Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Psych Evals - The Nuts and Bolts

Once you have been immersed in the system known as "Family" court, you will often find yourself amidst a swirl of different activities about which you know almost nothing. The biggest problem with this is, right when you want to make the best decisions you can for yourself and your family, you cannot seem to get the information you need.

So... from time to time on my blog, we'll have some nuts and bolts lessons. This is one.

Many acrimonious divorces are a fight about who should "get" the children. One of the family court tools available for attempting to figure that out is the psychology evaluation.

In the state where I practice, and in many other states as well, from I've learned, there are basically three types of evaluation.

Forensic Psychology evaluation: this is the most in-depth evaluation; it includes childhood history, any previous psych/counseling history, may include multiple evaluative instruments such as the Beck Depression Inventory, MMPI, or others; and interviews with extended family members and anyone else close enough to the family to provide insight. It is very thorough, and often involves several lengthy interviews with each party. The information is *not* privileged - meaning the report can be entered as evidence, and the Forensic Psychologist can be called as an expert witness - and while any specific item in the report (such as a previous counselor's verbal summary to the Forensic Psychologist) cannot be subpoena'ed, the conclusions made by the Forensic Psychologist are subject to any form of discovery, including subpeona. Usually, a Forensic Psych eval is court-ordered, considered impartial (that is, the Psychologist is not hired by either 'side'), and usually the judge is the one asking for the report back. The attorneys for the two sides then spend their time attempting to squelch or mitigate any damaging testimony brought out by the Forensic Psych. Unlike a Social Study or CPS study (see below), a Forensic Psychologist can enter a conclusion as to which is the "better" parent, if they so choose. Typically, a Forensic Psychologist is one that has plenty of schooling, long-term specialized experience, and multiple specialty licenses. They are generally well-respected by the court, and their conclusions are more trusted. They are also (in my opinion and experience) less likely to make a mistake, come to a wrongful conclusion, or be bamboozled by the superficial charms of either party. They are also a lot more costly.

Social Study - also called a home study, or parenting evaluation, this is usually the method employed by most courts to determine if there is any "danger" to a child. It is *not* supposed to determine which is the "better" parent, only to rule out any parent that would be dangerous. A Social Study can be requested by either party, or by the judge. Unfortunately, since the purpose of a social study is often intended by one of the parties to provide justification for reducing parent-child involvement, accusations against the other parent are often exaggerated, so as to meet the "danger" threshold, since merely meeting the "better-than" threshold isn't enough to convince the court to adjust parenting time. A social study is often conducted by lesser-qualified individuals: folks that may only have a masters degree in social work or psychology, who often are just starting out and don't have a lot of experience, and who may more easily be swayed by the superficial charms of someone trying to circumvent the system. They may also not be as adept at selected or interpreting evaluative instruments such as the MMPI. In addition, a Social Study is usually less rigorous and thorough than a forensic evaluation; many times consisting of a single 50-minute session with each party, and then a 1-hour session at each party's home, evaluating both the home's safety and appearance, as well as evaluating how the children interact with the parent in the home environment. Considering that they always give at least 72-hour notice of a home visit, it's rather easy for anyone to gloss it up temporarily. Because of these limitations, judges are less likely to weigh the results of a home study heavily... although I have also seen it go the other direction: if a judge is biased toward a pre-determined outcome and wants justification to back up his/her decision, then if the home study says what they want it to say, all of a sudden, it's v-e-r-y important.

Child/Family Protective Services Evaluation: this is the bottom rung of evaluations, and often means nothing (unless, again, it backs up the judge's pre-determined outcome). Usually conducted by students who are interning their first Mental Health Professional job and working for barely more than minimum wage on an overloaded case load, a CPS eval has as much chance of reflecting reality as a coin toss. I've personally reviewed "home studies" on case loads that when you do the math, the evaluator could not possibly have spent more than 5-10 minutes in each home they claimed to have visited. Physical evidence means more than anything to these people, so if you have any (bruises, scratch marks, etc.) take photos. They are so poorly trained that many of them don't even know how to spell "psychology". So forget about mentioning verbal abuse, emotional abuse, personality disorders, etc. to them... you probably know more about these than they do. They are also the most easily biased - which means the first person to make a claim has the upper hand. (by the way, this is also true of many of the Social Study/Home Study folks, so if you do find yourself the subject of a court-ordered home study or social study, do everything you can to get your evaluation date on their calendar ahead of the other party).

Keep in mind that the greatest danger to your children when you are restructuring your family is CONFLICT. As mentioned before, not merely the open, above-board kind with the yelling and screaming, but also the insidious, passive-aggressive kind with the subtle parent bashing and undermining. While it is important to do everything you can to collaborate and minimize conflict, it is also important to understand what is going on in the system. Sadly, I've seen too many well-meaning parents become the victims of false or exaggerated claims - all because they didn't want to "fight". There is a time to "fight", and there is a time to use the system to help you. Understanding the different elements of that system is an important first step to choosing how and when the battle must be engaged.



Jim Pleace said...

God this an ugly procedure....How you can make a profession out of it is beyond me. The fact that your goal is to make it as benign as possible speaks volumes but given that as you say, you can spot the PEW's who will not cooperate, what do you recommend to the naive STBX's who didn't initiate? I never adjusted to the loss of the children. She is uncooperative to this day. Had I employed a forensic pschologist I would have likely gotten joint if not sole custody given that she was diagnosed Bipolar and on meds the WHOLE marriage. The consequent depression from the separation from my kids has put me on the very same meds. Who would know what a gut wrenching and life altering thing the dissolution of a marriage would be??

Mister-M said...

My problem with these processes are that "people," even professionals, have their own inherent biases. Oftentimes, the training that they receive in such situations is rife with "mother is best" by default attitudes and father's have to jump through unimaginable hoops to prove their worth in the child(ren)'s lives.

Worse than that, and I see this in so many jurisdictions now - are "court order custody evaluations" where families are referred, by count judges, to county CEs.

In my case, I actually had to sign a waiver (as did my PEW), acknowledging the fact that the county CEs may NOT be called as witnesses and may NOT be called to account for their reports.

I can't begin to tell you how horrendously wrong this process is... not only because it exacerbates the "follow the money" that divorce/family court operates under... but because if there is no accountability for the report, there is no incentive for any CE in this type of operation to remain unbiased or even put forth an effort!

- They don't have to listen to one side.

- They don't have to listen to either side.

- God forbid they get their case files mixed up and you have a report that is completely unrelated to yours.

- They may not like the way you look, dress, speak, your gender... the list goes on.

When in a situation that deeply affects the lives of so many people, how can there be ZERO accountability for what's in the report? It's especially distressing when you consider that the court puts a lot of stock in the report from the CE.

We, like sheep, are just supposed to accept that all of these humans are perfectly unbiased, always have a good day, and always have everyone's best interests in mind. If there is a question about any of the conclusions - there is no one to probe for a deeper understanding. The report is the be-all end-all of that process and you have to live with it, even if it is completely unfounded.

The money machine chugs along at full speed, too. For in my situation, any time one party (usually the high-conflict ex) wants to challenge a significant change in circumstances (such as a move, even if it's close) - you go to court, the court orders you for another custody evaluation, and the vacuum hose over everyone's wallet re-engages.

The system is broken and the only people who want to exploit it (primarily) are those on a mission to destroy their ex-spouse for whatever reason.

The lawyers, the judges, and all of the peripheral people whose livelihoods depend on this thank you.