People started to talk about forensic psychology in the 21st century as soon as the testimonies of psychologists were used in courts in order to help the juries to come to the correct conclusion and come out with the clear verdict. Psychologists do contribute to identifying competence to standard trial, work with criminal profiling and play a great role in child custody cases.
Child custody disputes are rather sophisticated as the main decision concerns either removing or not the child from his/her home and from parents. Certainly there have to be provided a lot of evidences, like mental illness of a parent, lack of necessary care for child and so on. In order to collect all the necessary information, interviews, standardized tests, observations of interactions between parent and child are used. Usually such kinds of trials are emotionally hard.
We already mentioned the forensic branch of psychology and that recently the courts started to use the help of psychologists during the trials, thus the position of forensic evaluator appeared, this is a person who is chosen by court, his task is to gather information about the family, interviewing and testing family members and people who know this family. Later on this information is presented to the court in the form of written report. It is also possible that evaluator visits the trial and testifies.
There are several common concepts concerning the child custody, for example the “tender years” presumption states that young children should stay with their mothers, as maternal-infant relations are really important.
In the USA one the most important principles applied to custody decisions is “the best interests of the child”. The same concept is luckily to be interpreted in different ways by judges, but still they mostly concentrate on the best fulfillment of the needs of a child.
The evaluator in child custody is not simply a therapist for some traditional setting. The roles of therapists and forensic evaluator should be separated in this case and the evaluator has to posses certain skills, like for example “an engaging interview style, an understanding of family relationships and interpersonal dynamics, an appreciation for child and adult developmental issues, and familiarity with family law in the local jurisdiction” (1).
The forensic evaluator has no duty to the child or to the parents, he has to present the report for the court only. His main aim is not to treat or to help in some clinical case, his aim is to give the true-to-life information and informed opinions so that court is able to come out with custody decision.
Overall, we can state that forensic evaluators play an important role in child custody decisions. They are certainly not able to present the decision without court interference as they are not able to consider the matter from the juridical point of view, but on the other side they serve as a great help for judges when they have to work over each separate case. Evaluators provide versatile overview of each situation, so their work, their testimonials are still necessary for children custody decisions.
1. Bernet W (2002), Child custody evaluations. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 11(4):781-804.
2. Bricklin B (1995), The Custody Evaluation Handbook: Research-Based Solutions and Applications. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
3. Galatzer-Levy RM, Kraus L, eds. (1999), The Scientific Basis of Child Custody Decisions. New York: Wiley.
4. Herman SP (1997), Practice parameters for child custody evaluation. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 36(10 suppl):57S-68S.
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