Ethical Psychological Evaluations
Copyright 1998 by Douglas Darnall, Ph.D.
A court-ordered psychological evaluation could be very stressful for all
involved because of the time involved, cost and uncertainty about the results. Often in a climate of mistrust and hostilities, parents are suspicious about the fairness and ethics of the evaluator. To help you better understand what to expect, I am offering the following guidelines for a custody evaluation. Many of the guidelines are taken from my experience and the American Psychological Associations "Guidelines for Custody/parenting evaluation and Reports" supported by the Ohio State Board of Psychology.
The evaluator should be familiar with their professional standards, State Laws, and guidelines for conducting custody evaluations.
- They should be familiar with the state laws about the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities.
- If your state law defines "best interest of the child”, the evaluator has the responsibility to understand the guidelines and how they apply to the evaluation.
- For many reasons, the request for the evaluation should be accompanied with a court order signed by the judge or magistrate. The court order should outline the names of the parties to be evaluated, the name of the evaluator, person or persons responsible for payment, and a statement describing the purpose of the evaluation.
- Fees for the evaluation should be established before beginning the evaluation. Don't expect your insurance or Managed Care Company to pay for the evaluation. Most don't. Also remember, that if the evaluator bills the insurance company, the billing will have to include a diagnosis which could be brought up in court. In addition, most evaluators expect payment in full before the report is dictated. A dictated report can usually be subpoenaed even if the evaluation is not paid. An experienced evaluator will not dictate until the evaluation is paid in full.
- The evaluator must remain impartial and objective prior and during the evaluation. They are a gatherer and reporter of information.
- One of the most common ethical violations that I have seen in the court is when the evaluator has a dual relationship with a parent or child. The most common violation of a dual relationship is when a parent or child was
previously or is currently a patient of the evaluator. Other examples of a dual relationship are when the evaluator has had a previous business or social
relationship with one or both parents. This can be a problem in a small rural county where there are few evaluators and everyone knows everyone else. In this situation, the parties may have to hire an evaluator from another county.
- The fees should be established and agreed upon in writing before beginning the evaluation.
- The evaluator should clarify to all of the parties, including the children in a language they can understand, the purpose and scope of the evaluation.
- Everyone that is included in the evaluation must be told before the evaluation begins the limits of confidentiality and that
most or all the information gathered could be part of the report (and thus,
later may be known in Court). This should also be told to the children in a way that they understand. Of course, they also have the right to not participate in the evaluation or disclose information. This is especially important for the children, in that they should not be forced or threatened in saying something that they will later regret when the information becomes public. The participants must sign written "Release of Information Forms" and an "Informed Consent" prior to begin the evaluation.
- The children and all significant parties should be part of the evaluation. The
evaluator may decide to limit the evaluation of younger children to simply observing
how each child interacts with each parent. It is helpful if the evaluator has a playroom.
- A Psychologist will frequently use psychological tests to supplement the evaluation. In recent years, I think there is less emphasis on tests and more time doing interviews. The test results should not be used alone for making conclusions about custody. Instead, the conclusions and recommendations about what is in the children's best interest should be drawn from the interviews, observations, corroborating data, social history, test results, and information gathered from the interviews. Ideally, the information comes together into a cohesive picture.
- The evaluator should keep clear and concise records.
- The evaluator should not make any recommendations or psychological descriptions of individuals that were not part of the evaluation. There is one exception. When the court has ruled that the evaluator is an expert witness, the evaluator can be asked a hypothetical question about other people's behaviors
who the evaluator may not have interviewed. The evaluator should qualify their answer within the context that they are answering a hypothetical question.
- The single evaluator should evaluate all parties. Two independent evaluators cannot make a single recommendation about custody since neither had seen all the parties.
Sometimes, evaluators will use a team approach in gathering the data.
- The evaluation should describe the parties' parenting skills and each
party's role as the psychological parent.
- The report's conclusions and recommendations should be supported by the report's documentation,
should address the criteria for best interest of the child, and be consistent with the state's laws.
I always tell the parents that I am not an investigator and the court is not bound by my recommendations. In effect, the information I gather and report is like a piece of the pie. Since both sides can introduce additional testimony, only the judge or referee will see the whole pie. Consequently, the judge could rule contrary to my recommendations.
I hope this information about custody evaluations is helpful. If you suspect unethical or questionable behavior by the evaluator, share this with your attorney who will talk with the evaluator or, if necessary, with the court. You may not like the evaluator's conclusions or recommendations (after all,
one or the other parent will likely not like what the evaluator says) but you should feel that the evaluation was fair and ethical. Most evaluators are very ethical and sincerely concerned about the responsibilities they
hold in doing the evaluation because they know their recommendations have possible consequences
for the children.
There is still debate about what constitutes the best and most valid protocol for custody evaluations. Even the most recent Ethical Standards published by the American Psychological Association (2004)
because the Standards are viewed by many as being too liberal and a step backward in assuring protection to the public.
I suspect this page will generate thinking and questions. This information comes from my experience and readings. I am not trying to present myself as the last word on how evaluations should be conducted or what is ethical conduct.
Instead, I am offering you this information to serve as a guide, so you know what to expect when you are ordered to have an evaluation.
Please share your thoughts about this page. Thank you.
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