to begin to view both their parents in more real ways, though they do seem to recognize the good and bad in each of their parents. Whereas equal shared parenting is often an advantage for children and their parents, it is my opinion that it is currently contributing to the problems that the girls are experiencing as they become embroiled in the parental conflicts. In addition, although Mr. Cooper does try hard to be a more effective parent and is taking classes and other steps to improve his parenting of the girls, the girls remain fearful and overwhelmed by his angry outbursts and by the inconsistency in his discipline.

    Given the above, I offer the following recommendations:

    • I recommend that the girls get involved in outpatient psychotherapy designed to help them continue to understand their feelings and learn to express them better to both of their parents. Both parents need to participate in this therapy to learn more effective parenting techniques and to better understand their children and their feelings.
    • I recommend that Mr. Cooper continue in his individual psychotherapy with the hope that the therapist can confront his defenses in a way that enables him to get more in touch with his strong feelings of vulnerability, his poor self-confidence, and some of the other issues noted above. I also recommend that Ms. Cooper be in her own therapy to help her work on separating her own issues with Mr. Cooper from those of the girls.
    • Mr. and Ms. Cooper need a vehicle through which they can talk about the children. They need to develop a certain amount of trust in each other and have a place to talk about issues of safety and disagreements between them. Left to their own devices, they remain distrustful and angry and the children suffer. I recommend that they get involved in periodic mediation with someone who will help them understand each other's positions and reach some formal compromises.
    • I recommend a change in the schedule, although I believe that if significant changes could be made in the parental behavior, this would not be necessary. Until these changes are made by the parents, I am reluctant to recommend continuing the existing schedule because of the effect this has on the girls’ feelings of powerlessness. Instead I recommend that for the present the girls be on a schedule with their parents as follows: Week 1, the girls with their mother from Monday morning until the following Monday morning. Midweek, one evening when their father is free, he should have them for a few hours for homework and dinner. Week 2, girls with their mother from Monday morning until Wednesday morning, girls with their father from Wednesday after school until the following Monday morning.
    • Along with this, I recommend Mr. Cooper manage his work in such a way that he can be home evenings when he is with the children. The children should have the unrestricted opportunity to call the other parent whenever they want. Even if the children are being disciplined for something, calling the other parent is not to be used as a privilege to be withheld. I hope that through the mediator, continued parenting classes, and with the therapists, a more appropriate form of discipline can be developed.

    Thank you for allowing me to be of assistance in this case.

    Sample 2
    Custody Evaluation
    • Name: Hall, Dennis and Ann
    • Dates of evaluation:
    • Evaluated by: Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D.
    Referral Information

    This evaluation was requested in order to assist in diagnostic understanding and to aid in determination of appropriate custody and visitation planning for minor children Rebecca, age 13 (b._/_/_), Molly, age 9 (b._/_/_), and John, age 6 (b._/_/_).

    Brief Background and History

    Some of the early history of this couple is a bit unclear, as each parent has a different perception of their history. Mr. Hall reported that they were married before Rebecca was born, in November 19—, whereas Ms. Hall reports that they were married in November of the following year, after Rebecca was born. Similarly, Ms. Hall reported that they separated in January 19—, whereas he said it was the next year. One of the few things on which they agree is that the divorce was filed in 19—.

    Since the separation there have been numerous changes in the ways in which the children spend time with each of their parents. Currently the children are on somewhat of a convoluted schedule in which Ms. Hall picks the children up every day after school, even when they are on Mr. Hall's time. The schedule was a bit difficult for me to fully understand, but it appears that, if one parent has the children for the weekend, the other parent has the following Monday and Tuesday. It is unclear what happens with Wednesdays and Thursdays, but then the following weekend the other parent has the children. Neither parent is happy with the schedule. Both feel that the kids do not like the back-and-forth arrangement. They have attempted other schedules, and there was a period of time in which all the children lived primarily with their father when Ms. Hall had house problems. He feels things were more stable for the children then. He believes that the children would do better if they were on a primary schedule with him with regular visitation with their mother. In contrast, Ms. Hall believes that the children should remain in some type of 50–50 arrangement, but wonders if maybe a different schedule would be better for the kids. She acknowledges that Rebecca wants to live primarily with her father, but she believes that Rebecca is quite angry at her and that Mr. Hall is bribing Rebecca to live with him.

    Along with these concerns around schedule and time, Mr. Hall talked a great deal about some concern regarding John. He feels that John has had difficulties with aggressive behavior for much of his life and that the only real improvements he ever made was during the time that he lived primarily with his father. He believes that John gets a great deal of inconsistent parenting between the two households and believes strongly that his style is better than is Ms. Hall's. He feels that she is much too haphazard in her parenting style and that he is more structured, believing that this is important for John. Mr. Hall also raised concern about Ms. Hall's partner, Jim Little, as he says that Mr. Little is abusive verbally to the children and is extremely angry at him. He is upset that Mr. Little expresses his anger in front of the children.

    Similarly, Ms. Hall expressed concerns about Mr. Hall's new wife (I will refer to her as Andrea), wondering if Andrea is physically abusive to John and not a very good role model. She expresses concern that Andrea's children, Kelly and Jason (ages 8 and 6, respectively), add to some of the trouble for the children and feels that there is too much chaos in Mr. Hall's home. She also feels that Mr. Hall is too harsh on John.

    Both parents agree that there is little or no communication between them. Both parents acknowledge that Mr. Little contributes to some of the difficulty. Ms. Hall stated to Mr. Hall, “You left me, were seeing another woman, and Jim can't understand how any man could do what you did.” Mr. Little does not believe that Mr. Hall appreciates his relationship with the kids and all that he sometimes does for the kids. Ms. Hall appears to continue struggling with her sense of loss in relation to Mr. Hall. Both parents recognize that the children are caught in the middle of loyalty conflicts between them. This evaluation was requested in order to understand all of the dynamics involved and to assist in determination of the children's needs.

    Evaluation Procedure
    • Conjoint interview, Mr. and Ms. Hall, _/_/_.
    • Individual interview, Mr. Dennis Hall, _/_/_.
    • Individual interview, Ms. Ann Hall, _/_/_.
    • Conjoint interview, Mr. Hall and his wife, Andrea, _/_/_.
    • Conjoint interview, Hall children, _/_/_. During this session, Molly was seen individually for a period of time, as was Rebecca. In addition, all the children were also seen conjointly with Mr. Hall, Andrea, and Andrea's children.
    • Conjoint interview, Hall children, _/_/_. During some of this session, they were seen conjointly with their mother and her daughter Grace.
    • Conjoint interview, Ms. Hall and Mr. Little, _/_/_.
    • Review of written materials supplied by Mr. and Ms. Hall and/or their attorneys.
    • Brief phone calls with Mr.___ and Ms.___, attorneys.
    • Phone calls with:
      • Mr.___, mediator
      • Mr.___, John's school counselor
      • Ms.___, John's teacher
      • Ms.___, Ms. Hall's therapist
    • In addition to the above, I administered the following psychological tests to each of Mr. and Ms. Hall:
      • Bender Gestalt
      • Projective drawings
      • Rorschach
      • MMPI
    Psychodiagnostic Interpretation

    Mr. Dennis Hall presented as a generally friendly, cooperative man who related reasonably well with me. He has an idiosyncratic quality in that he does wood carvings and frequently worked on his wood carvings as we talked. He did this in individual sessions, in the conjoint session with his wife, and during some of the time with his children. Although this may appear distracting at first, it became clear through the interview process that he pays full attention to what is going on and does this wood carving almost in the background. Another tendency is for him to get up and walk around in the middle of a session. This seemed to occur more often at times of stress, but it was difficult to fully understand this. Given other details, I suspect that both of these behaviors serve in some way to allow him to distance himself emotionally from the material being discussed.

    Aside from this, however, Mr. Hall was generally open and friendly throughout the interviews. He talked freely about his perception of many of the problems, as well as his sense of many of the necessary solutions. He focused largely on the children and their issues, but did so in a way that reflected his perception that Ms. Hall is not doing a very good job during the time that the children are with her. He expressed numerous concerns about the children and their functioning, including John and his aggressive behavior, Molly and some school difficulty, and Rebecca and his perception that she is mistreated emotionally at her mother's. In all instances, the concerns he expressed about Ms. Hall and Mr. Little were directly and appropriately connected to issues for the children.

    As indicated, he is quite concerned about John and his aggressive behavior. He said that John was removed from his regular kindergarten class last year because of aggressive behavior and reports that John has similar problems this year. He feels John is doing better and did much better during the time when the kids lived primarily with him. He is extremely concerned that Ms. Hall does not provide a structured enough home for John, and he resists the charge that he expects John to be a robot. In contrast, he talked of his efforts at discipline for John, which used to include spanking, but no longer does, because spanking had no impact. As he talked about these issues, he certainly seemed to have fairly good insight and understanding into John and his needs.

    Similarly, he talked about his perception of Molly's academic trouble and his belief that her mother does not help her enough with her homework. He feels that Molly does not read very well, and he would like to see Ms. Hall work with her more. In contrast, he believes that he and his wife read with Molly a lot (along with the other children). He is frustrated that on at least one occasion, Molly was made to feel bad for calling him during a time when Molly was frightened. He related an incident in which Molly came home, no one was there, and no note had been left for her. He feels that Molly is too young to be left this way and that it was appropriate for Molly to call him because she was scared. Soon thereafter, Ms. Hall and Mr. Little ridiculed and disciplined Molly for calling him because she was scared. Mr. Hall is concerned not only about the message this gives to her about her relationship with him, but also about this apparent lack of empathy for Molly's feelings by her mother and Mr. Little.

    For Rebecca, there were numerous concerns. He feels that Rebecca is often scapegoated by her mother. He believes that Ms. Hall and Mr. Little frequently call her a “name of the week.” Recently, Rebecca had been referred to as a “back-stabbing slut,” according to all the children. This was because Rebecca wants to live with her father. He feels that the message this provides the children is quite negative, and, as indicated, he feels it is wrong of Ms. Hall and Mr. Little to be critical of him and Andrea and the children themselves. He is concerned that the children have been told that he never wanted them. Mr. Hall reports that John was told that he was never wanted by him. According to Mr. Hall, Ms. Hall excused this by saying, “Well, even if he heard it, I didn't say it to him directly.” He believes that Ms. Hall is insensitive of the children's emotional needs, lacks structure and discipline in her household, and does not meet the needs of the children very well.

    In contrast, he feels that all three of the children did quite well when they lived primarily with him and visited their mother. Apparently, when Ms. Hall and Mr. Little were having trouble in a trailer park in the fall of 19_, the children lived with Mr. Hall for 3 months. He believes that during this time John improved his behavior a great deal and both Molly and Rebecca were more relaxed. They felt much better about their relationship with their mother, as they saw her every other weekend and a couple of times after school during the week. As indicated, he is concerned about the confusion to the children with the current schedule and the very strong differences in the two households. In addition, he continually expressed concern that problems are exacerbated by Mr. Little's extreme hostility toward him and Andrea. He believes that a joint custodial arrangement could work better if they were not so critical of him and if they were willing to talk with him or Andrea about the children more frequently. If that were the case, he might then see that an equal sharing of the time would work better. However, he feels that under the circumstances, he should have primary physical custody of the children.

    When Andrea talked about some of these issues, she also focused on another phenomenon about which she is concerned. She perceives (and Mr. Hall agrees) that Ms. Hall views relationships in an “all or none” kind of way. For example, she believes that Ms. Hall is so unable to tolerate her own sense of rejection by Rebecca that Ms. Hall is willing to not see Rebecca at all if she goes to live with her father. Both Andrea and Mr. Hall expressed concern that Ms. Hall and her entire family deal with things in this way. They fear that this adds to some of the loyalty conflicts between the children and their parents. She believes that it would be much healthier for Rebecca if Ms. Hall could express her sadness at the possibility that Rebecca might live mostly with her father, but then maintain a room for her, keep her on a regular visiting schedule, and encourage Rebecca to feel wanted by her mother. Andrea is concerned that currently Rebecca is feeling rejected by her mother because of her mother's sense that Rebecca is rejecting her. In these ways, both Andrea and Mr. Hall express concern that Ms. Hall's emotions negatively affect the children.

    In contrast, both Mr. Hall and Andrea talked positively about what they have to offer for the children. Both were able to focus quite well on the children and their needs, not only in their own terms, but in relation to their own individual relationships with both parents. They expressed concern that even Ms. Hall has talked to them about Mr. Little's drinking problem. Although Mr. Hall acknowledged that he used to smoke pot, he indicated that he has stopped. He believes that Ms. Hall has also stopped (he reports that they used to smoke pot together), but he does express concern that Mr. Little drinks too much. In relation to all the parenting issues, both Andrea and Mr. Hall were positive in their approach, showing evidence of good structure, discipline, and a desire to understand and talk with the children at a level appropriate to their development.

    Clinically, based on all available information, Mr. Hall presents somewhat of a mixed picture. On one hand, he shows fairly good insight into his emotions and their effect on his behavior and seems to have a good grasp of the children's emotions and their needs. He is clearly able to separate his own needs and feelings from those of the children and appears to have a fairly structured approach to discipline. Relationship capacity appears to be fairly good. There is no evidence in this evaluation of any significant psychopathology.

    In contrast, however, Mr. Hall does show evidence of a certain amount of internal anxiety and a desire to portray himself in a favorable light. He is somewhat defensive at times, though he is willing to look at his own role in some of the problems. He appears to be less polarized than many of the individuals usually seen in custody evaluations; however, he also seems to be somewhat distant from his emotions and their effect on his behavior. There is evidence that he has made considerable growth in the past year, probably connected to his marriage with Andrea. They appear to be good for each other. I suspect that Andrea has helped Mr. Hall emotionally confront many of the issues that he has. It is likely that she has helped him work on issues of hostility, aggression, and control, which probably were bigger issues during his marriage with Ms. Hall. In general, it is my opinion that Mr. Hall is continuing to grow and do better emotionally than in the past. Although he maintains a certain amount of defensiveness, he appears to be improving over time. There is no evidence in this evaluation to suggest that he would have difficulty dealing with the day-to-day needs of his children.

    Ms. Ann Hall presented as a generally cooperative, somewhat sad-looking woman who struggled a great deal with some of the issues in this evaluation. It is clear that she is tired of Mr. Hall's accusations and continued criticism of her, yet she also seemed to have a difficult time dealing with the children and their emotional needs. Instead, she focused on her perception that Mr. Little is good to the children and said that she is tired of the criticism that he gets. However, she did acknowledge that he can be very critical of Mr. Hall in front of the children, which she does not like. As she talked about the variety of issues associated with this evaluation, it seemed as if Ms. Hall had some good understanding of what she thinks is needed, but has a very difficult time with any real follow-through for the children. Thus, although she would like Mr. Little to stop drinking or to stop being derogatory about Mr. Hall, she seems to have little or no ability to really effect this for the children.

    Ms. Hall believes that the best solution for the children is a different type of 50–50 schedule. She feels that much of John's behavior problems were the result of the confused schedule and believes that he and Molly both would do better with an alternating week schedule. She does not understand why Rebecca wants to live with her father, saying, “We don't have the horrible relationship that Dennis thinks we have.” She was not able to talk very positively about their relationship, just that it was not “as horrible” as Mr. Hall has made it out to be. In this way, things are again worse than she would like, but she cannot do much about it. Ms. Hall projects all the blame for all these problems onto Mr. Hall and Andrea. She has little awareness of her own role in any of the problems that she has in this situation, seeing herself instead as a “good enough mother” who should be able to have the children half of the time.

    Ms. Hall denied some of Mr. Hall's allegations regarding her lack of time with the children. She believes that she does help Molly and John with their homework and feels that she does a good job with the structure with John. In contrast, she believes that Mr. Hall has been too hard on John and that John is doing a lot better as he gets older. Again, she began to act frustrated when talking about Molly, believing that Molly would do fine if Mr. Hall and Andrea did not keep harping on her to call them whenever there was a problem. She acknowledges having been angry one time when Molly called her father when she was “5 minutes late” picking her up. She did not think she was blaming Molly, but acknowledged being angry at Mr. Hall and Andrea for encouraging Molly to call every time something is wrong. In this same way, however, she continued to express her frustration about Mr. Hall and Andrea without really acknowledging what she is doing to contribute to the problem. Similarly, just as Mr. Hall described, she did not really seem to understand how the children might feel when Mr. Little is derogatory to them or if she is late or not home.

    As Ms. Hall talked, it became clear that she has had a very difficult life. Her childhood was a scary one, as she has discovered that she was molested by both her father and uncle. She reports that she had a fairly difficult relationship with her mother. Her first husband was abusive to her. Mr. Hall was the first man who ever treated her well. However, over the years, she came to feel that even he was emotionally abusive and controlling of her. She feels that this continued through the relationship. She talked of some of the difficulty she has in her relationship with Mr. Little. As she focused on all these issues, I had the impression that she has been generally passive and emotionally dependent on the men in her life for a long time.

    When seen with Mr. Little, Ms. Hall was clearly feeling caught in the middle. She gets frustrated with his angry outbursts, while simultaneously understanding them and feeling hurt because of the way she feels in relation to the children and her ex-husband. However, as she talked more about these issues, it became clear that Ms. Hall has a very good understanding of the children and their needs, especially the need to bring peace and calmness to the situation. However, there was also continued evidence that she feels overwhelmed by the issues in this evaluation, especially the anger between her former husband and Mr. Little and its effect on the children. She does not know how to stop Mr. Hall from harassing her, and she does not know how to stop Mr. Little from being so angry.

    Away from them both, she clearly can be very loving to the children, has a very good understanding of their needs, and certainly seems to be a “good enough mother.” She talked of the conflicts that John probably feels, as he is caught between her more laid-back style and Mr. Hall's more strict style. She does not feel that either is inherently wrong for John. She acknowledged concern for the current schedule sharing the parenting and seems to recognize that the schedule itself adds to some of the problems. In essence, she recognizes that there are good and bad in both households, but she feels that there are no significant problems in either household and that the children need to be able to spend time with both of them.

    It is important to point out that Ms. Hall is concerned about losing Rebecca. She wants to have a close relationship with Rebecca, but she feels tremendous distancing from Rebecca. She talked about her efforts of trying to get close or help Rebecca with homework, but believes that Rebecca is resistant to any efforts of hers. She does not know whether to blame Mr. Hall and Andrea for this or something else, but she is hurting as she does not understand why Rebecca is distancing herself from her. As I talked about polarization and how common it is in conflicted divorces for children to feel a need to choose between their parents, Ms. Hall seemed to understand and was able to reduce her frustration. She made it clear, however, that she wants Rebecca to have a good relationship with Andrea, but she fears losing her child “to a man who says bad things about me.” She clearly does not want to be left out of Rebecca's life.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Little is quite angry. He denies calling the children names, but acknowledges that it is possible and that he does not remember. In a way, it was difficult for him to acknowledge his own role in the problems. This was a problem that both Ms. Hall and Mr. Little had. They were quick to externalize blame to Mr. Hall and Andrea, even more than Mr. Hall and Andrea did to them. When I was finally able to get them to focus solely on their role in the issues and what the children needed, both Ms. Hall and Mr. Little were able to talk quite succinctly and directly about the needs of the children and how to meet those needs. In fact, in spite of the obvious tension that often occurs between the four adults, Mr. Little suggested that I meet with all four of them to explain my findings as a way of helping them all hear what needs to be said. This is primarily because Ms. Hall and Mr. Little both believe that the children need the arguing to stop and for all the adults to be actively involved in the children's lives.

    Clinically, based on all available information, Ms. Hall presents somewhat of a mixed picture. On the surface, she shows some insight into her emotions and their effect on her behavior, as well as some awareness of the children's needs, especially as it relates to the issues in this evaluation. Ego organizational skills appear to be fairly good. There is no evidence in this evaluation of any significant psychopathology.

    On the other hand, however, Ms. Hall does show evidence of difficulty dealing with her emotions and appears to be defensive emotionally. She gets overwhelmed easily, especially when caught in the cross fire between Mr. Hall and Mr. Little. She loves the children very much, but feels somewhat inadequate at meeting their need for peace, because the men in her life are in such conflict with one another. Along with this, she is certainly feeling overwhelmed and hurt by Rebecca's attachment to Andrea. Although I do not believe it is because of jealousy, it seems connected to her feeling shut out of Rebecca's life. Whereas Mr. Hall and Andrea seem to portray that Ms. Hall is dealing with Rebecca's issues in an “all or none” manner, it is my belief that Ms. Hall has a fairly balanced approach and would like to have an active participating role in Rebecca's life while sharing her with her father and Andrea. She might have difficulty communicating this to Rebecca. Overall, however, when she gets stuck emotionally, her tendency is to become passive and dependent, probably as a result of the many issues that she has experienced in her own life. Unfortunately, with the high degree of conflict between her, Mr. Little, and Mr. Hall, her passivity makes it difficult to meet all of the children's needs for peace.

    The children were seen in many combinations. Rebecca, Molly, and John were seen conjointly with each other and Rebecca and Molly were seen individually. They were also seen conjointly with their father, Andrea, and Andrea's children, as well as conjointly with their mother and her daughter Grace. Essentially, there was little change in how the children related to me or the evaluation process whether they were seen individually, conjointly with their siblings, or with adults.

    As a group, all of the children are extremely frustrated with the current schedule. Along with this, they are tired of the parental fighting and seem to feel that both of their parents are responsible for some of the problems. In addition, as a group, they all feel that Mr. Little is too angry; they wish that he could learn to deal with his anger in a different way. They are very tired of his making derogatory statements about their father, but they are also tired of their father's and Andrea's derogatory statements about their mother. It appeared throughout the evaluation that the children feel pulled between their parents, feel a tremendous loyalty conflict, and seem to be caught up in the polarization of their parents. It appeared that none of the parents have been able to effectively shield the children from the conflicts that they are all experiencing.

    Along with this general view, Rebecca presented as a somewhat angry girl who is struggling a great deal with her mixed feelings toward her parents. On the surface, she is distant from her mother and angry at Mr. Little, feeling closer to her father and Andrea. She has expressed for several months a desire to live with her father, and she perceives her mother's hesitation as a rejection of her feelings. This causes her to view her mother in more negative ways, solidifying her feeling that her father and Andrea are supportive of her while her mother and Mr. Little are not. She is extremely angry at Mr. Little for his behavior a lot of the time, either when he is critical of her father or when he calls her names. She indicated that on at least one occasion he has referred to her in vulgar terms, which angers her greatly. Rebecca is the most polarized of the children, primarily viewing her father and Andrea as mostly good and her mother and Mr. Little as mostly bad.

    Underneath this, however, I suspect that Rebecca is feeling a lot of hurt. I suspect that she feels sad about the deterioration of her relationship with her mother, while simultaneously being angry at her mother for her perception that she favors Mr. Little over her. As Ms. Hall thinks, Rebecca sometimes gets annoyed with the younger children in both households and feels she has more privacy and believes her feelings are more honored at her father's. It is important to point out that, in addition to all of this, Rebecca mothers the younger children a great deal in both households. This is something that she has done for much of her life, and she comes by it naturally. However, it is my opinion that this contributes to some of the splitting and polarization that she feels. She gets angry at her perception that she has to mother Grace, despite the fact that she could choose not to mother her at all. Contrary to Rebecca's belief, Ms. Hall is willing to do the mothering of Grace and prefers that Rebecca would not take on this additional burden. Nevertheless, at the present time, Rebecca feels this responsibility on her own, which adds to her feeling drawn toward her father. Overall, it is my opinion that Rebecca is confused, overwhelmed by her feelings of polarization and splitting between her parents, and sad about the nature of her relationship with her mother. It is also clear that she wants to live primarily with her father and change the quality of her relationship with her mother. She would like Mr. Little to finally treat her nicer and be less derogatory of her father.

    Molly clearly appears torn between her parents. Unlike Rebecca, she can see good and bad in both of her parents, as well as in Andrea and Mr. Little. She seems caught up in the anxiety of having to choose between her parents and wishes that her parents would leave her alone and let her enjoy both households. Molly is a bit more frustrated when her mother and Mr. Little say bad things about her father and Andrea than vice versa because she believes that what her father and Andrea say about her mother and Mr. Little is “more true.” She gets especially annoyed at her mother's when Mr. Little is angry or critical of her father, but she also gets annoyed at her father's when they are critical of her mother and Mr. Little. She does have some complaints about both of them, but in general, was very positive about her relationships with all four of her adults. In some ways, she presents as a girl who feels that in order to please her parents, she has to say critical things about the other parent. She does not want to do this. She gets along well with all of her siblings, enjoys her relationships with Andrea's kids as much as she does with Grace, and wants to continue spending time in both houses. She almost seemed programmed at times to tell me things that were negative about her mother. Although she does have some concerns about things in that household (as already indicated), she does not like to be told what to say. In all, Molly enjoys her relationship with her friends, seems to be doing well in school, and appears to be having no significant difficulties at this time.

    John presented as a somewhat immature, mildly regressed youngster who does seem to feel the effect of inconsistencies in the parenting. Mr. Hall and Andrea are clearly stricter, set clear boundaries, and are quicker to reprimand him for his behavior than are Ms. Hall and Mr. Little. On the other hand, Ms. Hall and Mr. Little do not feel that John's behavior is as bad. Thus, they see no reason to reprimand him as much. He struggles a bit in school, having done poorly a year ago, and he is still struggling some right now. He did show some differences in his behavior when seen with his mother or his father, as he was more immature looking when seen with his mother. John even admitted, in front of his mother, that he does not do some things there to take care of himself that he does at his father's because she does not make him. It frustrates Rebecca that Ms. Hall still dresses John, and John seems to have mixed feelings about the differences in how he is treated. On the one hand, he enjoys being babied at times by his mother; on the other hand, it appears that he does not listen to her very much, either. All of the children report that John listens to their father much more, but this may relate to the fact that his father used to spank him and he does not want to get spanked.

    In many ways, however, John also has a good relationship with both of his parents, but, like his sister Molly, wants to simply tune out all of the emotionally charged complaints that the parents have against one another. Like Molly, he is also torn between his feelings toward his mother and father and seems to have a fairly balanced view of each of them. Overall, it is my opinion that John is a bit regressed at times, feels the effects of the inconsistent parenting, and sometimes does not know how to act. At times, he becomes manipulative and controlling, apparently to offset his feelings of insecurity stemming from all of the above. In essence, staying a bit regressed helps him maintain his own control of the situation.

    John's teacher and school counselor report that John had been highly aggressive when he first came to this school. He has made improvements over time, yet he still struggles with peer relationships, distractible behavior, and a high activity level. He can still be quite aggressive at times as well. His teacher reports that John has a strong need for structure, limits, and obvious and appropriate consequences.

    With their parents, all the children were generally okay. Mr. Hall and Andrea were a bit more verbal with the children, though Andrea did a lot of the talking for both of them. In some ways, she appeared more connected verbally to the children than did Mr. Hall. Both Ms. Hall and Mr. Hall played well with the children and seemed to balance their time with the children reasonably well. There was a tendency on Ms. Hall's part to be a bit more laid-back when watching the children, so her daughter Grace got into a little bit of the other children's play. This seemed to bother Rebecca the most, who was annoyed because she felt she had to watch Grace. Ms. Hall certainly gave her permission to stay out of that role, but Rebecca was clearly viewing that it was her job to be watching Grace, Overall, however, during these interviews, there was nothing in this evaluation to suggest that either parent's time should be limited with the children.

    Summary and Recommendations

    Overall, it is my opinion that several factors are operating here. First, and most important, there has been a significant increase in tension between the adults over the last few years. Distrust between them has greatly increased, in part as a result of many behaviors. In the not-too-distant past, Mr. Hall was using drugs, though all evidence suggests that he has stopped at this point in time. Ms. Hall and Mr. Little were critical of him for this, and he, in turn, became critical of Mr. Little and Ms. Hall for their parenting of the children. Mr. Little has taken on the battle, is much too angry, and expresses his anger much too quickly and vehemently in front of the children. This adds to the tension for the children, as well as the alienation that Mr. Hall and Andrea feel. They get angry, say some negatives about Ms. Hall and Mr. Little, and then Mr. Little gets even angrier. The cycle continues and escalates to the detriment of the children. Ms. Hall gets caught in the middle. She is clearly overwhelmed with her feelings of love toward the children and the conflicts created by Mr. Hall and Mr. Little. The children are caught in the cross fire, with no sympathetic adult to help them.

    Along with this, the children seem to be telling their parents a variety of things. No one knows quite what to believe, and the adults believe the worst about each other. Rebecca, in particular, is quite critical of her mother and Mr. Little, in large part because of his treatment of her and his derogatory position toward her father. She feels forced to choose sides and is choosing her father's side in this matter because he is less derogatory than is Mr. Little. This causes her to push away from her mother, however, so her mother is feeling alone, hurt, and rejected. Because the adults do not trust each other, they cannot talk about these issues. What little communication there is ends up being through the children. Unfortunately, this intensifies the loyalty conflicts that the children feel and keeps them stuck in the middle of the battle much too long.

    In all, this evaluation revealed that all four of the parents had some strengths and some shortcomings. My biggest concern centers around Mr. Little's angry outbursts and derogatory statements of Mr. Hall. My sense of his outbursts is that they are verbally abusive to the children and must stop. Along with this, I am concerned about the ways in which Mr. Hall and Andrea seem to unwittingly add to the children's loyalty conflicts by encouraging them to be critical of their mother and Mr. Little. If possible, they need to stay out of the problems in Ms. Hall's house. I recognize that they believe they are trying to help, but I also believe that this adds to the problems. Mr. Hall does appear to be improving in his connection to the children. Andrea appears to be developing good relationships with all the children. Ms. Hall, though with a more laid-back style, is both aware of and clearly willing and desirous of meeting the children's needs. I am concerned that she allows Mr. Little's temper to affect the children, because she feels so powerless to do anything about it. In addition, it is likely that John needs more structure, limits, and consequences than she currently provides. Aside from this, however, there is no evidence to suggest that she is a bad mother.

    Most important, the children need to pulled out of the middle. They are overwhelmed with their feelings and want to be out of the middle. Rebecca is dealing with this with intense polarization by choosing her father over her mother, Molly tunes everyone out, and John gets overwhelmed, aggressive, and regressed. None of these are healthy emotional solutions for the children, and all are reflective of the pain that the children feel as a result of the parental conflicts. If left to themselves, away from the bitterness and anger of the adults, I suspect that the children would be freer and better able to develop their own relationships with each of the adults in a healthier, more productive manner.

    Given all of these issues, it is clear that the current schedule needs changing. There are way too many transitions, and the children struggle with this too much. Unfortunately, given the apparent effects of the schedule on the children, it is difficult to fully sort out all of the other pieces. Nonetheless, based on the above, I offer the following recommendations:

    • All four adults need to learn to take responsibility for themselves in their own household and avoid getting caught up in the externalization of blame and criticism of the other. In this regard, I find Mr. Little to be the most difficult. He must get involved in therapy and/or anger management classes to help him deal more effectively with his rage. It is critical that he stop dumping his anger on the children because of its negative effect on them. Similarly, Mr. Hall and Andrea must stop being so critical of Ms. Hall, as there is no evidence that she is negligent or harmful in her own relationships with the children. I also encourage them to get into some therapy to help them learn to stop the externalization of blame.
    • Ms. Hall needs to deal with her apparent passivity and dependency in relation to the two men who have been in her life. I certainly recommend that she continue to work on these issues with her therapist. She needs to recognize that protecting the children and honoring the children's feelings must come before protecting Mr. Little and his anger. I also recommend that Rebecca join the therapy at some point, or in some other way get into some therapy with Ms. Hall so that they can work on improving their relationship with one another.
    • It is critical that the four adults must learn to deal differently with their communication. Restraining orders, externalization of blame, and missed communications are not working. Ms. Hall needs to honor the growing relationships between the children and Andrea. I see no reason that Andrea cannot care for the children during Mr. Hall's time with them. I highly recommend coparenting counseling for them all with the hope that they can learn to understand each other, develop a certain degree of mutual trust, and learn to work together for the children and their needs. It is critical to the children's needs that the four adults learn to share the children, communicate differently about the children, and resolve their differences. For those day-to-day issues in which they cannot learn to agree, I recommend that they work with a Special Master to help them settle things before they get out of control.
    • At the present, I'd recommend honoring Rebecca's feelings and change her time-share with the parents. I recommend that she be with her father most of the time and maintain a regular schedule to be with her mother. When she is with her mother, it is critical for Rebecca, Ms. Hall, and Mr. Little to let go of the conflicts and just be together free of all of this tension. For now, I recommend that she be with her mother every other weekend (when the other children are with her), and one weekday evening each week. In this way, she can have some time with her mother without her siblings. It is my hope that, by honoring her request, the relationships will improve. At the recommended update (see below), I hope that a clearer picture will emerge about the best way for Rebecca to share time with both of her parents.
    • The situation regarding Molly and John is tougher. As indicated, I am quite concerned about the effects of Mr. Little's temper on them. He must stop the angry outbursts to, or in front of, the children. In addition, I am concerned about Ms. Hall's style with John, as it appears that he needs more structure than she might be providing. Yet, I am certain that the current schedule is creating and/or adding its own share of chaos to the children. As such, at the present, I recommend that the children be on a straight week-week schedule with each parent, with a Friday afternoon transition time.
    • During the next 5 months, I recommend that Mr. Little get involved in his therapy (and/or anger management classes) and both Mr. and Ms. Hall get into some parenting class designed to better understand the needs of a more difficult child (John). At the end of November, I recommend a brief update to determine if John is doing better, if Molly feels more relaxed, and if Mr. Little is less angry. Most important, Ms. Hall needs to know that she must take responsibility for improving some of these things for the children, or the children might need further changes in the time-share arrangement.

    Thank you for allowing me to be of assistance with this family.

    Appendix 5: Psychological Tests (for Adults) and Games and Tests (for Children)

    Suggested Guidelines for the Use of Psychological Testing in Child Custody Evaluations

    Psychological testing has been both overvalued and discredited by mental health professionals and the legal system when used in child custody disputes. However, psychological testing offers specific data that can be used most meaningfully in conjunction with information obtained by other methods, such as comprehensive interviews, evaluation of parent-child interactions, home visits, and collateral contacts. Psychological test data are meaningful only when considered in light of the total context of the evaluation. In order to use psychological tests in the context of child custody evaluations, the psychologist must also have an understanding of the dynamics of divorce and integrate the test data with knowledge of joint custody and the impact of various custody arrangements on the developmental needs of children. Psychological tests can be administered and scored only by those who hold appropriate licenses for their use, which is usually regulated by state law.

    Psychological testing can be used for several purposes. First, it can be used to validate or disconfirm clinical impressions and/or questions raised by each parent about the psychological fitness of the other parent. Second, although no tests directly assess parenting ability, there are standardized tests that assess underlying psychodynamics and characterological traits that affect the ability to parent a child. Third, psychological tests may point to issues of impulsivity, psychological resourcefulness, capacity for empathy, relationship capacity, emotional responsiveness to the environment, and so forth, which is useful in understanding the parent's capacity to parent. Fourth, test data can help clarify psychological defenses, such as denial, projection, externalization of blame, and deception, which may help in explaining the stories of each parent. In all, test data can be most useful when they enhance the other clinical data available to the evaluator, especially when connected to the behaviors directly observed by the evaluator, as well.

    If psychologists use testing in the context of child custody evaluations, they should select tests that have proven validity and reliability. Extreme care should be used with those tests that have only limited or inconclusive reliability or validity status. If tests are used, they must be done equally with both parents. Most important, psychologists who use tests must remember that child custody evaluations are always complex and create a high level of anxiety for all parties involved. The evaluator is responsible for gathering information from many different kinds of sources in order to develop an understanding of parents and children involved in the dispute. When used appropriately, psychological testing can provide objective, powerful data that can help the evaluator conceptualize the underlying dynamics of the disputing family with greater clarity and thus arrive at the most appropriate custody recommendations. The following list of tests reflects my particular review of tests often used in the context of child custody evaluations.

    Psychological Tests and Assessment Tools Frequently Used with Adults

    Mental Status Exam

    Personality Tests

    Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)

    Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 2 (MMPI-2)—Designed to assess major personality characteristics that reflect a person's social and personal adjustment and the possibility of significant psychological dysfunction. Forms and computer scoring available from a variety of sources including NCS Assessments, P.O. Box 1416, Minneapolis, MN 55440 (1-800-627-7271).

    Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory II (MCMI-II)—Designed to assess personality characteristics and personality patterns. Forms and computer scoring available from NCS Assessments, P.O. Box 1416, Minneapolis, MN 55440 (1-800-627-7271).

    House-Tree-Person (or other projective drawings)—Used as a projective measure of the client's personality dynamics according to research findings over the years. Rorschach (Exner and other scoring systems)—The most widely used projective technique, the Rorschach is useful in diagnosis and treatment planning related to a wide variety of psychological issues. In recent years, Exner has developed a comprehensive system for scoring the Rorschach. Computer assistance is available for Exner scoring. Available from The Psychological Corporation, 555 Academic Court, San Antonio, TX 78204-2498 (1-800-228-0752).

    Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)—Useful in the personality assessment of adults, revealing dominant drives, emotions, conflicts, and complexes in his or her personality. Available from The Psychological Corporation, 555 Academic Court, San Antonio, TX 78204-2498 (1-800-228-0752).

    Parent-Administered Tests about Their Perception of Their Own Parenting

    Parenting Stress Index—Measures stress in the parent-child relationship, identifying dysfunctional parenting and/or defensiveness within the family system. The PSI consists of 101 items and yields scores related to both child traits and parent traits. Available from Western Psychological Services, 12031 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-1251 (1-800-648-8857).

    Parent-Child Relationship Inventory—A self-report inventory that tells how parents view their own parenting behavior. Scaled scores reflect the respondent's awareness of children's needs and the level of his or her parenting skills. Excellent task for comparing the client's stated perceptions with his or her scaled scores on the task. Available from Western Psychological Services, 12031 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-1251 (1-800-648-8857).

    Parent-Administered Tests about the Psychological Functioning of Their Children

    Child Behavior Checklist (Parent Form)—Designed for parents to fill out and respond to questions about their child's personality. A good measure for comparing the parent's stated observations with the evaluator's observations gained through the evaluation process.

    Personality Inventory for Children (PIC) (Parent Form)—Measures behavior and cognitive and affective functioning of children based on responses of the parents. Another good measure for comparing the parent's stated observations with the evaluator's observations gained through the evaluation process. Available from Western Psychological Services, 12031 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-1251 (1-800-648-8857).

    Psychological Tests and Assessment Tools Frequently Used with Children

    Developmental history (from parents and children)

    Educational history (from parents and children)

    Children's Apperception Test (CAT)—Like the TAT, it measures many aspects of a child's personality. Available from The Psychological Corporation, 555 Academic Court, San Antonio, TX 78204-2498 (1-800-228-0752).

    Family Apperception Test (FAT)—Like the CAT and TAT, it elicits projective associations about individuals, but within the context of family process and structure, thus giving valuable information about family relationships. Available from Western Psychological Services, 12031 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-1251 (1-800-648-8857).

    Family drawings—Same as House-Tree-Person noted previously.

    The Talking, Feeling, and Doing Game—Enables children who are quiet or defensive a different opportunity for exploring feelings, especially about family relationships. Available from Dr. Richard Gardner, Creative Therapeutics, 155 County Rd., Cresskill, NJ 07626-0317.

    Divorce Story Cards—Like the TAT, CAT, and FAT, a projective task for identifying children's feelings regarding the divorce of their parents. Available from Childswork Childs Play, Center for Applied Psychology, 441 N. Fifth St, Philadelphia, PA 19123 (1-800-962-1141).

    The Family Relations Test—Available from NFER Publishing Company Ltd., Darville House, 2 Oxford Road East, Blocks SL41DF, Windsor, England, UK.

    Any of a wide variety of sentence completion forms.

    Appendix 6: Review of Evaluation Ethical Standards and Guidelines

    Included in this appendix is my compilation of guidelines and ethical standards based on and edited from a variety of national, state, and local organizations that have promulgated rules related to the performance of custody evaluations. Also included in this appendix following my compilation are the Model Standards of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the recommended credentials and qualifications for the Marin County Special Master Program, and the Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations of the American Psychological Association.

    The following is a list of the organizations with guidelines and ethical standards on which I based my compilation.

    • American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), “Guidelines for Psychosocial Evaluation of Suspected Sexual Abuse in Young Children,” 1990.
    • American Psychological Association (APA), “Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings,” 1994. (The complete text of these guidelines is included in this appendix.) Draft 3.0, October 1992.
    • Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners, “Child Custody Evaluation Guidelines,” August 1988.
    • Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), “Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation,” 1994. (The complete text of the standards is included in this appendix.)
    • California Court Rule 1257, “Procedures for Evaluations in Child Custody Disputes,” November 1992.
    • California Statewide Office of Family Court Services “Ethical Considerations,” from Child Custody Evaluations, 1991.
    • Campbell, T. (1992). “Child Custody Evaluations and Appropriate Standards of Psychological Practice.” Michigan Bar Journal, 71, 278–283.
    • Contra Costa County (California) Psychological Association Task Force on Child Custody Evaluations, “Proposed Child Custody Evaluation Guidelines for Psychologists,” 1994.
    • Greater Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Psychological Association Task Force on Child Custody Evaluation, February 6,1991.
    • Marin County (California) Psychological Association, “Proposed Child Custody Evaluation Guidelines for Private Psychologists,” 1992.
    • Nebraska Psychological Association, “Guidelines for Performing Child Custody Evaluations,” 1986.
    • Raiford, K., & Little, M. “Child Custody Evaluation Standards: A Proposal,” a report to the California State Chapter of the AFCC, January 1994.
    Edited Compilation of Guidelines and Standards for Conducting Child Custody Evaluations
    • First, do no harm. This ethical standard must be maintained at all times and will affect how evaluators handle the findings and protect treatment relationships during evaluations.
    • The child is the major client. At all times, the needs and best interests of the child must come before the needs of the court or the wishes of the parents. We must be cognizant of the need to protect children from too many mental health professionals, unnecessary evaluations, and too much acrimony during the evaluation process.
    • The mental health professional must function at all times as a professional expert. This recognizes that the mental health professional is not a judge and that his or her job is to assist the court by supplying information and recommendation based as much as possible on empirical findings and data.
    • The evaluator must be neutral at all times during the evaluation process. It is crucial to the credibility of the evaluation process for the evaluator to carefully maintain a neutral role during the process of the evaluation. Alignment with either party is not acceptable. Appointment by the court or by stipulation of the parties helps to ensure such neutrality. In testimony before the court, it is important to avoid becoming an advocate for either parent. The evaluator must remain open to all appropriate interpretations of the data.
    • Dual relationships must be avoided. An evaluator must not participate in a child custody evaluation if he or she has had any prior relationship with any member of the family (including but not limited to therapist, mediator, Special Master, friend, etc.). This would void the evaluator's ability to remain neutral.
    • Multiple avenues of data gathering are expected. A competent evaluation must be completed from a variety of sources, which may include interviews, formal assessments of all parties, observations of various family interactions, home visits, psychological testing, review of the legal history, and gathering of information from collateral sources. It is important that all procedures and techniques be applied in as comparable a manner as possible to each parent. If psychological testing is used, the limits of such testing should be clear.
    • Many factors must be considered in the evaluator's recommendations. A custody evaluation assesses strengths and weaknesses of each parent, the ability of the parents to share their children and work together to meet the needs of their children, the ability of the children to share their time in two separate households, the mental and physical health of each parent, the wishes of the children, and all factors related to the development of an appropriate parenting plan. The evaluator must recognize that no single factor is paramount, rather that a complex pattern of interactions contributes to parenting ability and the appropriate parenting plan for children.
    • Quality of service must not be dictated by fees. The evaluator must adhere to ethical practices regardless of the fee charged. Evaluators must be truthful in communications with third-party payors, such as insurance companies, that the evaluation is intended for the courts and not for treatment planning purposes.
    • It is not considered ethical to conduct a one-sided evaluation that results in recommendations that involve conclusions about a person not seen. In the event that a one-sided evaluation is performed, no recommendations about custody are to be offered and comments are to be limited to the person(s) evaluated.
    • Evaluators are to avoid ex parte communications with attorneys or the court on substantive issues. The evaluator can ask clarifying questions of either attorney or the court, but if there is any substantive communication, it is best done in writing, with copies to all concerned parties, or via conference calls.
    • Limits of confidentiality in evaluations need to be made clear to all parties, including the children. Even though this is a court proceeding, it is important to have parents sign a release of information and to be clear to parents who has access to the evaluation report. This is best done both in the court order and in the interviews with the parents. It is wise for local courts to develop local court rules related to the confidentiality of the child's therapy in order to protect it. Along with this, the evaluator is to obtain informed consent from all participants.
    • It is expected that evaluators will possess at least a master's degree in a mental health field and have considerable training and understanding of families, issues of divorce, child development, and the needs of the court. It is expected that evaluators will keep up with the literature in these areas. Those possessing less than 2 years of postdegree experience in these areas or who are just beginning to do evaluations will require supervision until fully qualified. An evaluator is to avoid practicing beyond the boundaries of competence.
    • It is required for the evaluator to be aware of one's biases. All of us have some biases and as evaluators we must be aware of them and vigilant about correcting for their distorting effects.
    • The evaluator is to provide a written report as directed by the courts. In addition, all records obtained in the process of conducting the evaluation are properly maintained and filed according to the ethics of the evaluator's professional organization (e.g., APA).
    • In testimony, the evaluator is to avoid becoming an advocate, is to refrain from speculation beyond what the data support, and is to make no statement about anyone not seen as part of the evaluation. It is essential that the evaluator remain professional throughout the experience of testifying, stay with the data gathered during the evaluation, and remain open to various interpretations of the data.
    Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation


    The following Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation have been formulated for members of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts who conduct evaluations in custody/access matters. These members include both court-connected and private practice evaluators in many areas of the world with significant variations in practice and philosophy. It is recognized that local jurisdictional requirements influence the conduct of the custody evaluation; however, the goal of these standards is to highlight common concerns and set standards of practice that are applicable regardless of local circumstances.


    Child custody evaluation is a process through which recommendations for the custody of, parenting of, and access to children can be made to the court in those cases in which the parents are unable to work out their own parenting plans. Evaluation may be requested by the parents or their attorneys or ordered by the court. Evaluations may be performed by qualified mental health professionals who are part of a family court system or carried out privately by qualified individuals or teams. Evaluators always serve impartially, never as an advocate for one parent or the other.

    The primary purpose of a child custody evaluation is to assess the family and provide the courts, the parents, and the attorneys with objective information and recommendations. The assessment goals of a child custody evaluation shall be to (a) identify the developmental needs of the child(ren); (b) identify the strengths, vulnerabilities, and needs of all other members of the family; (c) identify the positive and negative family interactions; (d) develop a plan for custody and access utilizing the strengths of each individual that will serve the best interests of the child(ren) and within those parameters, the wishes and interests of the parents, and in most situations provide them with an opportunity to share in the upbringing of their child(ren); and (e) through a written report, provide the court, parents, and attorneys with these recommendations and supporting data.

    These standards are intended to assist and guide public and private evaluators. The manner of implementation and evaluator adherence to these standards will be influenced by local law and court rule.

    I. Initiating the Process
    A. Appointing or Choosing an Evaluator

    For information about AFCC, contact Ann Milne, Executive Director, at (608) 251-4001. AFCC guidelines reprinted by permission.

    If there is a court-connected office of evaluation and conciliation, the evaluation shall be referred to that office for assignment to a qualified evaluator. If there is no such related office or if the evaluation is to be handled privately, the court shall appoint an evaluator or one must be agreed to by both parties and approved by the court.

    Informed written consent of all parties must be obtained. Parties shall have the right to suspend or terminate an evaluation pending the consultation of an attorney regarding the advisability of continued participation if the evaluation is not court ordered.

    B. Arrangements with the Parties
    • The evaluator shall clarify with all parties, perhaps at a joint meeting, the evaluation procedures, license and credentials of the evaluator or team, the costs (if the evaluation is private or if there is an agency fee), the mutual responsibilities of the evaluator and the parties, and the limits of confidentiality. The evaluator shall assure the parties and their attorneys that no prior relationship existed or exists between the evaluator and any of the parties.
    • If some previous relationship exists, however insignificant, it should be raised at this point and discussed in order to assure each party that objectivity will not be compromised by any prior contact. A decision whether to proceed or not will be made at the conclusion of this discussion or following discussion between the parties and their attorneys.
    • During the orientation process, if preevaluation informational meetings are held, similar meetings shall be offered to all of the parents and potential caretakers and to all of their attorneys. Parties and/or their attorneys shall be free to ask questions. The evaluator shall provide information on any inherent bias(es) (e.g., joint custody, shared physical custody, mediation, lifestyle, and/or religion, etc.) that he or she holds, prior to the commencement of any evaluation.
    • Communication between the evaluator and the attorneys shall be conducted so as to avoid any question of ex parte communication. Communication of significant matters between evaluator and attorneys may be best accomplished by conference call or in writing with copies to both attorneys.
    I. Evaluator Standards
    A. Education and Training

    Custody evaluators shall have a minimum of a master's degree in a mental health field that includes formal education and training in child development, child and adult psychopathology, interviewing techniques, and family systems. In addition, by formal training or work experience, the evaluator should have a working understanding of the complexities of the divorce process, awareness of the legal issues in divorce in the evaluator's jurisdiction of practice, and an understanding of the many issues, legal, social, familial, and cultural involved in custody and visitation.

    B. Supervision and Consultation for the Evaluator

    In addition, for evaluators in either public or private settings who have less than 2 years of experience conducting custody evaluations, it is recommended that ongoing supervision and consultation be available and utilized while the evaluator strengthens his or her skills.

    C. Knowledge of Statutes

    The evaluator shall be familiar with the statutes and case law governing child custody. These will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and the evaluator must be completely knowledgeable concerning the criteria for original determination of custody, criteria for change of custody, the use of custody evaluation, qualifications for custody evaluators, and the legal requirements of the custody evaluation process of the jurisdiction in which the evaluation is to be conducted.

    D. Psychological Testing

    If the evaluator is not licensed or certified to perform and interpret psychological testing, any psychological testing that is to be included as part of the custody evaluation must be referred to a licensed/certified psychologist who has the training and experience to understand the issues in custody evaluations.

    III. Evaluation Procedures
    A. Evaluation Elements

    The evaluator shall determine the scope of each evaluation, including who is to be included other than the litigants. In general, as diverse a number of procedures for data collection as possible and feasible to the specific evaluation is encouraged. These may include interviewing, observation, testing, use of collaterals, and home visits. It is important that the evaluator maintain a constant sense of balance, that is, obtaining similar types of information about each parent (when applicable) and spending similar amounts of time with each parent under similar circumstances.

    B. Procedures during an Evaluation

    Each evaluator or team may use different procedures relative to joint and/or individual interviews, the necessity of a home visit, and the circumstances in which the children are interviewed. It is desirable that all parties to a dispute, as well as any other significant caretakers, be evaluated by the same evaluator or team. In cases where domestic violence is an issue, joint interviews may not be advisable.

    C. Evaluations in Two Separate Jurisdictions

    In those cases in which the patients or caretakers reside in geographically separated jurisdictions, different evaluators may be necessary for the evaluations of each parent or caretaker. When such is the case, it is the responsibility of the requesting evaluator to be as specific as possible with the details and information requested from the courtesy evaluator, in order that the returning information is as near as possible to the quality and type of information that the requesting evaluator would have elicited. It is also the responsibility of the originating evaluator to help with the interpretation of the courtesy evaluation for the court. Where feasible, however, it is preferable for all parties to be interviewed by the same evaluator.

    D. Interviewing and Testing

    Each adult shall be evaluated individually, and comparable evaluation techniques shall be used with all of the significant adults. If special procedures, such as psychological testing, are used for general evaluative purposes of one parent or potential caretaker, that procedure or those procedures shall be used for all significant adults involved in the evaluation. However, if a special technique is used to address a specific issue raised about one of the significant adults, it may not be necessary to use that same technique on all other significant adults.

    E. Procedures with Child(Ren)

    Each child shall be evaluated individually with procedures appropriate to the developmental level of the child. These procedures may include observation, verbal or play interview, and formal testing. It is not appropriate to ask children to choose between their parents because, in most families, children need good access to both parents following the divorce and should not be placed in the position of having to choose. Information about the child(ren)'s feelings, thoughts, and wishes about each parent can be obtained through techniques that will not be harmful and guilt inducing. The children shall be observed with each parent or potential caretaker in the office or home setting.

    F. Psychological Testing
    • Any psychological testing is to be conducted by a licensed/certified psychologist who adheres to the ethical standards of the jurisdiction in which he or she is licensed.
    • If testing is conducted with adults or children, it shall be done with knowledge of the limits of the testing and should be viewed only within the context of the information gained from clinical interviews and other available data. Conclusions should take into account the stresses associated with the divorce and the custody dispute.
    • If psychological test data are used as a significant factor in the final recommendations, the limitations of psychological testing in this regard should be outlined in the report.
    • The results of psychological testing shall be discussed with the significant adult participants in the evaluation, especially if the results indicate the need for psychological treatment or counseling. Whatever the outcome of the testing, of primary concern to the evaluator should be the parenting skills and abilities of the individual parents. Diagnostic considerations shall be considered secondary to parenting and treatment considerations.
    G. Collaterals

    1. Information from appropriate outside sources, such as pediatricians, therapists, teachers, health care providers, and day-care personnel, shall be obtained where such information is deemed necessary and related to the issues at hand. Prior to the seeking or gathering of such information releases signed by the parents shall be obtained; these releases shall specifically indicate the areas in which the information is sought and limit the use of this information to use by the evaluator in the preparation of the evaluation report.

    2. Interviewing of family and/or friends shall be handled with great care given its potential for increasing divisiveness and resulting in harm to the children. It is possible, however, that family friends and neighbors may be able to present valuable information and/or leads to the evaluator. The use of such information shall be related to the circumstances of a particular evaluation, used only when the evaluator is convinced of its usefulness, and obtained in a manner that discourages conflict.

    H. Home Visits

    When home visits are made, they shall be made in similar ways to each parent's or potential caretaker's home. Care shall be exercised so that temporary inequality in housing conditions does not lead to bias on the part of the evaluator. Economic circumstance alone shall not be a determining factor in a custody evaluation.

    I. Interpretive Conferences

    The evaluator may hold an interpretive conference with each of the parties, either separately or conjointly. This is not a conference that attorneys need attend. The purpose of this conference is to discuss with each party the recommendations that are to be made and the rationale for each of these recommendations. It should be made clear to each party that these are the recommendations that are to be presented to the court in the evaluation report; acceptance and use by the court cannot be guaranteed.

    IV. Areas of Evaluation
    A. Quality of Relationship between Parent or Caretaker and the Child

    This shall include assessment of the strength and quality of the relationship, emotional closeness, perceptions of each other, and the ability of the parent or potential caretaker to support appropriate development in the child(ren) and to understand and respond to the child(ren)'s needs. The evaluator shall consider ethnic, cultural, lifestyle, and/or religious factors where relevant.

    B. Quality of Relationship between the Contesting Parents or Potential Caretakers

    This shall include assessment of each parent's or potential caretaker's ability to support the child(ren)'s relationship with the other parent and to communicate and cooperate with the other parent regarding the child(ren). The evaluator shall consider the relevancy of ethnic, cultural, lifestyle, and/or religious factors in assessing these relationships. Also, some consideration of the contribution of each parent to the marital and subsequent discord might be helpful in this regard.

    C. Ability of Each Parent or Caretaker to Parent the Child

    This shall include assessment of the parent's or potential caretaker's knowledge of the child(ren), knowledge of parenting techniques, awareness of what is normal development in children, ability to distinguish his or her own needs from the needs of the child(ren), and ability to respond empathically to the child(ren). The evaluator shall consider the relevancy of ethnic, cultural, lifestyle, and/or religious factors in assessing these relationships.

    Also to be taken into account is the ability and/or willingness of the parent, who perhaps has not had the opportunity to learn these skills, to learn them, to demonstrate an interest in learning them, and to try to use them in whatever time he or she has with the child.

    D. Psychological Health of Each Parent or Potential Caretaker

    This shall include assessment of the parent's adaptation to the divorce, ability to develop relationships, ability to provide a stable home for the child(ren), ability to encourage development in the child(ren), and ability to support the child(ren)'s relationship with the other parent or caretaker. Assessment should also be made of factors that might affect parenting, such as alcohol or drug use, domestic violence, or a history of becoming involved in brief or harmful relationships.

    E. Psychological Health of Each Child

    This shall include assessment of special needs of each child, for example, health or developmental problems. It shall also include assessment of the child(ren)'s adjustment to school, friends, community, and extended family. Children shall not be asked to choose between parents. Their overt and covert wishes and fears about their relationships with their parents shall be considered but shall not be the sole basis for making a recommendation.

    F. Patterns of Domestic Violence

    In cases in which domestic violence is alleged or a pattern of domestic violence exists and the evaluator, or evaluation team, does not possess expertise in this area, outside personnel with specialized training and experience in this area shall be consulted. In such cases the recommendation made by the evaluator, after consultation, shall take into consideration both the danger to the other parent or caretaker and the potential danger to and effect on the children.

    V. The Evaluation Report
    A. Style

    The evaluation report shall be written clearly and without jargon so that it can be understood by the court, attorneys, and clients. It shall convey an attitude of understanding and empathy for all of the individuals involved, adults and children, and shall be written in a way that conveys respect for each individual.

    B. Contents

    In preparing reports, evaluators shall be aware that their own professional observations, opinions, recommendations, and conclusions must be distinguished from legal facts, opinions, and conclusions. The report shall include identifying information, reasons for the evaluation, procedures used, family history, evaluation of each child and each parent and caretaker, and evaluation of the relationships among parents and children and among the adults. Conclusions about the individuals and the relationships shall lead logically to the recommendations for custody, access, and visitation. It is helpful, and in some jurisdictions required, to spell out clearly how the data, the conclusions, and the recommendations are related to the statutory requirements.

    C. Distribution
    • The evaluation report shall be distributed according to the rules established by each jurisdiction.
    • After the report has been distributed and considered, the court may order or it may be deemed wise for either or both parties to participate in therapy and/or counseling. The professional counselor/therapist may be an appropriate recipient of the report or that portion of the report relating to his or her client with approval of the court.
    VI. Ethical Principles
    A. Ethical Principles of Professions

    Evaluators are to adhere to the ethical principles of their own professions above the needs of the parties, the attorneys, or the courts. When there is a conflict between these ethical principles and others’ needs, the evaluator shall try to explain the conflict to the parties and the attorneys and shall try to find ways of continuing the evaluation that will minimize or remove the conflict. If that is not possible, the evaluator shall withdraw from the process, with notice to all parties and their attorneys in writing.

    B. Prior Relationships

    An evaluator must disclose any prior relationship between the evaluator and any member of the family and, in most cases, should not perform a custody evaluation if there is a prior relationship of any kind. In addition, a person who has been a mediator or a therapist for any or all members of the family should not perform a custody evaluation because the previous knowledge and relationship may render him or her incapable of being completely neutral and incapable of having unbiased objectivity.

    C. Post-Relationships

    After the completion of an evaluation, the evaluator should similarly be cautious about switching roles to that of either mediator or therapist. Such a change of roles would render future testimony and/or reevaluations invalid by virtue of the change in objectivity and neutrality. If all parties, including the evaluator, wish the evaluator to change roles following an evaluation, it is important for the evaluator to inform the parties of the impact that such a change will have in the areas of possible testimony and/or reevaluation.

    D. Issues beyond the Evaluator's Expertise

    In cases where issues arise that are beyond the scope of the evaluator's expertise, the evaluator shall seek consultation with a professional in the area of concern.

    E. Limitations on Evaluator's Recommendations

    Evaluators shall make every effort to include all parties involved in the custody dispute in the evaluation process itself. Evaluators shall not make statements of fact or inference about parties whom they have not seen. On occasion, evaluators will be unable to see all parties in a custody evaluation dispute, either because of refusal of one party to participate or because of logistical factors such as geography. In these cases the evaluator may perform a limited evaluation, but must limit his or her observations and conclusions. For example, if only one parent is seen, the evaluator must not make statements about the other parent and must not make a recommendation for custody because the other parent has not been seen. The evaluator may report on those individuals who have been seen and on their interactions with each other and may draw conclusions regarding the nature of those relationships, such as whether they should continue, not continue, or be modified in some way. The evaluator may also make comments or state opinions about the need for a more expanded evaluation. Prior to undertaking such an evaluation the evaluator may want to inform the court of the circumstances of the evaluation as well as determine that the party who brings the child for a limited evaluation has the legal right to provide consent for the evaluation.


    Responsibility and authority for final decisions regarding custody and access rest with the court. As the conclusions of the evaluator are but one piece of the evidence before the court, these conclusions are to be framed as recommendations.

    Marin County Special Master Program
    Recommended Special Master Credentials and Qualifications
    Psychologists and Psychiatrists
    • Membership in national or state professional association.
    • Experience:
      • 3 years postlicense experience in child and family therapy.
      • 3 years experience in diagnostic evaluations for family court and/or CPS and/or family mediation service, with a minimum of 10 evaluations.
      • 3 years experience in court-based family mediation.
    • Training:
      • Family systems, child development, psychology of divorce, and custody. Mediation training is helpful.
    • Familiarity with ethical issues of custody disputes.
    • Working knowledge of custody law, with a minimum of six cases working with attorneys and/or court appearances.

    Marriage, Family, and Child Counselors and Licensed Clinical Social Workers Same as above, with 5 years experience for 2A, B, and C.

    • Membership in state or national professional association.
    • Experience:
      • 10 out of the last 12 years experience practicing family law.
      • B. 20 custody cases, carried through judgment.
    • Training:
      • Mediation training required.
      • Continuing education in custody law.
      • Child development and family systems.

    Prepared by the Marin County Task Force on Special Masters.

    Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings


    Decisions regarding child custody and other parenting arrangements occur within several different legal contexts, including parental divorce, guardianship, neglect or abuse proceedings, and termination of parental rights. The following guidelines were developed for psychologists conducting child custody evaluations, specifically within the context of parental divorce. These guidelines build upon the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (APA, 1992) and are aspirational in intent. As guidelines, they are not intended to be either mandatory or exhaustive. The goal of the guidelines is to promote proficiency in using psychological expertise in conducting child custody evaluations.

    Parental divorce requires a restructuring of parental rights and responsibilities in relation to children. If the parents can agree to a restructuring arrangement, which they do in the overwhelming proportion (90%) of divorce custody cases (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1987), there is no dispute for the court to decide. However, if the parents are unable to reach such an agreement, the court must help to determine the relative allocation of decision making authority and physical contact each parent will have with the child. The courts typically apply a “best interest of the child” standard in determining this restructuring of rights and responsibilities.

    Psychologists provide an important service to children and the courts by providing competent, objective, impartial information in assessing the best interests of the child, by demonstrating a clear sense of direction and purpose in conducting a child custody evaluation, by performing their roles ethically, and by clarifying to all involved the nature and scope of the evaluation. The Ethics Committee of the American Psychological Association has noted that psychologists’ involvement in custody disputes has at times raised questions in regard to the misuse of psychologists’ influence, sometimes resulting in complaints against psychologists being __ brought to the attention of the APA Ethics Committee (APA Ethics Committee, 1985; Hall & Hare-Mustin, 1983; Keith-Spiegel & Koocher, 1985; Mills, 1984) and raising questions in the legal and forensic literature (Grisso, 1986; Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1987; Mnookin, 1975; Ochroch, 1982; Okpaku, 1976; Weithorn, 1987).

    These guidelines are from pages 677–680 of the American Psychologist, 1994, Volume 49, Copyright 1994, by the American Psychological Association and reprinted by permission.

    These guidelines were drafted by the Committee on Professional Practice and Standards, A Committee of the Board of Professional Affairs with Input from the Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. Adopted by the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association, February 1994.

    Acknowledgements: COPPS 1991–1993 members, Richard Cohen, Alex Carbalo Dieguez, Kathleen Dockett, Sam Friedman, Colette Ingraham, John Northman, John Robinson, Deborah Tharinger, Susana Urbina, Phil Witt, and James Wulach; BPA Liaisons 1991–1993, Richard Cohen, Joseph Kobos, and Rodney Lowman; and CYF members, Don Routh and Carolyn Swift.

    Particular competencies and knowledge are required for child custody evaluations to provide adequate and appropriate psychological services to the court. Child custody evaluation in the context of parental divorce can be an extremely demanding task. For competing parents the stakes are high as they participate in a process fraught with tension and anxiety. The stress on the psychologist/evaluator can become great. Tension surrounding child custody evaluation can become further heightened when there are accusations of child abuse, neglect, and/or family violence.

    Psychology is in a position to make significant, contributions to child custody decisions. Psychological data and expertise, gained through a child custody evaluation, can provide an additional source of information and an additional perspective not otherwise readily available to the court on what appears to be in a child's best interest, and thus can increase the fairness of the determination the court must make.

    Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings
    I. Orienting Guidelines: Purpose of a Child Custody Evaluation
    • The Primary Purpose of the Evaluation Is to Assess the Best Psychological Interests of the Child. The primary consideration in a child custody evaluation is to assess the individual and family factors that affect the best psychological interests of the child. More specific questions may be raised by the court.
    • The Child's Interests and Well-Being Are Paramount. In a child custody evaluation, the child's interests and wellbeing are paramount. Parents competing for custody, as well as others, may have legitimate concerns, but the child's best interests must prevail.
    • The Focus of the Evaluation Is on Parenting Capacity, the Psychological and Developmental Needs of the Child, and the Resulting Fit. In considering psychological factors affecting the best interests of the child, the psychologist focuses on the parenting capacity of the prospective custodians in conjunction with the psychological and developmental needs of each involved child. This involves; 1) an assessment of the adults’ capacity for parenting, including whatever knowledge, attributes, skills, and abilities, or lack thereof, are present; 2) an assessment of the psychological functioning and developmental needs of each child, and the wishes of each child, where appropriate; and 3) the functional ability of each parent to meet these needs, which includes an evaluation of the interaction between each adult and child.

    The values of the parents relevant to parenting, ability to plan for the child's future needs, capacity to provide a stable and loving home, and any potential for inappropriate behavior or misconduct that might negatively influence the child also are considered. Psychopathology may be relevant to such an assessment, in so far as it has impact on the child or the ability to parent, but it is not the primary focus.

    II. General Guidelines: Preparing for a Child Custody Evaluation
    • The Role of the Psychologist is a Professional Expert, Who Strives to Maintain an Objective, Impartial Stance. The role of the psychologist is as a professional expert. The psychologist does not act as a judge, who makes the ultimate decision applying the law to all relevant evidence. Neither does the psychologist act as an advocating attorney, who strives to present his or her client's best possible case. The psychologist, in a balanced, impartial manner, informs and advises the court and the prospective custodians of the child of the relevant psychological factors pertaining to the custody issue. The psychologist should be impartial regardless of whether he or she is retained by the court or by a party to the proceedings. If either the psychologist or the client cannot accept this neutral role, the psychologist should consider withdrawing from the case. If not permitted to withdraw, in such circumstances, the psychologist acknowledges past roles and other factors which could affect impartiality.
    • The Psychologist Gains Specialized Competence.
      • A psychologist contemplating performing child custody evaluations is aware that special competencies and knowledge are required for the undertaking of such evaluations. Competence in performing psychological assessments of children, adults, and families is necessary but not sufficient. Education, training, experience and/or supervision in the areas of child and family development, child and family psychopathology, and the impact of divorce on children, help to prepare the psychologist to participate competently in child custody evaluations. The psychologist also strives to become familiar with applicable legal standards and procedures, including laws governing divorce and custody adjudications in his or her state or jurisdiction.
      • The psychologist uses current knowledge of scientific and professional developments, consistent with accepted clinical and scientific standards, in selecting data collection methods and procedures. The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (APA, 1985) are adhered to in the use of psychological tests and other assessment tools.
      • In the course of conducting child custody evaluations, allegations of child abuse, neglect, family violence, or other issues may occur that are not necessarily within the scope of a particular evaluator's expertise. If this is so, the psychologist seeks additional consultation, supervision, and/or specialized knowledge, training or experience in child abuse, neglect, and family violence to address these complex issues. The psychologist is familiar with the laws of his or her state addressing child abuse, neglect, and family violence, and acts accordingly.
    • The Psychologist Is Aware of Personal and Societal Biases and Engages in Non-Discriminatory Practice. The psychologist engaging in child custody evaluations is aware of how biases regarding age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, culture and socioeconomic status may interfere with an objective evaluation and recommendations. The psychologist recognizes and strives to overcome any such biases, or withdraws from the evaluation.
    • The Psychologist Avoids Multiple Relationships. Psychologists generally avoid conducting a child custody evaluation in a case in which the psychologist served in a therapeutic role for the child or his or her immediate family or has had other involvement which may compromise the psychologist's objectivity. This should not, however, preclude the psychologist from testifying in the case as a fact witness concerning treatment of the child. In addition, during the course of a child custody evaluation, a psychologist does not accept any of the involved participants in the evaluation as a therapy client. Therapeutic contact with the child or involved participants following a child custody evaluation is undertaken with caution. A psychologist asked to testify regarding a therapy client who is involved in a child custody case is aware of the limitations and possible biases inherent in such a role, and possible impact on the ongoing therapeutic relationship. While the court may require the psychologist to testify as a fact witness regarding factual information he or she became aware of in a professional relationship with a client, that psychologist should generally decline the role of an expert witness who gives a professional opinion regarding custody and visitation issues (see Ethical Standard 7.03), unless so ordered by the court.
    III. Procedural Guidelines: Conducting a Child Custody Evaluation
    • The Scope of the Evaluation is Determined by the Evaluator, Based on the Nature of the Referral Question. The scope of the custody-related evaluation is determined by the nature of the question or issue raised by the referring person or the court, or is inherent in the situation. While comprehensive child custody evaluations generally require an evaluation of all parents or guardians and children, as well as observations of interactions between them, the scope of the assessment in a particular case may be limited to evaluating the parental capacity of one parent, without attempting to compare the parents or to make recommendations. Likewise, the scope may be limited to evaluating the child. Or a psychologist may be asked to critique the assumptions and methodology of the assessment of another mental health professional. A psychologist also might serve as an expert witness in the area of child development, providing expertise to the court without relating it specifically to the parties involved in a case.
    • The Psychologist Obtains Informed Consent From All Adult Participants and, as Appropriate, Informs Child Participants. In undertaking child custody evaluations, the psychologist ensures that each adult participant is aware of: 1) the purpose, nature, and method of the evaluation; 2) who has requested the psychologist's services; and 3) who will be paying the fees. The psychologist informs adult participants about the nature of the assessment instruments and techniques and informs those participants about the possible disposition of the data collected. The psychologist provides this information, as appropriate, to children, to the extent that they are able to understand.
    • The Psychologist Informs Participants About the Limits of Confidentiality and the Disclosure of Information. A psychologist conducting a child custody evaluation ensures that the participants, including children to the extent feasible, are aware of the limits of confidentiality characterizing the professional relationship with the psychologist. The psychologist informs participants that in consenting to the evaluation, they are consenting to disclosure of the evaluation's findings in the context of the forthcoming litigation, and any other proceedings deemed necessary by the courts. A psychologist obtains a waiver of confidentiality from all adult participants, or from their authorized legal representatives.
    • The Psychologist Uses Multiple Methods of Data Gathering. The psychologist strives to use the most appropriate methods available for addressing the questions raised in a specific child custody evaluation, and generally uses multiple methods of data gathering, including, but not limited to, clinical interviews, observation and/or psychological assessments. Important facts and opinions are documented from at least two sources whenever their reliability is questionable. The psychologist, for example, may review potentially relevant reports, e.g., from schools, health care providers, child care providers, agencies, and institutions. Psychologists may also interview extended family, friends, and other individuals on occasions when the information is likely to be useful. If information is gathered from third parties that is significant and may be used as a basis for conclusions, psychologists corroborate it by at least one other source wherever possible and appropriate, and document this in the report.
    • The Psychologist Neither Over-Interprets Nor Inappropriately Interprets Clinical or Assessment Data. The psychologist refrains from drawing conclusions not adequately supported by the data. The psychologist interprets any data from interviews or tests, as well as any questions of data reliability and validity, cautiously and conservatively, seeking convergent validity. The psychologist strives to acknowledge to the court any limitations in methods or data used.
    • The Psychologist Does Not Give Any Opinion Regarding the Psychological Functioning of Any Individual Who Has Not Been Personally Evaluated. This guideline, however, does not preclude the psychologist from reporting what an evaluated individual (such as the parent or child) has stated, or from addressing theoretical issues or hypothetical questions, so long as the limited basis of the information is noted.
    • Recommendations, If Any, are Based Upon What is in the Best Psychological Interests of the Child. While the profession has not reached consensus about whether psychologists ought to make recommendations about the final custody determination to the courts, psychologists are obligated to be aware of the arguments on both sides of this issue, and to be able to explain the logic of their position concerning their own practice. If the psychologist does choose to make custody recommendations, they should be derived from sound psychological data, and must be based upon the best interests of the child, in the particular. Recommendations are based on articulated assumptions, data, interpretations, and inferences based upon established professional and scientific standards. Psychologists guard against relying upon their own biases or unsupported beliefs in rendering opinions in particular cases.
    • The Psychologist Clarifies Financial Arrangements. Financial arrangements are clarified and agreed upon prior to commencing a child custody evaluation. When billing for a child custody evaluation, the psychologist does not misrepresent his or her services for reimbursement purposes.
    • The Psychologist Maintains Written Records. All records obtained in the process of conducting a child custody evaluation are properly maintained and filed in accord with the APA Record Keeping Guidelines (APA, 1993) and relevant statutory guidelines. All raw data and interview information are recorded with an eye towards their possible review by other psychologists or the court, where legally permitted. Upon request, appropriate reports are made available to the court.
    American Psychological Association. (1992). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct, American Psychologist, 47(12), 1597–1611.
    American Psychological Association. (1993). Record keeping guidelines. Washington, DC: Author.
    American Psychological Association. (1985). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: Author.
    American Psychological Association, Ethics Committee. (1985). Annual report of the american psychological association ethics committee. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, Ethics Department.
    Grisso, T. (1986). Evaluating competencies: Forensic assessments and instruments. New York: Plenum.
    Hall, J. E., & Hare-Mustin, R. T. (1983). Sanctions and the diversity of ethical complaints against psychologists. American Psychologist, 38, 714–729.
    Keith-Spiegel, P., & Koocher, G. P. (1985). Ethics in psychology. New York: Random House.
    Melton, G. B., Petrila, J., Poythress, N. G., & Slobogin, C. (1987). Psychological evaluations for the courts: A handbook for mental health professionals and lawyers. New York: Guilford Press.
    Mills, D. H. (1984). Ethics education and adjudication within psychology. American Psychologist, 39, 669–675.
    Mnookin, R. H. (1975). Child-custody adjudication: Judicial functions in the face of indeterminacy. Law and Contemporary Problems, 39, 226–293.
    Ochroch, R. (1982). Ethical pitfalls in child custody evaluations. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
    Okpaku, S. (1976). Psychology: Impediment or aid in child custody cases?Rutgers Law Review, 29, 1117–1153.
    Weithorn, L. A. (Ed.). (1987). Psychology and child custody determinations: Knowledge, roles, and expertise. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
    Other Resources: State Guidelines
    Georgia Psychological Association. (1990). Recommendations for psychologists’ involvement in child custody cases. Atlanta, GA: Author.
    Metropolitan Denver Interdisciplinary Committee on Child Custody. (1989). Guidelines for child custody evaluations. Denver, CO: Author.
    Nebraska Psychological Association. (1986). Guidelines for child custody evaluations. Lincoln, NE: Author.
    New Jersey State Board of Psychological Examiners. (1993). Specialty guidelines for psychologists in custody/visitation evaluations. Newark, NJ: Author.
    North Carolina Psychological Association, (draft, 1993). Child custody guidelines. Unpublished manuscript.
    Oklahoma Psychological Association. (1988). Ethical guidelines for child custody evaluations. Oklahoma City, OK: Author.
    Pennsylvania Psychological Association, Clinical Division/Task Force on Child Custody Evaluation. (1991). Roles for psychologists in child custody disputes. Unpublished manuscript.
    Other Resources: Forensic Guidelines
    Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. (1991). Specialty guidelines for forensic psychologists. Law and Human Behavior, 6, 655–665.
    Other Resources: Pertinent Literature
    Ackerman, M. J., & Kane, A. W. (1990). How to examine psychological experts in divorce and other civil actions. Colorado Springs, CO: Wiley Law Publications.
    American Psychological Association, Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs. (1991). Guidelines for providers of psychological services to ethnic, linguistic, and culturally diverse populations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
    American Psychological Association, Committee on Women in Psychology and Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns. (1988). Lesbian parents and their children: A resource paper for psychologists. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
    Beaber, R. J. (1982, Fall). Custody quagmire: Some psycholegal dilemmas. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 309–326.
    Bennett, B. E., Bryant, B. K., VandenBos, G. R., & Greenwood, A. (1990). Professional liability and risk management. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
    Bolocofsky, D. N. (1989). Use and abuse of mental health experts in child custody determinations. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 7(2), 197–213.
    Bozett, F. (1987). Gay and lesbian parents. New York: Praeger.
    Bray, J. H. (1993), What's the best interest of the child? Children's adjustment issues in divorce. The Independent Practitioner, 13, 42–45.
    Bricklin, B. (1992). Data-based tests in custody evaluations. American Journal of Family Therapy, 20, 254–265.
    Cantor, D. W. & Drake, E. A. (1982). Divorced parents and their children: A guide for mental health professionals. New York: Springer.
    Chester, P. (1991). Mothers on trial: The battle for children and custody. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
    Deed, M. L. (1991). Court-ordered child custody evaluations: Helping or victimizing vulnerable families. Psychotherapy, 28, 76–84.
    Falk, P. J. (1989). Lesbian mothers: Psychosocial assumptions in family law. American Psychologist, 44, 941–947.
    Gardner, R. A. (1989). Family evaluation in child custody mediation, arbitration, and litigation. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
    Gardner, R. A. (1992). The parental alienation syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
    Gardner, R. A. (1992). True and false accusations of child abuse. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
    Goldstein, J., Freud, A., & Solnit, A. J. (1980). Before the best interests of the child. New York: Free Press.
    Goldstein, J., Freud, A., & Solnit, A. J. (1980). Beyond the best interests of the child. New York: Free Press.
    Goldstein, J., Freud, A., Solnit, A. J., & Goldstein, S. (1986). In the best interests of the child. New York: Free Press.
    Grisso, T. (1990). Evolving guidelines for divorce/custody evaluations. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 28(1), 35–41.
    Halon, R. L.The comprehensive child custody evaluation. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 8(3), 19–46.
    Hetherington, E. M. (1990). Coping with family transitions: Winners, losers, and survivors. Child Development, 60, 1–14.
    Hetherington, E. M., Stanley-Hagen, M., & Anderson, E. R. (1988). Marital transitions: A child's perspective. American Psychologist, 44, 303–312.
    Johnston, J., Kline, M. & Tschann, J. (1989). Ongoing postdivorce conflict. Effects on children of joint custody and frequent access. Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59, 576–592.
    Koocher, G. P., & Keith-Spiegel, P. C. (1990). Children, ethics, and the law: Professional issues and cases. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
    Kreindler, S. (1986). The role of mental health professions in custody and access disputes. In R. S.Parry, E. A., Broder, E. A. G.Schmitt, E. B.Saunders, and E.Hood (Eds.), Custody disputes: Evaluation and intervention. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
    Martindale, D. A., Martindale, J. L., and Broderick, J. E. (1991). Providing expert testimony in child custody litigation. In P. A.Keller and S. R.Heyman (Eds.), Innovations in clinical practice: A source book (Vol. 10). Sarasota, Florida: Professional Resource Exchange.
    Patterson, C. J. (in press). Children of lesbian and gay parents. Child Development.
    Saunders, T. R. (1991). An overview of some psycholegal issues in child physical and sexual abuse. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 9(2), 61–78.
    Schutz, B. M., Dixon, E. B., Lindenberger, J. C., & Ruther, N. J. (1989). Solomon's sword: A practical guide to conducting child custody evaluations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Stahly, G. B. (1989). Testimony on child abuse policy to APA Board. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Board of Directors meeting, New Orleans, LA.
    Thoennes, N., & Tjaden, P. G. (1991). The extent, nature, and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody/visitation disputes. Child Abuse & Neglect, 14, 151–163.
    Wallerstein, J. S., & Blakeslee, S. (1989). Second chances: Men, women, and children a decade after divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields.
    Wallerstein, J. S. & Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the breakup. New York: Basic Books.
    Weissman, H. N. (1991). Child custody evaluations: Fair and unfair professional practices. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 9, 469–476.
    Weithorn, L. A. & Grisso, T. (1987). Psychological evaluations in divorce custody: Problems, principles, and procedures. In L. A.Weithorn (Ed.), Psychology and child custody determinations. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
    White, S. (1990). The contamination of children's interviews. Child youth and family services quarterly, 13(3).
    Wyer, M. M., Gaylord, S. J. & Grove, E. T.The legal context of child custody evaluations. In L. A.Weithorn (Ed.), Psychology and child custody determinations. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
    American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children

    Guidelines for Psychosocial Evaluation of Suspected Sexual Abuse in Young Children
    Statement of Purpose

    These Guidelines for mental health professionals reflect current knowledge and consensus about the psychosocial evaluation of suspected sexual abuse in young children. They are not intended as a standard of practice to which practitioners are expected to adhere in all cases. Evaluators must have the flexibility to exercise clinical judgment in individual cases. Laws and local customs may also influence the accepted method in a given community. Practitioners should be knowledgeable about various constraints on practice, and prepared to justify their decisions about particular practices in specific cases. As experience and scientific knowledge expand, further refinement and revision of these Guidelines are expected.

    These Guidelines are specific to psychosocial assessments. Sexual abuse is known to produce both acute and long-term negative psychological effect requiring therapeutic intervention. Psychosocial assessments are a systematic process of gathering information and forming professional opinions about the source of statements, behavior, and other evidence that form the basis of concern about possible sexual abuse. Psychosocial evaluations are broadly concerned with understanding developmental, familial, and historical factors and events that may be associated with psychological adjustment. The results of such evaluations may be used to assist in legal decision making and in directing treatment planning.

    ©Copyright 1990. All rights reserved by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.

    Acknowledgments: These Guidelines are the product of APSAC's Task Force on the Psychosocial Evaluation of Suspected Sexual Abuse in Young Children, chaired by Lucy Berliner, MSW. A group of experts who responded to a lengthy, open-ended, mailed survey provided the content for the first draft. That draft was revised based on comments from a large number of practitioners who responded to mailed requests for input and who participated in the open Task Force meeting held at the Fourth Annual Health Science Response to Child Maltreatment conference, held in San Diego, California, in January, 1990. The next draft was published for comment in APSAC's newsletter, The Advisor, in Spring, 1990. Revised according to suggestions made by APSAC members and Board, this is the final result.

    Appreciation goes to all the practitioner/experts who contributed much of their time and expertise to make these Guidelines valuable. Special thanks goes to Richard Stille, Ph.D., who helped synthesize the first draft.

    The Guidelines will be updated periodically. Any comments or suggestions about them should be directed to Lucy Berliner through APSAC, 332 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 1600, Chicago. Illinois, 60604.

    Interviews of children for possible sexual abuse are conducted by other professionals as well, including child protective service workers, law enforcement investigators, special “child interviewers,” and medical practitioners. Such interviews are most often limited to a single, focused session which concentrates on eliciting reliable statements about possible sexual abuse; they are not designed to assess the child's general adjustment and functioning. Principles about interviewing contained in the Guidelines may be applied to investigatory or history-taking interviews. Some of the preferred practices, however (e.g., number of interviews), will not apply.

    Psychosocial evaluators should first establish their role in the evaluation process. Evaluations performed at the request of a court may require a different stance and include additional components than those conducted for purely clinical reasons. The difference between the evaluation phase and a clinical phase must be clearly articulated if the same professional is to be involved. In all cases, evaluators should be aware that any interview with a child regarding possible sexual abuse may be subject to scrutiny and have significant implications for legal decision making and the child's safety and well-being.

    • The Evaluator
      • Characteristics
        • The evaluator should possess an advanced mental health degree in a recognized discipline (e.g., M.D., or Masters or Ph.D. in psychology, social work, counseling, or psychiatric nursing).
        • The evaluator should have experience evaluating and treating children and families. A minimum of two years of professional experience with children is expected, three to five years is preferred. The evaluator should also possess at least two years of professional experience with sexually abused children. If the evaluator does not possess such experience, supervision is essential.
        • It is essential that the evaluator have specialized training in child development and child sexual abuse. This should be documented in terms of formal course work, supervision, or attendance at conferences, seminars, and workshops.
        • The evaluator should be familiar with current professional literature on sexual abuse and be knowledgeable about the dynamics and the emotional and behavioral consequences of abuse experiences.
        • The evaluator should have experience in conducting forensic evaluations and providing court testimony. If the evaluator does not possess such experience, supervision is essential.
        • The evaluator should approach the evaluation with an open mind to all possible responses from the child and all possible explanations for the concern about possible sexual abuse.
    • Components of the Evaluation
      • Protocol
        • A written protocol is not necessary; however evaluations should routinely involve reviewing all pertinent materials; conducting collateral interviews when necessary; establishing rapport; assessing the child's general functioning, developmental status, and memory capacity; and thoroughly evaluating the possibility of abuse. The evaluator may use discretion in the order of presentation and method of assessment.
      • B. Employer of the Evaluator
        • Evaluation of the child may be conducted at the request of a legal guardian prior to court involvement.
        • If a court proceeding is involved, the preferred practice is a court-appointed or mutually agreed upon evaluation of the child.
        • Discretion should be used in agreeing to conduct an evaluation of a child when the child has already been evaluated or when there is current court involvement. Minimizing the number of evaluations should be a consideration; additional evaluations should be conducted only if they clearly further the best interests of the child. When a second opinion is required, a review of the records may eliminate the need for reinterviewing the child.
      • C. Number of Evaluators
        • It is acceptable to have a single evaluator. However, when the evaluation will include the accused or suspected individual, a team approach is the preferred practice, with information concerning the progress of the evaluation readily available among team members. Consent should be obtained from all participants prior to releasing information.
      • D. Collateral Information Gathered as Part of the Evaluation
        • Review of all relevant background material as part of the evaluation is the preferred practice.
        • The evaluation report should document all the materials used and demonstrate their objective review in the evaluation process.
      • E. Interviewing the Accused or Suspected Individual
        • It is not necessary to interview the accused or suspected individual in order to form an opinion about possible sexual abuse of the child.
        • An interview with or review of the statements from a suspected or accused individual (when available) may provide additional relevant information (e.g., alternative explanations, admissions, insight into relationship between child and accused individual).
        • If the accused or suspected individual is a parent, preferred practice is for the child evaluator to contact or interview that parent. If a full assessment of the accused or suspected parent is indicated, a team approach is the preferred practice.
      • Releasing Information
        • Suspected abuse should always be reported to authorities as dictated by state law.
        • Permission should be obtained from legal guardians for receipt of collateral materials and for release of information about the examination to relevant medical or mental health professionals, other professionals (e.g., schoolteachers), and involved legal systems (e.g., CPS, law enforcement). Discretion should be used in releasing sensitive individual and family history which does not directly relate to the purpose of the assessment.
        • When an evaluation is requested by the court, information should be released to all parties to the action after consent is obtained.
    • Interviewing
      • Recording of Interviews
        • Audio or video recording may be preferred practice in some communities. Professional preference, logistics, or clinical consideration may contraindicate recording of interviews. Professional discretion is permitted in recording policies and practices.
        • Detailed written documentation is the minimum requirement, with specific attention to questions and responses (verbal and nonverbal) regarding possible sexual abuse. Verbatim quotes of significant questions and answers are desirable.
        • When audio and video recording are used, the child must be informed. It is desirable to obtain written agreement from the child and legal guardian(s).
      • Observation of the Interview
        • Observation of interviews by involved professionals (CPS, law enforcement, etc.) may be indicated if it reduces the need for additional interviews.
        • Observation by non-accused and non-suspected primary caregiver(s) may be indicated for particular clinical reasons; however, great care should be taken that the observation is clinically appropriate, does not unduly distress the child, and does not affect the validity of the evaluation process.
        • If interviews are observed, the child must be informed and it is desirable to obtain written agreement from the child and legal guardian(s).
      • Number of Interviews
        • Preferred practice is two to six sessions for directed assessment. This does not imply that all sessions must include specific questioning about possible sexual abuse. The evaluator may decide based on the individual case circumstances to adopt a less direct approach and reserve questioning. Repeated direct questioning of the child regarding sexual abuse when the child is not reporting or is denying abuse is contraindicated.
        • If the child does not report abuse within the two to six sessions of directed evaluation, but the evaluator has continuing concerns about the possibility of abuse, the child should be referred for extended evaluation or therapy which is less directive but diagnostically focused, and the child's protection from possible abuse should be recommended.
      • Format of Interview
        • Preferred practice is, whenever possible, to interview first the primary caretaker to gather background information.
        • The child should be seen individually for initial interviews, except when the child refuses to separate. Discussion of possible abuse in the presence of the caretaker during initial interviews should be avoided except when necessary to elicit information from the child. In such cases, the interview setting should be structured to reduce the possibility of improper influence by the caretaker upon the child's behavior.
        • Joint sessions with the child and the non-accused caretaker or accused or suspected individual may be helpful to obtain information regarding the overall quality of the relationships. The sessions should not be conducted for the purpose of determining whether abuse occurred based on the child's reactions to the accused or suspected individual. Nor should joint sessions be conducted if they may cause significant additional trauma to the child. A child should never be asked to confirm the abuse statements in front of an accused individual.
    • Child Interview
      • General Principles
        • The evaluator should create an atmosphere that enables the child to talk freely, including providing physical surroundings and a climate that facilitates the child's comfort and communication.
        • Language and interviewing approach should be developmentally appropriate.
        • The evaluator should take the time necessary to perform a complete evaluation and should avoid any coercive quality to the interview.
        • Interview procedures may be modified in cases involving very young, pre-verbal, or minimally verbal children or children with special problems (e.g., developmentally delayed, electively mute).
      • Questioning
        • The child should be questioned directly about possible sexual abuse at some point in the evaluation.
        • Initial questioning should be as non-directive as possible to elicit spontaneous responses. If open-ended questions are not productive, more directive questioning should follow.
        • The evaluator may use the form of questioning deemed necessary to elicit information on which to base an opinion. Highly specific questioning should only be used when other methods of questioning have failed, when previous information warrants substantial concern, or when the child's developmental level precludes more non-directive approaches. However, responses to these questions should be carefully evaluated and weighed accordingly.
      • Use of Dolls and Other Devices
        • A variety of non-verbal tools should be available to assist the child in communication, including drawings, toys, dollhouses, dolls, puppets, etc.
        • Anatomically detailed dolls should be used with care and discretion. Preferred practice is to have them available for identification of body parts, clarification of previous statements, or demonstration by non- or low-verbal children after there is indication of abuse activity.
        • The anatomically detailed dolls should not be considered a diagnostic test. Unusual behavior with the dolls may suggest further lines of inquiry and should be noted in the evaluation report, but is not generally considered conclusive of a history of sexual abuse.
      • Psychological Testing
        • Formal psychological testing of the child is not indicated for the purpose of proving or disproving a history of sexual abuse.
        • Testing is useful when the clinician is concerned about the child's intellectual or developmental level, or about the possible presence of a thought disorder. Psychological tests can also provide helpful information regarding a child's emotional status.
        • Evaluation of non-accused and accused individuals often involves complete psychological testing to assess for significant psychopathology or sexual deviance.
    • Conclusions/Report
      • General Principles
        • The evaluator should take care to communicate that mental health professionals have no special ability to detect whether an individual is telling the truth.
        • The evaluator may directly state that abuse did or did not occur, or may say that a child's behavior and words are consistent or inconsistent with abuse, or with a history or absence of history of abuse.
        • Opinions about whether abuse occurred or did not occur should include supporting information (e.g., the child's and/or the accused individual's statements, behavior, psychological symptoms). Possible alternative explanations should be addressed and ruled out.
        • The evaluation may be inconclusive. If so, the evaluator should cite the information that causes continuing concern but does not enable confirmation or disconfirmation of abuse. If inconclusiveness is due to such problems as missing information or an untimely or poorly conducted investigation, these obstacles should be clearly noted in the report
        • Recommendations should be made regarding therapeutic or environmental interventions to address the child's emotional and behavioral functioning and to ensure the child's safety.

    Suggested Readings

    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (1988). Guidelines for the clinical evaluation of child and adolescent sexual abuse.
    American Psychological Association. (1990). Ethical principles of psychologists. Washington, DC: Author.
    Ames, J., & Huntington, D. (1991). Child custody evaluation. San Francisco: Judicial Council of California.
    Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners. (1988). Child custody evaluation guidelines. Phoenix: Author.
    Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (1988). The sexual abuse allegations final report. Madison, WI: Author.
    Blush, G., & Ross, K. (1987). Sexual allegations in divorce: The SAID syndrome. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 25(19), 1–11.
    Breese, P., Stearns, G., Bess, B., & Packer, L. (1986). Allegations of child sexual abuse in child custody disputes: A therapeutic assessment model. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 56, 560–569.
    Brodsky, S. (1991). Testifying in court: Guidelines and maxims for the expert witness. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
    Campbell, T. (1992). Child custody evaluations and appropriate standards of psychological practice. Michigan Bar Journal, 71, 278–283.
    Chisolm, B., & MacNaughton, H. C. (1990), Custody/access assessments; A practical guide for lawyers and assessors. Toronto: Carswell.
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    About the Author

    Philip Michael Stahl, Ph.D., a psychologist in Northern California, has worked with families of divorce for nearly 15 years. He did his original doctoral research on attitudes and beliefs about joint custody. Since he began doing custody evaluations for the courts in Michigan he has completed over 600 custody evaluations and continues to do such evaluations as a major part of his practice. He is a past president of the Michigan Inter-Professional Association on Marriage, Divorce, and the Family (MIPA).

    Currently Dr. Stahl is a member of the national board of directors of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), cochair of its private practice committee, and a member of its custody evaluation committee. He is also a member of the task force on custody evaluations and Special Master work for the Contra Costa County Psychological Association (California). He has provided training and supervision for others learning about custody evaluations. He has given numerous workshops and seminars on topics in this book and has written about many issues related to divorce, foster care, and residential treatment of children. He is the author of Children on Consignment, a book on parenting foster children and their special needs.

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