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Kim Oppenheimer, Ph.D.,

Family law professionals are often confused about the different types of forensic evaluations available to assist them in making custody recommendations on behalf of their clients. The distinctions between a forensic psychological evaluation, a forensic parental fitness evaluation, and a custody evaluation are small but significant, as the type of evaluation ordered by the court frames the scope of work and determines the recommendations that ethically can be rendered. This paper will describe the similarities and differences between the types of evaluations that forensically trained psychologists provide.

All evaluations begin with a referral question or questions, referring to the issues that an attorney or Guardian ad Litem (GAL) wants investigated. The referral questions either may be based on allegations made by his/her client or observations of behavior during the pendency of the case. For example, one party may raise concerns over his/her spouse drinking to excess and passing out in front of the children, thus alleging a substance abuse problem and the other party may contend that his/her spouse is alienating the children from her/her. Or, the GAL may have discovered that one parent has a history of conflictual relationships in the neighborhood and the other parent seems excessively withdrawn. The GAL may ask for an evaluation to determine if either or both parties have a personality disorder or other mental health diagnosis that impacts parenting. In the first example, a custody evaluation is warranted, and the second example calls for a parental fitness evaluation. The referral question frames the evaluation. All evaluations include multiple interviews with the referred individual or individuals, behavioral observations, psychological testing, collateral witness interviews, and a review of pleadings and documents.

A forensic psychological evaluation is the most requested type of evaluation, yet it has low utility for courts, attorneys, and GALs. It only provides information about an individual’s mental health status, personality strengths and weaknesses, and diagnoses, if applicable. The impact of psychological functioning on parenting behavior can be inferred but not conclusively stated. For example, if an individual exhibits behaviors consistent with Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it says nothing about the person’s parenting capacity, as there is no assessment of parenting strengths and weaknesses or parent-child observational data. One can only assume that symptoms such as affective instability, grandiosity, poor interpersonal relationships, or lack of empathy negatively impacts parenting ability. Moreover, even if psychological evaluations are performed on both parties, no statements can be made about their relative parenting abilities.

A parental fitness evaluation, however, includes a psychological evaluation, an assessment of parenting skills, knowledge and perceptions of an individual’s child, parental stress, and observations of parent-child interactions. Since an observation is conducted, the Evaluator can describe the bond and attachment style of the parent and child. According to the American Association Psychological guidelines, this type of evaluation addresses the unique psychological and developmental needs of the child and/or parent pertaining to child protection issues, such as physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or emotional harm. Parental fitness evaluations focus on providing in-depth findings about an individual’s psychological functioning and ability to function as a parent for his/her child. In this type of evaluation, the Evaluator cannot make custody recommendations or opine on relative parenting skills, even if dual parental fitness evaluations are conducted. The Evaluator can recommend stipulations on parenting time, such as the need for supervised visitation, a graduated parenting plan, no overnights, use of a Sober Link device, or other provisions to ensure the safety of a child.

A child custody evaluation is the most comprehensive type of evaluation. It consists of psychological and fitness evaluations of all adults in both parent’s households, parenting and coparenting capacities, an evaluation of the child or children, parent-child observations, and observations of sibling interactions. A custody evaluation is best suited for complex cases in which there are allegations of parental alienation and/or family violence, including sexual abuse. Given the breadth and depth of this type of evaluation, the Evaluator can make recommendations on custody, parenting time, and stipulations thereof.