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When Child Custody is in Dispute: APA Guidelines

The majority of child custody disputes are settled, through negotiation, mediation, or collaboration on a parenting plan that works for both parents. When the issue of custody is not resolved, it is my practice to petition the court to engage a highly qualified custody evaluator (a specially trained psychologist) to furnish recommendations regarding the best interest of the child(ren) to the court. The American Psychological Association has developed guidelines for the the custody evaluation.

I. Orienting Guidelines: Purpose of a Child Custody Evaluation

1. 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.

2. The child’s interests and well-being are paramount.
In a child custody evaluation, the child’s interests and well-being are paramount. Parents competing for custody, as well as others, may have legitimate concerns, but the child’s best interests must prevail.

3. 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 (a) an assessment of the adults’ capacities for parenting, including whatever knowledge, attributes, skills, and abilities, or lack thereof, are present; (b) an assessment of the psychological functioning and developmental needs of each child and of the wishes of each child where appropriate; and (c) an assessment of the functional ability of each parent to meet these needs, including 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, insofar as it has impact on the child or the ability to parent, but it is not the primary focus.

Should all custody cases in dispute be referred to a custody evaluation? What benefits might one see with a clinical evaluation over the mediated case, or a case negotiated by the parents and attorneys?

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