"Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill it teaches the whole people by its example.
Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself."
–Supreme Court Justice Brandeis

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Protecting Children From Incompetent Forensic Evaluations and Expert Testimony (Forensic Evaluations)

This is the html version of the file http://www.aaml.org/tasks/sites/default/assets/File/docs/journal/Journal_vol_19-2-5_Protecting_Children_from_Incompetent_Evals_and_Tesitmony.pdf.

Google automatically generates html versions of documents as we crawl the web.

Page 1



Seq: 1



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


Protecting Children From

Incompetent Forensic Evaluations and

Expert Testimony

Mary Johanna McCurley*

Kathryn J. Murphy**

Jonathan W. Gould***

I. Introduction

Mental health professionals are frequently appointed by

courts to become involved in custody cases in the role of child

custody evaluator. This role requires that the mental health pro-

fessional assess the fit between a minor child’s emerging develop-

mental and socioemotional needs and the parents’ comparative

ability to meet those needs. Following that assessment, the

mental health professional is expected to tender recommenda-

tions to the court regarding the extent to which various parenting

plans will further the child’s best psychological interests.

A. Influence of the Evaluator

The recommendations contained in child custody evalua-

tions (“CCEs”) exert considerable influence on the course of

ongoing custody litigation. Many courts accord significant weight

to the opinions of child custody evaluators, often accepting the

evaluator’s recommendations without challenge.1 An evaluator’s

recommendations can also precipitate case settlement or material

concessions once both parties become aware of the evaluator’s

findings. Given the import of CCEs, it is imperative that these

* Partner, McCurley, Orsinger, McCurley, Nelson & Downing, L.L.P.,

Dallas, Texas.

** Partner, Koons, Fuller, Vanden Eykel, and Robertson, P.C., Dallas,


*** Forensic and Clinical Psychologist, Private Practice, St. Paul,











Galatzer-Levy & Louis Kraus, eds., 1999); James N. Bow & Francella A. Quin-

nell, A Critical Review of Child Custody Evaluation Reports, 40 FAM. CT. REV.

164 (2002).

Page 2



Seq: 2



278 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

evaluations should be conducted with due regard for scientific

methods, extant behavioral science research, ethical standards

and professional practice guidelines. This responsibility is further

heightened by the need to protect the well-being of children of

divorcing parents2 and to avoid inadvertently harming families at

a time of enormous stress and conflict.3

B. Criticism of Evaluations Falling Below APA Standards

Unfortunately, CCEs frequently fall below recommended

practice methods promulgated by the American Psychological

Association (“APA”). Commentators have criticized the quality,

reliability, and utility of CCEs by noting the lack of scientific

methodology, empirical grounding, and psycholegal relevance

common among these reports.4

This article discusses the requirement that expert testimony

regarding parenting competency and comparative custodial suita-

bility must meet legal standards of admissibility. It builds on a

prior article coauthored by Dr. Jonathan Gould.5






Marc J. Ackerman & Melissa C. Ackerman, Child Custody Evaluation

Practices: A 1996 Survey of Psychologists, 30 FAM. L.Q. 565 (1996).






A. Krauss & Bruce D. Sales, Legal Standards, Expertise, and Experts in the

Resolution of Contested Child Custody Cases, 6 PSYCHOL., PUB. POL’Y & L. 843

(2000); Timothy M. Tippins & Jeffrey P. Wittman, Empirical and Ethical

Problems with Custody Recommendations: A Call for Clinical Humility and Ju-

dicial Vigilance, 43 FAM CT. REV. 193 (April 2005); Ira D. Turkat, Questioning

the Mental Health Expert’s Custody Report, 7 AM. J. FAM. L. 175 (1993).


The authors wish to thank Dana Royce Baerger, Robert Galatzer-

Levy, and Sandra G. Nye for allowing us to liberally use their prior article:

Dana Royce Baerger, Robert Galatzer-Levy, Jonathan W. Gould, & Sandra G.

Nye, Methodology for Reviewing the Reliability and Relevance of Child Custody

Evaluations, 18 J. AM. ACAD. MATRIM. LAW. 35 (2002).

Page 3



Seq: 3



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


C. Differences Between Therapeutic and Forensic Mental Health


Some child custody evaluators do not adequately under-

stand the distinctions between a therapeutic and a forensic role.

Furthermore, much of the testimony offered by child custody

evaluators is based upon clinical impressions uninformed by em-

pirical research, yet presented as empirical science. These two

points merit further discussion. First, as the field of forensic

mental health has grown to constitute a distinct subspecialty,

commentators have noted the increasing need for practitioners to

obtain specialized and advanced training.6 The reason for this is

that the field requires appreciably distinct competencies and

skills than does the treatment of patients. Moreover, differences

between forensic and therapeutic services have now been codi-

fied in ethical guidelines7 and clarified in the behavioral science


II. Expert Testimony in Child Custody

Evaluations — Daubert/Frye

A. Frye v. United States

Expert testimony has long played a substantial role in the

trial of a child custody case. Whether in the form of a social

study or a psychiatric evaluation after a battery of tests, testi-

mony based on the social sciences has become the norm. Expert

testimony regarding parenting competency and comparative cus-

todial suitability must meet legal standards of admissibility.

In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court in Frye v. United States9

issued the primary determinative test for the admissibility of

“novel” scientific evidence. For seventy years, the general stan-


Randy K. Otto & Kirk Heilbrun, The Practice of Forensic Psychology:

A Look Toward the Future in Light of the Past, 57 AM. PSYCHOLOGIST 5 (2002).




on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, Specialty Guidelines for Fo-

rensic Psychologists, 15 LAW & HUM BEHAV. 655 (1991).


Lyn R. Greenberg & Jonathan W. Gould, The Treating Expert: A Hy-

brid Role with Firm Boundaries, 32(5) PROF. PSYCHOL.: RES. & PRAC. 469



293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923).

Page 4



Seq: 4



280 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

dard for admissibility of expert testimony in most jurisdictions

was the Frye test, which permits admission of evidence when the

foundational scientific principle has achieved “general accept-

ance” in the scientific field.10

In Frye, defense counsel sought to introduce expert testi-

mony explaining the results of a test, similar to today’s polygraph

test. In upholding the trial court’s refusal to admit the expert

evidence, the court of appeals stated that while courts will go a

long way in admitting expert testimony, “the thing from which

the [expert testimony is deduced must be] sufficiently established

to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which

it belongs.”11 Even though the Court cited no authority to sup-

port this statement, the “general acceptance” standard became

the cornerstone for the admissibility of novel scientific evidence

in the federal courts and most of the state courts for many years.

The Frye standard has generated and continues to provoke

great debate and commentary.12

Proponents advocate that the

Frye “general acceptance” standard is the proper test for admissi-

bility because: its conservative nature ensures the reliability of

novel scientific evidence; it better promotes uniformity of deci-

sions; scientific evidence tends to have a substantial impact on a

jury; without a standard test to determine admissibility, trials

could become mini-trials concerning the scientific evidence, thus

distracting the jury from the merits of the case to be tried; and

there will be a reserve of experts who may be called upon to

express an opinion regarding the validity of the evidence.13

After adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence in 1975, the

issue of the appropriate standard for admissibility of scientific ev-

idence became confusing. The federal circuits and state courts

were split on what the standard should be. The Rules had been

in existence for eighteen years by the time the U.S. Supreme

Court announced a novel standard for the admissibility of scien-

tific evidence. Immediately before the end of the 1993 term, the

Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Frye test, stating that it


Id. at 1014.




E.g., Mike McCurley & C. Andrew Ten Eyck, Daubert and the Admis-

sibility of Expert Testimony in Child Custody Disputes, 19 No. 2 MATRIM.

STRATEGIST 1 ( 2001).


See, e.g., Reed v. State, 391 A.2d 364, 369-372 (Md. 1978).

Page 5



Seq: 5



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


had been superseded by the Federal Rules of Evidence. Further,

a majority of the Court suggested new standards for the admissi-

bility of scientific evidence in the pivotal case of Daubert v. Mer-

rill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.14

B. Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

In Daubert, the Court reinterpreted Rule 702 of the Federal

Rules of Evidence and established criteria for the admissibility of

scientific expert testimony. Amended Rule 702 reads:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the

trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue,

a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, train-

ing or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or oth-

erwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2)

the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and

(3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the

facts of the case.15

Although numerous states have followed Daubert,16 many have

not. States that have rejected Daubert in favor of Frye, or an

alternative standard, have expressed concerns about the reliabil-

ity and relevance of proffered expert testimony.17


509 U.S. 579 (1993).


FED. R. EVID. 702 (emphasis added).


As of 2004, all but 15 states have adopted Daubert or some variation of

Daubert to examine whether an expert’s testimony is admissible as scientific

evidence. Alice B. Lustre, Annotation, Post-Daubert Standards for Admissibil-

ity of Scientific and Other Expert Evidence in State Courts, 90 A.L.R.5th 453,

520-37 (2004). Some states, such as New York, apply the Daubert examination

in limited circumstances. The largest state to continue to adhere to the Frye

approach is California.


Because not all states have adopted the Daubert standard for admissi-

bility of expert testimony, and because some states have retained the Frye gen-

eral acceptance criterion, or some modification thereof, or are using a

combination of Frye and Daubert, it is essential to attend to the evidentiary

standards of the jurisdiction in which the testimony is given. Generally, even in

locales where Frye and similar standards continue in force, custody evaluators

are increasingly expected to base their opinions on scientifically sound methods.

At a minimum, evaluators should clearly state the methodological basis for

their opinions. See Daniel W. Schuman, The Role of Mental Health Experts in

Custody Decisions: Science, Psychological Tests, and Clinical Judgment, 36 FAM.

L.Q. 135 (2002).

In jurisdictions that continue to use the Frye rule, the proponent of the

expert testimony must establish the qualifications of the expert, as well as that

Page 6



Seq: 6



282 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

According to Daubert, a “scientific expert” is an expert who

relies upon the application of scientific principles, rather than

upon skill or experience, in forming his or her opinions. Moreo-

ver, according to the Supreme Court’s later pronouncement in

Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael,18 Daubert applies to all ex-

pert testimony, not just to scientific testimony. Thus, in Daubert

jurisdictions, the distinction between scientific and nonscientific

expert testimony is not significant in establishing admissibility;

the same criteria apply to both. Moreover, the admissibility of

expert testimony based upon personal observation and clinical

experience is subject to judicial scrutiny regarding its reliability.

Expert testimony that goes to the causation of a condition is also

subject to scrutiny for reliability.19

The Daubert court made clear that when it used the term

“reliability,” it was referring both to scientific reliability and sci-

entific validity.20 Essentially, scientific reliability refers to consis-

tency. In the realm of psychological testing, scientific reliability

refers to the consistency of test scores. For example, assume that

a psychologist wishes to construct a new measure of stable per-

the espoused theory has gained general acceptance in the expert’s scientific

field. When the expert testimony being offered is not scientific, but rather is

based upon observation and experience, Frye does not apply and no Frye hear-

ing is required. However, the court may still conduct a hearing on the reliabil-

ity of the testimony being offered. Berry v. City of Detroit, 25 F.3d 1342, 1349-

50 (6th Cir. 1994). In a Frye jurisdiction, counsel should be prepared to lay the

following foundation for admissibility of expert testimony: (1) the evidence

that is being proffered; (2) the fact that the proffered testimony will assist the

trier of fact in understanding the evidence or determining facts in issue (and the

way in which the proffered testimony will so assist); (3) whether the proffered

testimony constitutes ‘science;’ and (4) the qualifications of the expert (includ-

ing knowledge, skill, training, experience, and education) to testify and render

an opinion. See, e.g., In re Jawad, 759 N.E.2d 1002 (Ill. App. Ct. 2001).

Whether or not Daubert has replaced Frye in a given jurisdiction, the concepts

established by Daubert seem to be finding their way into Frye jurisdictions. See

Harris v. Cropmate Co., 706 N.E.2d 55 (Ill. App. Ct. 1999), for a comparison of

Daubert and Frye that describes the evolution of Frye into a “Frye plus reliabil-

ity” standard for the introduction of novel scientific evidence.


526 U.S. 137 (1999).


See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Lanigan, 641 N.E.2d 1342, 1348 (Mass.

1994)(applying both the Daubert and Kumho Tire Co. criteria); see also In Re

Canovan’s Case, 733 N.E.2d 1042, 1047-51 (Mass. 2000)(containing a summary

of the standards for admission of expert testimony).


509 U.S. at 590.

Page 7



Seq: 7



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


sonality traits, with responses summed on a scale of zero to one

hundred. If a test subject takes the test four separate times, and

each time receives a widely divergent score (despite the fact that

his or her mood has remained stable), then we can say that the

test is not reliable, since the test subject did not receive scores

that were consistent over time and the construct being measured

was assumed to be consistent over time. Another way to think

about reliability is as the answer to the question, “Are we mea-

suring something (e.g., a genuine trait, behavior, factor, or phe-

nomenon) consistently?”

Scientific validity refers to accuracy and utility (mental

health professionals use the term “validity” to refer to what legal

professionals call “reliability”). In the realm of psychological

testing, scientific validity refers to the extent to which the test

measures what it purports to measure. In the example above,

once the psychologist has established that the new measure of

personality traits is reliable, he or she will want to know whether

it actually measures a known personality trait—as opposed to,

say, mood variability that often changes over time. If that is the

case, the measure will not be able to discriminate between test

subjects who have a specific personality trait and the test subjects

who are displaying mood variability (e.g., the measure will lack

“discriminant validity”). Another way to think about validity is

as the answer to the question, “Are we measuring what we think

we’re measuring?” As the above example makes clear, a test

must be scientifically reliable to be scientifically valid, although

the reverse is not true. In other words, reliability is a part of

what makes a test valid, since if a test cannot consistently mea-

sure some factor, then it is highly unlikely that the test can impart

any useful information.

A proper Daubert challenge may include not only an attack

on the entire methodology used by the testifying professional,

but specific challenges as to the reliability and validity of each

psychological instrument administered. Attorneys involved in

custody cases, therefore, must have a general working knowledge

of how such tests meet or fail to meet a serious analysis of their

reliability and validity.

Daubert has had a significant impact on the admissibility of

behavioral and psychological evidence offered by expert psychol-

Page 8



Seq: 8



284 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

ogist witnesses, mainly in child abuse and molestation cases.21

Experts who routinely testify in divorce and custody cases some-

times report that their efforts to testify regarding novel theories

have been thwarted by trial courts based on the restrictive guide-

lines of Daubert.

To defend against a claim that the psychologist’s testimony is

inadmissible, the psychologist should make every effort to follow

proper procedures for selecting, administering, scoring, and in-

terpreting tests, while taking care to follow all applicable ethical

standards and professional practice guidelines for his or her field.

In custody cases, the examination of the child and the family as a

whole needs to be undertaken with extreme care. The psycholo-

gist or psychiatrist needs to understand what his or her role is in

the case and make sure that he or she stays within those


To determine whether testimony about scientific knowledge

will assist the trier of fact in assessing a controverted issue,

Daubert requires that the judge ask two questions: (1) whether

the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scien-

tifically valid, and (2) whether that reasoning or methodology

can be properly applied to the facts in issue.22

C. Federal Rule of Evidence 702

For a witness to qualify to testify as an expert under Rule

702, the following steps must be taken. First, the expert must be

qualified to give an opinion.23

Second, the opinion must be con-

sidered reliable.24 Third, the testimony must be relevant and as-

sist the trier of fact in coming to a decision in the case; in other

words, the expert must convey specialized knowledge beyond

that of a layperson.25


See, e.g., State v. Foret, 628 So.2d 1116, 1123 (La. 1993)(refusing to

accept testimony from a child psychologist regarding the child sexual abuse ac-

commodation syndrome (CSAAS), because the absence of methods to distin-

guish valid CSAAS claims from manufactured claims meant that testimony

based on the syndrome did not survive the Daubert test for scientific validity).


Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592-93.


Id. at 592 n.10.


Id. at 590 n.9.


Id. at 591-92.

Page 9



Seq: 9



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


1. The Expert Must Be Qualified

The testifying expert should be prepared to testify that he or

she possesses the qualifications (education, experience, etc) and

knowledge necessary to relate the information to the fact finder.

Rule 702 requires that experts be qualified “by knowledge, skill,

experience, training, or education” and that their testimony assist

the trier of fact in determining a fact issue.26 Whether an expert

is qualified is a preliminary question decided by the trial court.27

The party offering the expert must show that the expert’s

knowledge, experience, skill, or training or education renders the

expert qualified to give an opinion regarding the specific issue

before the court.28 For example, not every doctor is qualified to

testify as an expert on every medical question.29 The party offer-

ing the expert’s testimony bears the burden to prove that the wit-

ness is qualified under Rule 702. The offering party must

demonstrate that the witness possesses special knowledge regard-

ing the very matter on which he proposes to give an opinion. Not

every psychologist is qualified to testify on all psychological


If the opinion relates to the standard of care within a li-

censed profession, the expert will generally be required to be li-

censed in that same profession. The expert should be familiar

with as much of the available literature on the field as possible

and be prepared to respond to inquiries on that literature, partic-

ularly any publications that are critical of the expert’s own theo-

ries or practical application of those theories.


FED. R. EVID. 702.


FED. R. EVID. 104.


Daubert, 509 U.S. at 597 (stating that “an expert’s testimony” [must be]

“relevant to the task at hand.”); FED. R. EVID. 401. In proffering evidence as to

the qualifications of one’s expert witness, one should elicit from the witness the

following types of testimony: the profession or occupation of the witness; the

length of time in the profession or occupation; the educational background, in-

cluding degrees obtained, of the witness; the professional training in which the

witness has participated; licensure of the witness; membership of the witness in

professional associations; research, publications, writing, or articles by the wit-

ness; past experience as an expert witness; and, academic positions if any.


See Christophersen v. Allied-Signal Corp., 939 F.2d 1106, 1112-13 (5th

Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 912 (1992), in which the Fifth Circuit Court of

Appeals states that one possessing a medical degree is not qualified to give an

opinion on every medical question.

Page 10



Seq: 10



286 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

2. The Expert’s Opinion Must Be Reliable

Again, it is important to recognize that while courts use the

terms “reliability” and “validity” interchangeably, mental health

professionals use the terms in distinctly different ways.30 Social

scientists consider “reliability” to mean the technical accuracy of

a test, while the “validity” of the test is based on whether the test

leads to a legitimate conclusion.

To be reliable, the underlying scientific technique or princi-

ple must be grounded in the methods and procedure of science.

To show reliability, the party who is offering the opinion should

address the “non-exclusive” list of factors in Daubert,31 as well as

additional factors addressed in each state’s case law.

a. Testing32

Whether the theory or technique in question can be (and has

been) tested (referred to as the “falsifiability” of a theory). This

factor recognizes that testing is central to scientific methodol-


If a theory or technique has been or can be tested, the

trial judge can better determine “whether a theory or technique

is scientific knowledge that will assist the trier of fact.”

b. Peer review

Whether the theory or technique has been or could be sub-

jected to peer review or publication is an important factor. Pub-

lication and other peer review is a significant indicia of the

reliability of scientific evidence when the expert’s testimony is in

an area in which peer review or publication would not be uncom-

mon. Publication in a reputable, established, scientific journal

and other forms of peer review increase the likelihood that sub-

stantive flaws in methodology will be detected. Although peer

review and publication are indicators of evidentiary reliability,


See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590 n.9.


Id. at 592-94.


Id. at 592 (discussing testing).


“If theories are non-falsifiable, they are unscientific. Hypotheses that

avoid testability . . . are not scientific. Likewise, theories that purport to explain

everything, theories that are unconditional and admit no negative evidence and

theories that are vague or otherwise self-protected are not falsifiable.” Nancy

Levit, Listening to Tribal Legends: An Essay on Law and the Scientific Method,

58 FORDHAM L. REV. 263, 271 (1989).

Page 11



Seq: 11



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


the Daubert Court emphasized that “publication (or lack

thereof) in a peer-reviewed journal” is not dispositive of the

question of scientific validity.34

c. Error rates

The theory or technique’s “known or potential error rate.”

In this context, “error rate” refers to the probability that the ap-

plication of a particular technical procedure or theory can lead to

a mistake in classification of an object, event or person. Daubert

says that trial courts should survey studies of the error rates of

the specific technique, as well as the standards controlling the

technique’s operation.35

d. General acceptance

Whether the theory or technique has been generally ac-

cepted as valid by the relevant scientific community. “General

acceptance” continues to be a significant persuasive factor in de-

termining whether particular evidence is admissible. It is not,

however, the dispositive requirement.36

3. The Expert’s Opinion Is Relevant

The expert’s opinion must be relevant. To be relevant, the

evidence must have probative value and must have consequence

to some issue in the trial. Relevancy is the threshold question to

the admissibility of evidence regardless of whether it is the testi-

mony of a fact witness or an expert witness.37

The evidence

must be sufficiently tied to the facts of the case that it will aid the

jury in resolving a factual dispute. Evidence that has no rela-

tionship to any of the issues in the case is irrelevant, and there-

fore inadmissible under Rules 401, 402, and 702.

Relevance refers to the extent that the gathered data bear

upon the issue before the court. In the contest of a CCE, in

which the issue before the court is one of comparative custodial

suitability, relevant data will include information that relates to

the litigants’ parenting strengths and deficits, the child’s relation-

ship with each parent, and the quality of fit between the child’s


Daubert, 509 U.S. at 594. See also id. at 593 (discussing peer review).


Id. (discussing error rates).


Id. (discussing general acceptance).


Id. at 587.

Page 12



Seq: 12



288 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

needs and the parents’ respective care giving competencies. For

example, data relevant to a CCE will include information regard-

ing how each parent supervises, disciplines, supports, nurtures

and instructs the child.

Relevance also refers to the extent to which a data-gathering

technique is valid (e.g., useful) for the purpose for which it is

used. A psychological test can be reliable and valid, and still lack

relevance in the context of a CCE because it is does not measure,

either directly or indirectly, relevant factors associated with psy-

chological factors of concern to the court. For example, with the

exception of serious cognitive impairment that would make ade-

quate childcare difficult, no empirically established relationship

exists between intellectual functioning and parenting capacity.38

Since no methods are available to discern how a parent’s intellec-

tual functioning as identified through an IQ score might impact

(if at all) on his or her parenting capabilities, it is unlikely that

tests of intellectual functioning will be valid (e.g., useful) for the

purpose of determining parenting competencies. In this sense,

tests of intellectual functioning are not relevant to the legal issue

of comparative custodial suitability.

Reliability and relevance can be illustrated by the multi-

trait/multi-method model of assessment. Forensic assessment is

predicated upon the idea of convergent validity, or the idea that

particular issues should be investigated from a variety of view-

points and with a variety of methods. Addressing the same issue

through a number of different data sources will likely increase

the reliability of the information gathered, since the evaluator

can then look for consistent trends across the data. Hence, a

competently conducted forensic evaluation utilizes multiple

sources of information to assess multiple aspects of a situation;

this is referred to as the multi-trait/multi-method model of assess-

ment. This model of obtaining convergent data from multiple

sources for a CCE has achieved increasing professional consen-

sus over the past ten years, and has been described as the model

that best serves the evidentiary needs of the court.39 Further-


Thomas Grisso, The Economic and Scientific Future of Forensic Psy-

chological Assessment, 42 AM. PSYCHOLOGIST 831 (1987).


Ackerman & Ackerman, supra note 3, at 567; Jon K. Amundson,

Roshni Daya, & Eamon Gill, A Minimalist Approach to Child Custody Evalua-

tions, 18 AM. J. FORENSIC PSYCHOL. 63 (2000); James N. Bow & Francella A.

Page 13



Seq: 13



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


more, this model is included in almost all recommended ethical

standards and professional practice guidelines for conducting fo-

rensic evaluations, including the American Psychological Associ-

ation,40 the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts,41 and

the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists.42

Hence, the objective of a CCE is to assess functional parent-

ing competencies in a reliable and relevant manner. Currently,

there exist a number of different CCE models;43 no requisite set

of procedures or tests has been defined. However, a consensus is

emerging in the behavioral science literature regarding the man-

ner in which CCEs should be conducted and the procedures that

are most likely to ensure the assessment’s reliability and rele-

vance. Greenberg and Gould44 have proposed a five-part meth-

odological framework that synthesizes the legal and behavioral

science literature,45 empirical research,46 ethical guidelines,47 and

Quinnell, Psychologists’ Current Practices and Procedures in Child Custody

Evaluations: Five Years After the American Psychological Association Guide-

lines, 32 PROF. PSYCHOL.: RES. & PRAC. 261 (2001).


American Psychological Association, Ethical Principles of Psycholo-

gists and Code of Conduct, 57 AM. PSYCHOLOGIST 1060 (2002).


Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, Model Standards of

Practice for Child Custody Evaluations, 32 FAM. & CONCILIATION CTS. REV.

504 (1994).


Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, supra

note 7.






Greenberg & Gould, supra note 8, at 471-73.


See generally, Grisso, supra note 38; Melton, et al, supra note 4 ; see





David L. Faigman, The Evidentiary Status of Social Science under Daubert: Is it

‘Scientific,’ ‘Technical,’ or ‘Other’ Knowledge?, 1 PSYCHOL., PUB. POL’Y, & L.

960 (1995); David L. Faigman, Struggling to Stop the Flood of Unreliable Expert

Testimony, 76 MINN. L. REV. 877 (1992); Jane Goodman-Delahunty, Forensic

Psychological Expertise in the Wake of Daubert, 21 LAW & HUM. BEHAV. 121

(1997); Kirk Heilbrun, The Role of Psychological Testing in Forensic Assess-

ment, 16 LAW & HUM BEHAV. 257 (1992).


See, e.g., Marc J. Ackerman & Melissa C. Ackerman, Custody Evalua-

tion Practices: A Survey of Experienced Professionals (Revisited), 28 PROF.

PSYCHOL.: RES. & PRAC. 137 (1997); Peter Ash & Melvin J. Guyer, Biased

Page 14



Seq: 14



290 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

model standards of practice48 regarding CCEs. This framework

for CCEs incorporates five core data-gathering components:

(1) a definition of the scope of the evaluation;

(2) the use of forensic interview techniques;

(3) psychological testing with objective and self-report measures;

(4) direct behavioral observations of parent-child interactions; and

(5) interviews with collateral sources and review of relevant records.

Consistent with Daubert, this approach to CCEs assesses pa-

rental competencies within the parameters of reliability and rele-

vance, and thus constitutes a genuinely scientific methodology.

Moreover, this approach can also be used as an organizational

structure with which to evaluate the methodological strengths

and shortcomings of other CCEs.49

III. Five Core Components for Data Gathering

Following is an explication of Gould’s five-part methodology

for an analysis of the reliability and relevance of CCEs.

A. Define the Scope of the Evaluation

When a forensic mental health professional begins a CCE,

he or she should identify the specific questions to be investigated

prior to the initiation of the evaluation.50 In this way, the evalu-

Reporting by Parents Undergoing Child Custody Evaluations, 30 J. AM. ACAD.

CHILD & ADOLESCENT PSYCHIATRY 835 (1991); Kay Bathurst, Allen W. Gott-

fried, & Adele E. Gottfried, Normative Data for the MMPI-2 in Child Custody

Litigation, 9 PSYCHOL. ASSESSMENT 205 (1997); Chery Hysjulien, Barbara

Wood, & G. Andrew H. Benjamin, Child Custody Evaluations: A Review of

Methods Used in Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution, 32 FAM. & CON-

CILIATION CTS. REV. 466 (1994).


See generally American Psychological Association, supra note 40; Com-

mittee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, supra note 7.


See generally Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, supra note



Jonathan W. Gould & Lisa C. Bell, Forensic Methods and Procedures

Applied to Child Custody Evaluations: What Judges Need to Know in Determin-

ing a Competent Forensic Work Product, 38(2) JUV. & FAM. CT. J. 21 (2000);

Jonathan W. Gould & Debra H. Lehrmann, Evaluating the Probative Value of

Child Custody Evaluations, 53 JUV. & FAM. CT. J. 17 (2002).


Jonathan W. Gould, Conducting Scientifically Crafted Child Custody

Evaluations, Part One: A Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration in the De-

velopment of Psycholegal Questions Guiding Court Ordered Child Custody

Evaluations, 37 FAM. & CONCILIATION CTS. REV. 64 (1999); Jonathan W.

Page 15



Seq: 15



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


ator clearly defines the questions and areas of concern that guide

the entire evaluation. This approach has been termed a “mini-

malist approach,” because it provides focused support and infor-

mation for the trier of fact in resolving a child custody dispute.51

Thus, an important responsibility of the child custody evaluator is

to take the legally relevant dimensions that are the court’s con-

cern and to define each dimension in a manner that allows for

proper psychological assessment. This results in a reliable child

custody evaluation. Moreover, the evaluator must also demon-

strate that these psycholegal dimensions have an empirical foun-

dation in the psychological literature, and that they are related to

the questions that are before the court.52 This results in a rele-

vant child custody evaluation.

The scope of a custody evaluation is properly determined by

the court’s order. Court orders regarding CCEs vary widely in

the extent to which they specify the questions to be addressed by

the evaluator. Frequently, court orders simply direct the litigants

to undergo an evaluation in accordance with a cited custody stat-

ute. Alternatively, many orders request a “psychological evalua-

tion” of the parent-litigants and their children. Too often, child

custody evaluators do not further query the court or the attor-

neys involved in the case regarding the specific concerns that led

to the order for evaluation. This common lapse on the part of

evaluators constitutes poor practice.53 Moreover, it may reflect a

lack of understanding that the proper role of a forensic specialist

in assisting the trier of fact is to provide reliable psychological

information that is relevant to the pending legal issue.

Judges and attorneys can greatly increase the utility of eval-

uations by crafting court orders that pose referral questions spe-

cific to each family. This practice increases the likelihood that

evaluators will address matters of central importance to the liti-

gation, and diminishes the likelihood that evaluators will address

Gould, Conducting Scientifically Crafted Child Custody Evaluations, Part Two:

A Paradigm for the Forensic Evaluation of Child Custody Determination, 37



Amundson et al, supra note 39, at 63-87.


Failing that, the evaluator must make clear the basis on which his or

her opinions are given, so that the court may decide how much weight to give

the opinion.


Gould, supra note 50, at 183-195.

Page 16



Seq: 16



292 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

irrelevant issues that confuse the litigation and increase the cost

of the evaluation. For example, in a case in which one party has

made allegations of excessively harsh physical discipline against

the other, useful referral questions might focus on issues such as

the manner in which each parent disciplines the children, the

manner in which the children respond to each parent’s behavior

management strategies, whether the children fear the parent

against whom the allegations were made, and each parent’s ca-

pacity to tolerate frustration.

In the context of defining the scope of the evaluation,

problems of reliability refer to instances in which the evaluator

uses unreliable methods or goes beyond the scope of his or her

training and expertise in offering opinions to the court. For ex-

ample, many child custody evaluators go beyond their expertise

in offering opinions on issues such as the comparative educa-

tional quality of school districts, the quality of community life in

a particular geographic area, or the benefits of certain financial

arrangements. When evaluators engage in this practice, they are

no longer properly testifying as experts.

Problems of relevance refer to instances in which the evalu-

ator offers opinions about issues irrelevant to the pending legal

issue, or fails to explain the relationship between the parties’ ob-

served capacities and the pending legal issue. A particularly

problematic situation can arise when an evaluator offers opinions

about issues that are both irrelevant to the pending legal issue

and highly prejudicial. For example, consistent with their pri-

mary training as clinicians who diagnose and treat psychiatric dis-

orders, many child custody evaluators routinely report

psychiatric diagnoses for both parent-litigants. We maintain that

it is poor professional practice for evaluators to report such diag-

noses in the absence of any indication that the court has concerns

about the parents’ diagnostic status, and in the absence of any

demonstration how these diagnoses impact the litigants’ capacity

to parent. Placing a child in the primary custodial care of a par-

ent suffering from “Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Personal-

ity Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, with avoidant and

obsessive-compulsive features” sounds almost negligent—despite

the fact that this diagnosis may have nothing whatever to do with

care giving capacity.

Page 17



Seq: 17



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


B. Use Forensic Interview Techniques

A CCE represents an assessment of two parents’ compara-

tive custodial strengths and limitations. Thus, the evaluator must

gather interview information regarding the litigants’ parenting

competencies according to variables that are directly related to

the pending legal issue. This includes gathering information re-

garding, among other relevant variables, the parents’ respective

capacities to nurture, support, discipline, instruct, and supervise

their child. In this manner, the evaluator will be able to compare

and assess the parents’ responses to interview questions that are

directly relevant to the court’s concerns. Moreover, the evalu-

ator must make direct comparisons of similar sets of parental

competencies to reach conclusions that will be of use to the


The child custody evaluator ensures the relevance of the in-

terviews by asking questions that directly relate to the pending

legal issue. According to the functional approach to CCEs,54 a

parent’s past and present caretaking abilities are of greater rele-

vance than distal events that do not relate to parenting. For ex-

ample, in a case in which there are concerns regarding one

parent’s alleged propensity for harsh corporeal discipline, the

evaluator should interview both parents about their disciplinary

styles, behavior management strategies, methods of dealing with

frustration, and beliefs regarding concepts such as obedience and

deference to authority. Issues such as a parent’s work history or

prior romantic relationships may indeed have bearing on a given

case, and we are not suggesting that evaluators should refrain

from addressing topics not directly related to childcare. How-

ever, such issues should be evaluated within a prevailing discus-

sion of functional parenting competencies. The evaluator’s

primary interviewing goal should be to elicit information from

both parents regarding their caregiving strengths and limitations.

The child custody evaluator ensures the reliability of the in-

terviews by gathering a reasonably uniform set of interview data,

and by examining a parent’s responses for consistency across va-

rious sources of parenting information. For example, a parent’s

responses can be examined for consistency across time (i.e., a




Page 18



Seq: 18



294 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

comparison of the parent’s responses to identical questions given

at different times), across question formats (i.e., a comparison of

the parent’s responses to structured and unstructured questions),

across parties (i.e., a comparison of the parent’s responses to the

responses given by the other parent, and/or by the children), and

across collateral sources (i.e., a comparison of the parent’s re-

sponses with the responses given by collateral sources).55


turning to the case in which allegations have been made

regarding one parent’s excessively harsh physical discipline, the

evaluator can examine each parent’s responses to questions of

disciplinary and behavior management strategies for consistency

across a number of different sources of information. For exam-

ple, one parent’s vociferous denial of allegations of excessive

physical punishment may be contradicted by interview data gen-

erated by the other parent, by the children, by a variety of collat-

eral sources, and by the allegedly abusive parent’s own responses

to interview questions regarding parenting values and beliefs,

disciplinary strategies, and frustration tolerance.

When reviewing a CCE, it is also important to assess the

weight assigned by the evaluator to the interview data. In distin-

guishing between therapeutic and forensic roles, Stuart Green-

berg and Daniel Shuman state that forensic evaluators must use a

higher level of scrutiny for interview information than do ther-

apists.56 They note that forensic interviews take place in a signifi-

cantly different context than do therapeutic or diagnostic

interviews. In a therapeutic interview, the patient perceives that

there is benefit to providing accurate and detailed information

about his or her emotional condition, with the expectation that

such information will assist treatment. In this context, the pa-

tient is motivated to provide the therapist with information that

is as truthful as possible, even if the patient harbors concerns that

such information might create an unfavorable impression. In

contrast, in a child custody interview, the parent perceives that

there is benefit to providing complimentary information about


ROGERS, supra note 45, at 113 & 367; Richard Rogers, Structured Inter-


CEPTION (Richard Rogers ed., 1988).


Stuart A. Greenberg & Daniel W. Shuman, Irreconcilable Conflict Be-

tween Therapeutic and Forensic Roles, 28 PROF. PSYCHOL.: RES. & PRAC. 50


Page 19



Seq: 19



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


his or her parenting, with the expectation that such information

will assist his or her legal goal. In this context, the parent is moti-

vated to supply the evaluator with caregiving information that is

as favorable as possible, and to withhold information that might

create an unfavorable impression of his or her parenting. Al-

though it is possible that a given parent is being truthful and not

attempting to influence the interview, it is more likely that the

parent is attempting to positively influence the evaluator’s per-

ception of the parent’s caregiving capabilities. It is important to

remember that mental health professionals are not more skilled

than are laymen at assessing the credibility of interview state-

ments.57 Therefore, in a forensic context, evaluators should as-

sess the utility of interview data by comparing them to other

sources of information, and by searching for general trends and

consistencies across multiple data sources.

One way that a child custody evaluator can increase the reli-

ability and relevance of interviews is by using a questionnaire

that asks parents a standard set of questions, while also providing

for opportunities to ask questions regarding areas of functioning

that may be unique to only one parent. This method is referred

to as a semi-structured interview format.58 Unlike a fully struc-

tured interview format, which consists of a fixed set of questions

that allow no opportunity for digression, a semi-structured for-

mat is sufficiently flexible to permit exploration of topics that are

not predetermined but that may be of substantial importance

nonetheless. Unlike an unstructured interview format, which

lacks any predetermined questions, a semi-structured format is

sufficiently methodical to permit the evaluator to ask the same

set of general questions to each parent, while also permitting

deviation from those questions into areas unique to that particu-

lar parent and his or her relationship with the child.59

In this

way, while collecting a set of data common to both parents, the

evaluator can pursue additional areas that are specific to one par-

ent or to the context of the evaluation. Therefore, the use of a

semi-structured interview protocol provides a systematic and sci-




See generally, GRISSO, supra note 54 (credited with developing the

semi-structured interview techniques); SCHUTZ, ET AL., supra note 45.


Gould, supra note 50, at 167; Gould & Lehrmann, supra note 49, at 17-


Page 20



Seq: 20



296 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

entific means of data collection that is consistent with evidentiary

requirements for scientific information.60

When evaluating the quality of interviews in the context of a

CCE, attorneys should be attentive to problems of reliability and

relevance. Problems of reliability refer to the evaluator’s gather-

ing of interview data in a subjective, partial, or unscientific man-

ner. One example of a reliability problem is “confirmatory bias,”

or an evaluator’s tendency to seek out data that supports his or

her preconceived hypothesis, and to ignore data that is inconsis-

tent with that hypothesis.61

Confirmatory bias can significantly

distort the reliability and utility (validity) of interview data, and

can lead the evaluator to inaccurate or one-sided conclusions un-

supported by other evidence.

Gould provides an excellent example of how confirmatory

bias can diminish the reliability of interview information in a

CCE: The evaluator directed the judge to pay particular atten-

tion to the father’s interview data. It was highly credible, she

testified. The father had been living with his 17-year-old son for

about a year. Each had a history of relationship difficulties with

the mother. The evaluator interviewed the father and son over 3

days. She concluded that the father and son had an accurate

view of the mother. Their opinions were judged to be credible

and consistent. Based solely upon the information drawn from

the father’s and son’s interviews, the evaluator concluded that

the mother was abusive and therefore a threat to her children.

Custody of all three boys was recommended to the father.

When the mother was interviewed, the evaluator began by

complimenting her son and former husband for teaching her so

much about their family life. She followed this statement with

asking the mother, “How long have you been abusing your chil-

dren?” In the body of the report, the evaluator commented that

as the interview with the mother continued, the mother appeared

to become increasingly defensive and unwilling to provide de-

tailed answers. The evaluator never saw how her opening com-


Gould & Bell, supra note 49, at 21-27; Jonathan W. Gould & Philip M.

Stahl, The Art and Science of Child Custody Evaluations: Integrating Clinical

and Mental Health Models, 38 FAM. & CONCILIATION CTS. REV. 392 (2000).


Randy Borum, Randy Otto, & Stephen Golding, Improving Clinical

Judgment and Decision Making in Forensic Evaluation, 21 J. PSYCHIATRY & L.

35 (1993).

Page 21



Seq: 21



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


ments frightened the mother, creating a cognitive set of caution

and distrust. Based on the mother’s defensive responses, the

evaluator concluded that the child’s credibility was firmly


When an independent evaluator became involved and

gained access to collateral information, it became clear that the

younger children’s teachers, coaches, youth minister, therapist

and neighborhood parents described mother-child interactions as

above average. These same sources described the father-child

and father-mother interactions as significantly problematic. The

father was a weekend alcoholic who often became violent and

verbally abusive. Police records showed three arrests for DUI

and one court appearance for disorderly conduct. The seven-

teen-year-old son had also been drinking for about eighteen

months and developed a style of verbal abuse similar to his fa-

ther’s. He had his license suspended until he was twenty-one for

driving while under the influence. Father and son often drank

together during the evenings.

Furthermore, test data revealed a father whose scores were

significantly elevated on a number of scales suggestive of severe

psychopathology. Elevation on each scale was tied directly to

collateral data supportive of the father’s substance abuse, disre-

gard for rules, and highly suspicious beliefs.

Finally, interview data from the younger children revealed

children who were afraid of their father, particularly when he

was drinking. In separate interviews, they reported that their

older brother often hit them and verbally abused them while the

father was in the kitchen observing their interactions, sipping a

beer and doing nothing to intervene.62

Problems of relevance refer to the evaluator’s gathering of

interview data in a manner that fails to address the pending

psycholegal issue of comparative parenting capacity. One exam-

ple of a relevance problem is the use of a traditional “clinical

interview” in the context of a CCE. The primary purpose of a

clinical or diagnostic interview is the identification of psychopa-

thology and emotional distress. An additional purpose is the

identification of intervention or treatment methods most likely to

facilitate the subject’s recovery. Unless the court will evaluate an


Gould, supra note 50, at 74-75.

Page 22



Seq: 22



298 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

issue regarding a parent’s diagnostic status or psychological well-

being, clinical data regarding psychopathology is not relevant to

the pending legal issue. Child custody evaluators who engage in

traditional clinical interviewing are not only likely to fail to ade-

quately address the pending legal issue, but are also on a “fishing

expedition” for psychopathology that can lead them astray from

the court’s need for reliable and relevant information.

C. Psychological Testing with Objective and Self-Report


The purpose of psychological testing in CCEs is to provide

the court with a set of objective scientific data. Psychological

tests can provide a reliable and valid set of data that allow for

more precise measurement of individual characteristics than can

be obtained from interviews alone. Along with data generated

by other sources of information, psychological test data can pro-

vide objective support to an expert’s opinion and produce data

grounded in empirical research.63 Moreover, the objective data

generated by psychological tests can balance the bias and poten-

tial errors inherent in clinical interview data.64 By using multiple

tests, the evaluator can search for trends across the data, and can

cross-check his or her hypotheses. By incorporating multiple

measures of multiple dimensions of functioning, the evaluator

can gather a wide range of information with which to understand

each parent’s comparative caregiving strengths and limitations,

both as compared to one another and as compared with a group

of peers.65

In his analysis of the role of psychological testing in forensic

evaluation, Kirk Heilbrun lists seven criteria that should be met

by assessment instruments used in a forensic context.66 Heilbrun

states that tests used in forensic mental health assessment should

be: (1) commercially available, adequately documented in tech-





FORENSIC APPLICATIONS OF THE MMPI-2 (Yossef S. Ben-Porath, et al.,




Gregory J. Meyer, et al., Psychological Testing and Psychological As-

sessment: A Review of Evidence and Issues, 56 AM. PSYCHOLOGIST 128 (2001).


Heilbrun, supra note 45, at 257-272.

Page 23



Seq: 23



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


nical manual, and reviewed in at least two professional sources;

(2) sufficiently reliable; (3) relevant to the ultimate legal issue, or

to a psychological construct underlying the ultimate legal issue;

(4) administered in a standard manner; (5) applicable to the pop-

ulation being assessed; (6) evidencing an objective test format

with an actuarial basis for diagnosis and prediction (as opposed

to a subjective or impressionistic interpretive method); and (7)

amenable to the explicit assessment of response style.

Essentially, these seven criteria demand that assessment in-

struments used in a forensic context be both reliable (i.e., valid)

and relevant.67

Important considerations in choosing a psycho-

logical test include published psychometric data supporting its re-

liability and validity, its acceptance as scientific evidence in other

jurisdictions, its relevance to the psycholegal questions being ex-

amined, and its basis in scientific theory.68 An additional consid-

eration is that the assessment instrument should be a tool

generally relied upon by professionals in the field for use in child

custody matters.69

Finally, the test should generate hypotheses

that are directly relevant to the psycholegal questions posed by

the court. For example, in the assessment of parental competen-

cies, several personality tests are available that may be used to

generate hypotheses about whether measured personality fea-

tures influence an individual’s parenting. However, it is impor-

tant to note that no personality tests measure parenting

competency, nor has any constellation of personality traits been


Forensic assessment is premised upon the idea of convergent validity.

A critical issue in the use of a multi-trait/multi-method model is the extent to

which distinct assessment methods provide unique versus redundant informa-

tion. It is important to recognize that more data does not always mean more

accurate results. For example, when using tests that are intercorrelated, it is

possible that the predictive power of the two tests combined is less than the

predictive power of the psychometrically sounder test. The idea behind multi-

trait/multi-method assessment is to increase the predictive power of the data. If

a method does not increase the ability of the data to predict the behavior of

interest, then there is no incremental validity derived from the use of the

method. If there is no incremental validity, then there is no reason to adminis-

ter the test.


FORENSIC APPLICATIONS OF THE MMPI-2, supra note 64, at 117-125;





Ackerman & Ackerman, supra note 46.

Page 24



Seq: 24



300 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

linked to skill as caregiver.70 It is impossible to determine from

test results alone if a parent’s measured response patterns are

related, either directly or indirectly, to parenting competencies.71

When discussing test results, child custody evaluators must

remember that whether the test results accurately describe a par-

ent is dependent upon the degree to which other sources of infor-

mation provide confirming or disconfirming data. Current

forensic practice is to frame psychological test interpretations as

hypotheses or general trends, and to avoid considering test re-

sults in isolation.72

Similarly, current forensic practice is to de-

scribe interpretative statements as actuarial and expert

predictions based upon test results. Personality test results may

indicate that a parent exhibits characteristics similar to individu-

als with similar response patterns; however, such test results are

probabilistic in nature. Moreover, evaluators should interpret

test results cautiously and in light of other data collected from

multiple sources.73

It is critical that the evaluator understand

that test results provide only hypotheses, which then must be

subjected to verification from alternative data sources.74


Grisso, supra note 54 ; MCCANN & DYER, supra note 64.


SCHUTZ ET AL., supra note 45.





Gould, supra note 50.


In In re B.M., 682 A.2d 477, 481 (Vt. 1996), a termination proceeding,

the Vermont Supreme Court addressed the limitations of testing in a forensic

assessment of parenting capacity:

[T]he court’s emphasis on psychological testing is disturbing. Such

tests, when relied on by expert witnesses, may have a small place in

the overall evaluation of a person’s parenting ability. Parents facing

the loss of parental rights, however, must be judged on their conduct,

not on their test-taking skills or psychological traits. In this case, for

example, the court first labeled father, based on his MMPI results, as

‘a person with hedonistic, narcissistic and impulsive tendencies and

over controlled hostilities.’ The Court then linked these personality

traits to likely behaviors, noting that ‘such, persons typically seek im-

mediate gratification, blame others for their own problems, and ma-

nipulate others for their own desires, experiencing little guilt about the

effects of their actions on other.’ Finally, the court closed the door on

possible changes or improvements, finding that ‘these are consistent

and pervasive traits which no form of intervention will change.’ Al-

though recognizing that parenting skills can be learned, the court

nonetheless found that ‘in times of stress [father] will fall back on his

Page 25



Seq: 25



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


Whether the tests are accurate enough for such use is an open

question; and such tests raise concerns of cultural, educational,

and socioeconomic bias. Moreover, characterizing individuals as

bad parents based on “pervasive traits which no form of inter-

vention will change” is inconsistent with the goal of fostering pa-

rental improvement. Finally, the use of psychological tests in a

forensic evaluation should include a discussion of the limitations

of the test data.75

Examination of the scientific integrity of the measurement

tools used in CCEs goes to the heart of the question of reliability.

If an evaluator elects to use a given measurement tool in a CCE,

the tool should evidence an appropriate level of scientific relia-

bility and validity with regard to the specific issue in dispute.

Such psychometric information allows the evaluator to consider

the strength and limitations of the test data; without such infor-

mation, evaluators have little ability to gauge the accuracy of the

data upon which their conclusions are based. If a test used to

measure a factor does not have adequate reliability, then the

data upon which the evaluator’s interpretations, conclusions, and

recommendations are based will be seriously flawed.76


ver, if an evaluator elects to use a given measurement tool in a

CCE, the evaluator should provide information about whether

the instrument in question has normative data for male and fe-

male custody litigants (and, if so, how each parent’s scores com-

inherent personality traits.’ The court was apparently further per-

suaded by the correlation of father’s test results, finding that the

‘PASS results and MMPI scores reinforce each other and show a per-

vasive lack of empathy.’ We are unable to share the court’s confi-

dence in this fact, as the findings and the record lack a meaningful

explanation of the purposes, appropriate uses, or scoring methods for

these tests. For example, expert testimony and the court’s findings

emphasize that father’s PASS results were ‘clinically low.’ According

to the PASS manual, however, the PASS is scored subjectively, by the


VEY MANUAL 6 (1990). There is no evidence in the record to explain

the expert’s scoring decisions or standard for comparison, or to justify

reliance on the test scores in a proceeding to terminate parental

rights. . . . The PASS manual provides little help in understanding the

test scores, however, because the scoring is subjective. . . .


Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, supra

note 7; American Psychological Association, supra note 40.


Gould & Lehrmann, supra note 49.

Page 26



Seq: 26



302 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

pare to such normative data). An increasing pool of empirical

data is developing with regard to how male and female custody

litigants score on a number of psychological tests commonly used

in CCEs.77

In addition to demonstrating reliability, psychological tests

ought to yield data that are relevant to the issues of concern to

the court. In other words, psychological tests used in CCEs

should demonstrate a valid scientific connection to the pending

legal issue. For example, many evaluators use the Minnesota

Multiphasic Personality Inventory - Second Edition (MMPI-2)

and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory - Third Edition

(MCMI-III) in child custody evaluations.78 Although neither test

directly measures parenting capacity, the inferences drawn from

these tests may provide useful information about a parent’s per-

sonality characteristics and emotional style. These constructs are

relevant in the context of a CCE because a parent’s psychological

functioning is relevant to the issue of comparative custodial suita-

bility. Normative data regarding the male and female custody

litigants have now been published79 that enable evaluators to

compare a given parent’s scores on the MMPI-2 and MCMI-III

to normative scores obtained by other custody litigants, thereby

further increasing the relevance of the obtained data.

In the context of psychological testing, problems of reliabil-

ity refer to the use of measurement tools that lack the requisite

scientific reliability and/or validity. One example of a reliability

problem is the use of projective drawings to make inferences

about a parent’s psychological functioning, or about the issue of

comparative parenting ability. Projective drawings lack the nec-

essary validity and reliability for admissibility in court.80

At a

minimum, the subjectivity of the administration and interpreta-

tion procedures for projective drawings render them inappropri-

ate for use in a legal proceeding. No normative data exist

regarding the personality correlates of projective drawings

among adults. Similarly, no empirical behavioral science litera-


See, e.g., Bathurst et al, supra note 46; Joseph T. McCann, et al., The

MCMI-III in Child Custody Evaluations: A Normative Study, 1 J. FORENSIC

PSYCHOL. PRAC. 27 (2001).


Ackerman & Ackerman, supra note 3, Bow & Quinnell, supra note 1.


Bathurst et al, supra note 46; McCann, et al., supra note 77.


Faigman (Evidentiary Status), supra note 45.

Page 27



Seq: 27



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


ture exists demonstrating that projective drawings are related to

any specific element of a parent-child relationship, or are predic-

tive of any particular parenting practices or developmental out-

comes. It therefore constitutes poor professional practice for an

evaluator to render psycholegal conclusions about adult person-

ality structure and psychological functioning on the basis of pro-

jective drawings.

The use of psychological tests that do not provide data that

is related, either directly or indirectly, to the pending legal issue

raise issues of relevance. For example, many child custody evalu-

ators administer measures of intellectual functioning to each par-


However, unless specific concerns arise regarding a

parent’s intellectual functioning, such data will be irrelevant to

the evaluation. In other words, a psychological test ought to pro-

vide data that is useful in answering some question or issue

before the court. Therefore, unless parental intellectual func-

tioning is an issue before the court, there is no psycholegal rea-

son to administer such a test. Significantly, there exists no

empirical data to suggest that parents of above-average intellec-

tual functioning provide more competent parenting than do par-

ents of average intellectual functioning. Similarly, there exists no

empirical data that links above-average intellectual functioning

with superior caregiving skills or with any uniquely positive ele-

ments of a parent-child relationship. One parent’s superior

scores on a test of intellectual functioning might inadvertently

give the court the incorrect impression that the “smarter” parent

will make the “better” parent. In such an instance, the presenta-

tion of data that appears to suggest a scientific comparison but

does not will be more prejudicial than probative.

Once an assessment tool is identified in a report as a psycho-

logical test, and if the case is in a state in which Daubert is ac-

cepted, the expert should be prepared to defend the choice and

the use of a particular test in a Daubert challenge. Such a chal-

lenge may include explaining to the judge information about a

test’s underlying theory of science, whether it has been published

in a peer-reviewed journal, status as a current standard among


Ackerman & Ackerman, supra note 46, at 579-84.

Page 28



Seq: 28



304 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

the psychological community, psychometric data about its relia-

bility, validity, base rate estimates and its falsifiability.82

If the expert bases his or her opinion on a certain instru-

ment, that instrument’s scientific validity for the purpose used

may be the focus of a Daubert challenge. If the expert bases his

or her opinion on a particular methodology, then it is the meth-

odology that will be the focus of a Daubert challenge.

With respect to psychological testing, there are two ways to

approach a Daubert challenge: First, focus attention on each test

used in the battery of tests. Most of the psychological tests and

measures used in child custody evaluations might have difficulty

surviving a Daubert challenge because the tests have not been

developed for use in child custody assessments. Therefore, the

expert should not base his or her opinion upon the results of a

specific test or a specific set of tests.

Second, the expert should focus less attention on individual

tests and more attention on the scientific methodology used in

the evaluation process. Rather than examining each test used in

the evaluation process, the evaluator describes the usefulness

and breadth of data from alternative independent sources of in-

formation. As noted in Daubert: “Scientific methodology today

is based on generating hypotheses and testing them to see if they

can be falsified; indeed, this methodology is what distinguishes

science from other fields of human inquiry.”83

The evaluator must describe how information from any one

data source may be used to generate hypotheses about the par-

ent, the child, or the family. It is important to describe how in-

formation from one source of data is used to confirm or

disconfirm hypotheses generated from other independent

sources of information. One view is that psychological test data

are weighed no more heavily than collateral data or direct obser-

vational data. Another view is that psychological testing should

be weighed more heavily than other sources of data because a

well-developed test will have standardized norms, quantitative

measurements, multiple validity studies, standardized observa-

tional conditions and other psychometric properties.


David Medoff, The Scientific Basis of Psychological Testing: Considera-

tions Following Daubert, Kumho and Joiner, 41 FAM. CT. REV. 199 (Apr.



Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593.

Page 29



Seq: 29



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


How the usefulness of data is weighed from different infor-

mation sources depends on the characteristics of each case. It is

the convergence of independent sources of data that help to

make one hypothesis more likely than another to be supported,

and the weight assigned to each information source may vary

from case to case depending upon the quality of the data and the

way in which the data may be interpreted within the larger con-

text of the family system.

In reality, Daubert challenges are rarely used in child cus-

tody cases. If it is a Frye jurisdiction, the task of the lawyer may

be very different in defending the use of a psychological test or

measure. Several publications describe how psychologists and

other mental health professionals use psychological tests in cus-

tody evaluations,84 and a number of upcoming articles investigate

evaluators’ knowledge of Frye and Daubert issues when selecting

and interpreting psychological tests.85

Based upon a Frye stan-

dard, it is possible that the use of the House-Tree-Person test,

Sentence Completion test or Themetic Apperception Test would

be ruled admissible because of their general acceptance among

evaluators as reported in these peer-reviewed articles.

It is the intention of the current APA Ethics Code and the

Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists to focus attention

on the reliability, validity and relevance of tests and measures

used in a forensic context. A test that is widely used by col-

leagues does not mean that the test is psychometrically sound.

An assumption built into the Frye standard is that a test

would not be commonly used among professionals in a field if its

reliability had not been previous demonstrated. As summarized

previously in a recent Illinois State Supreme Court decision, “A

technique, however, is not ‘generally accepted’ if it is experimen-

tal or of dubious validity. Thus, the Frye rule is meant to exclude

methods new to science that undeservedly create a perception of


See, e.g., Ackerman & Ackerman, supra note 46; Bow & Quinnell,

supra note 1. .


James N. Bow, James R. Flens & Jonathan W. Gould, J.W., Testing in

Child Custody Evaluations- Selection, Usage, and Daubert Admissibility, ___ J.

FORENSIC PSYCHOL. PRAC. (forthcoming 2005); James N. Bow, James R. Flens

& Jonathan W. Gould, An Analysis of Administration, Scoring, and Interpreta-

tion of the MMPI-2 and MCMI-III in Child Custody Evaluations (on file with


Page 30



Seq: 30



306 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

certainty when the basis for the evidence or opinion is actually


Such is not the case with many assessment techniques used

in the child custody field. Many clinical assessment techniques

drawn from clinical practice have been used in child custody

evaluations and, until recently, have been accepted as commonly

used among custody evaluators despite their lack of reliability

and relevance.87

The use of unreliable, clinically derived techniques such as

human figure drawings, sentence completion tests and other sim-

ilar projective techniques may have earned a place in the scien-

tific community and have undeservingly created a perception of

reliability when, in fact, there is no basis for such belief. An as-

sumption of the Frye standard that a principle or technique is not

generally accepted in the scientific community if it is by nature

unreliable does not appear to be reflected in custody evaluators’

historical use of projective techniques. Unreliable methods and

the interpretation of unreliable information that has been drawn

from those unreliable methods have been used as a basis upon

which evaluators have offered opinions about custodial place-

ment and visitation access. Reliance upon unreliable techniques

serves neither the families nor the courts. Fortunately, child cus-

tody evaluators increasingly focus on the use of reliable and rele-

vant assessment techniques.88

D. Direct Behavioral Observations of Parent-Child Interactions

When a forensic evaluator is assessing a parent’s caregiving

capacities, the evaluator must engage in direct observation of

parent-child interactions.89 This is true regardless of whether the

evaluator is assessing child custody, parental competency, or pa-

rental risk to the child and is expressly stated in the professional


Donaldson v. Central Illinois Pub. Serv. Co., 767 N.E.2d 314, 324 (Ill.



Ackerman & Ackerman, supra note 46, at 565-67.


Bow & Quinnell, supra note 1, at 261-68.


Some commentators suggest that such observations are not always nec-

essary for older children involved in custody disputes. See, e.g., STAHL, supra

note 43. We are not in agreement with this position.

Page 31



Seq: 31



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


guidelines.90 For example, the Guidelines for Child Custody

Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings state that a child custody

evaluation should include “an evaluation of the interaction be-

tween each adult and child.”91 Direct behavioral observation can

provide information about a parent’s caregiving strengths and

weaknesses, such as a parent’s communication skills, perception

of the child, provision of structure and support, manner of ex-

pressing love, manner of providing discipline and knowledge and

expectations regarding the child’s developmental needs and abili-

ties. Since the heart of any CCE is the relationship between par-

ent and child, direct behavioral observation increases the

relevance of the data. Moreover, since observation provides an

opportunity to test hypotheses regarding parental strengths and

weaknesses, direct behavioral observation increases the reliabil-

ity of the data.

Observation of parent-child interactions can occur in struc-

tured or unstructured formats. Structured observational formats

typically require a parent and child to engage in a series of tasks,

or require an observer to score the parent and child according to

a series of interactional ratings. For example, the Parent-Child

Early Relational Assessment92 is a structured parent-child obser-

vation system that can be used to assess the quality of the rela-

tionship between a young child and his or her parent. The parent

and child are observed interacting during four segments of an

observational protocol: a feeding exercise; a structured task

(e.g., reading); free play; and a separation and reunion.93



American Psychological Association, supra note 40; Association of

Family and Conciliation Courts, supra note 45; Committee on Professional

Practice and Standards, APA Board of Professional Affairs, Guidelines for Psy-

chological Evaluations in Child Protection Matters, 54 AM. PSYCHOLOGIST 586

(1999); SCHUTZ ET AL., supra note 45.


American Psychological Association, supra note 40, at 678.



MENT (1985); Roseanne Clark, Andrew Paulson & Susan Conlin, Assessment of

Developmental Status and Parental-Infant Relationships, in HANDBOOK OF IN-

FANT MENTAL HEALTH (Charles Zeanah ed., 1993).


An evaluator may indicate that he or she has followed a standardized

procedure to gather observational data. Although some of these standardized

procedures have an empirical basis, some have little or not empirical evidence

to support their validity. Moreover, some empirically-based observational pro-

cedures require that a practitioner undergo extensive training to qualify as an

expert in their use (e.g. the “strange situation,” which is used to classify young

Page 32



Seq: 32



308 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

structured parent-child observation consists of simply observing

the parent and child together in an office setting or a naturalistic

environment such as the home, where observations can be made

of daily activities such as meals and bedtime routine.94 In prac-

tice, Marc Ackerman and Andrew Kane are likely correct in

their assertion that “[t]here are probably as many different ways

to perform observations as there are evaluators.”95

Regardless of the setting and structure for the observation,

the evaluator’s task is to assess the nature and quality of the in-

teractions between the parent and child, including assessing such

critical issues as the way in which the parent expresses love, af-

fection or support to the child; the way in which the parent pro-

vides discipline or structure to the child; the parent’s capacity to

understand and respond to the child’s cues; the parent’s capacity

to experience the child as a separate individual, with distinct

preferences and relationships; the parent’s sense of enjoyment or

competence in the parenting role; and the parent’s sense of frus-

tration or inadequacy in the parenting role.

Careful observation of parent-child interactions can be sig-

nificantly revealing, as the evaluator has the opportunity to wit-

ness patterns of interaction outside the parent’s awareness. For

example, phenomena such as a parent’s sour expression when the

other parent is mentioned or a parent’s repeated depreciation of

the child in an attempt to be educative may become obvious dur-

ing an observation session. Even more important, the child’s re-

sponses to parental behavior also become clear. An example

follows: During interviews, Ms. Jones seemed overly concerned

with her four-year-old son’s cognitive development to the exclu-

sion of almost all other aspects of the child’s development. In-

structed by the evaluator to bring materials to the observation

session with which she and her son would like to work, Ms. Jones

brought in a large shopping bag full of reading material and

games designed to teach arithmetic. She proceeded to invite the

children’s attachment status). Whenever an evaluator claims to be using a stan-

dardized observational method, the attorney should attempt to clarify the sup-

port the method has from validation studies, as well as the evaluator’s

qualification to use the method.


STAHL, supra note 43.




Page 33



Seq: 33



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


child to work with them. To the evaluator’s surprise, the child

instantly cuddled up to his mother, who put her arm around him

with warm affection. He worked assiduously at the games with

evident delight. When he grew tired of an activity, he readily

communicated this to his mother; his mother repeatedly re-

sponded by encouraging him to select an activity he would enjoy

more or by gently telling him that the activity was difficult at this

point in time but that she was sure he could do it if he persisted.

Observing the mother and child together, the evaluator con-

cluded that the mother’s style, which might have been problem-

atic for some children, worked extremely well for her son.

Problems of reliability can occur when an evaluator offers

conclusions in the absence of any observational data. For exam-

ple, many evaluators describe observational sessions as revealing

“a warm relationship” or “a positive attachment,” without eluci-

dating the data upon which these conclusions are based. In the

absence of any observational data to support this conclusion

(e.g., warm physical contact, gentle redirection, verbal praise and

encouragement), it is not possible to assess the reliability of the

evaluator’s conclusions. Problems of relevance can occur when

an evaluator offers peripheral data that lack any relationship to

the underlying psycholegal issue of comparative parenting capac-

ity. For example, some evaluators report observational sessions

as verbatim transcripts and do not appear to employ any guiding

observational methodology. In the absence of a conceptual

framework with which to organize and understand observational

data, it is likely that the evaluator’s conclusions will lack the req-

uisite relevance.

Finally, videotaping behavioral observation sessions can fa-

cilitate both the reliability and relevance of the data gathered.

Currently, the videotaping of such sessions is uncommon in most

jurisdictions. Videotaping has some disadvantages, including

cost, time and potential evidentiary problems. However, video-

tapes can provide a particularly informative record of parent-

child interactions. Reviewing the videotape can allow the evalu-

ator to observe exchanges that went unnoticed during the obser-

vation session itself. Moreover, videotaping permits third parties

(such as the court) to see the data described in the evaluator’s

report, including gestures and vocal tones, which can be ex-

tremely significant. We believe that because videotaped record-

Page 34



Seq: 34



310 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

ings provide one of the best means of reducing reliance on

impressionistic descriptions of parent-child interactions and thus

increase the reliability of behavioral observations, legal profes-

sionals should encourage videotaping of observation sessions

whenever practical.

E. Interviews with Collateral Sources and Review of Relevant


The acquisition of reliable and relevant collateral informa-

tion is arguably the most important component of a child custody

evaluation. Forensic evaluation differs from clinical evaluation in

its emphasis on establishing historical truth.96

Forensic evalu-

ators can utilize collateral data sources to help determine the

facts underlying the psycholegal issue before the court. Collat-

eral data serves a number of important functions in a CCE. First,

such data can support or contradict a custody litigant’s allega-

tions regarding comparative parenting competency. Second,

such data can control for the potential effects of deception and

malingering, since parents may—intentionally or unintention-

ally—distort information in a manner that serves their legal posi-

tion. Third, such data can provide a way for the evaluator to

increase the confidence of interpretations and conclusions, be-

cause the obtained information derives from sources external to

the evaluation and provides external validation in support of one

or more hypotheses. Fourth, such data can make a significant

contribution to an understanding of the litigant’s behavior prior

to the current legal dispute. For example, in a child custody case,

collateral interviews can provide historical data about the parent-

child relationship that may be critical to the examiner, yet other-

wise unavailable.

The decision to interview collateral sources should be

“based upon criteria of relevancy, reliability and necessity.”97 A

more valuable collateral source will be one who is not related to

either parent and who has no vested interest in the outcome of

the evaluation. We support William Austin’s model98 of dia-


Shuman, supra note 17.


Herbert N. Weissman, Child Custody Evaluations: Fair and Unfair

Professional Practices, 9 BEHAV. SCI. & L. 469, 473 (1993).


William G. Austin, Guidelines for Utilizing Collateral Sources of Infor-

mation in Child Custody Evaluations, 40 FAM. CT. REV. 177 (2002).

Page 35



Seq: 35



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


gramming collateral sources as a series of concentric circles in

which more distant emotional relationships with the litigants pro-

duce more neutrality. According to this diagrammatic model, in-

ner circles are occupied by family members and friends; circles of

middle distance are occupied by individuals such as coaches and

scout leaders; and outer circles are occupied by individuals such

as pediatricians, teachers and other community professionals.

The reliability of collateral interviews is increased when the

evaluator uses neutral, non-aligned sources who can provide a

credible view of the litigants’ parenting over time. The relevance

of collateral interviews is increased when the evaluator gathers

information about a parent’s real-life caregiving practices, com-

petencies, and difficulties.99

Any competent CCE must include

information about how the parent and child operate in the real

world, outside the artificial and contrived circumstances of the

evaluator’s office. Obtaining information from people who have

direct observational knowledge of the parent and child in differ-

ent situations is often the most important data obtained in a

CCE. Evaluators can also interview sources who do not have

knowledge of parent-child interactions, but who have observa-

tional knowledge of the child’s functioning and adjustment in a

variety of domains (e.g., academic, social, emotional), such as

teachers or day care providers.

Problems of reliability can occur when the evaluator inter-

views individuals who are aligned with one litigant and are there-

fore personally invested in the outcome of the litigation.

Examples of such individuals include a litigant’s parents, siblings

or new spouse.100 Although it will be helpful to talk with such


Id.; see also Gould, supra note 50, at 162-63.


It is also important for the evaluator to understand how each collateral

informant may know each parent. For example, it is not uncommon for a

teacher to have more contact with a stay-at-home mother than with a working

father. When such situations arise, it is important for the evaluator to examine

the degree to which a teacher, who otherwise would be considered a neutral

informant, may have aligned herself with one parent due to her increased con-

tact with that parent and that parent’s perspective on the custodial conflict.

Similarly, when interviewing a child’s therapist, it is important for the evaluator

to determine whether the therapist has received information from both parents

before determining that the therapist is a neutral source of information. Ther-

apists, who may be viewed as credible because of their professional credentials,

may become aligned with their adult patient or with the parent of their child

Page 36



Seq: 36



312 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

individuals, it is critical that the evaluator treat their reports simi-

larly to information from the parent-litigants themselves: as data

that may be intentionally or unintentionally biased, and that

therefore must be corroborated with other sources of informa-

tion. The more emphasis an evaluator places on collateral infor-

mants from within the parent’s close emotional circle, the greater

the likelihood that the obtained information is biased. Con-

versely, when information from a parent’s close friends and fam-

ily is corroborated by information from neutral and non-aligned

informants, an evaluator can have greater confidence in the accu-

racy and utility of the information.

Problems of relevance can occur when the evaluator accepts

and considers information not relevant to the issue of compara-

tive parenting capacity. For example, parents may ask their fam-

ily and friends to provide letters that serve as “character

affidavits” attesting to the parent’s good will and moral charac-

ter. When such letters are provided by friends or co-workers

who have no observational knowledge of parent-child interac-

tions and little or no knowledge of the child involved in the dis-

pute, they lack the requisite relevance to be of use. There may

be cases in which such information is of use, and we are not sug-

gesting that evaluators should never consider input from friends

or co-workers. However, in our experience, these letters rarely

contain any information relevant to the issue of parenting


IV. Complex Issues in Child Custody

Evaluations: Domestic Violence and Child


It is particularly important for legal professionals to assess

the reliability and relevance of CCEs in complex cases that in-

volve allegations of domestic violence, abuse or child alienation.

The forensic assessment of such allegations remains a controver-

sial topic in CCEs. These assessments present a unique challenge

because of the complexity of psychological variables involved in

a comprehensive assessment and because of the social policy im-

patient who supports treatment. Therefore, they may be an unreliable source

of collateral information.

Page 37



Seq: 37



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


plications and political passions that are evoked when such alle-

gations are part of a custody case.

Writing about allegations of domestic violence in the context

of child custody litigation, Austin notes, “there is probably no

forensic question on which overreaching by mental health profes-

sionals has been so common and egregious.”101


occurs because evaluators reach conclusions based upon inade-

quate or incomplete data, or upon outdated research or personal

beliefs presented as professional judgments. Significantly, a rela-

tionship exists between allegations of child alienation and domes-

tic violence. Recently, the concept of alienation has undergone

both revision102 and critique.103

Child alienation is currently

viewed as a family system process in which the alienating parent,

the alienated parent and the child all contribute to dysfunctional

relationships within the family system.

One important criticism of CCEs that assess for domestic

violence or child alienation is that evaluators often are poorly

trained to discriminate alienation from abuse. A parent who has

been abused, or who is protecting a child from abuse, may ap-

pear to be alienating the child from the abusive parent when, in

fact, the protective parent is attempting to keep the child safe.

As a result of this criticism, some researchers have re-conceptual-

ized alienation by looking at the child’s behaviors and attach-

ments and assessing whether the parent’s behaviors may be

alienating in nature.104 These researchers have proposed a series

of areas to explore in determining whether abuse and/or aliena-


William G. Austin, Assessing Credibility in Allegations of Marital Vio-

lence in the High Conflict Child Custody Case, 38 FAM. & CONCILIATION CTS.

REV. 462, 463 (2000).


Joan B. Kelly & Janet R. Johnston, The Alienated Child: A Reformula-

tion of Parental Alienation Syndrome, 39 FAM. CT. REV. 249 (2001); Richard A.

Warshak, Current Controversies Regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome, 19



Carol S. Bruch, Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation:

Getting it Wrong in Child Custody Cases, 35 FAM. L.Q. 527 (2001); Kathleen C.

Faller, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: What It Is and What Data Support It,



Leslie Drozd, Toby Kleinman, & Lenore Walker, How To’s in Family

Law Cases Involving Domestic Violence, in CONFLICT RESOLUTION, CHILDREN



Page 38



Seq: 38



314 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

tion are present in a custody case. Among the questions to inves-

tigate are: (1) is there a problem with the child’s attachments?;

(2) is there a problem with the child’s behavior?; (3) if so, is there

a reality-based reason for the child’s troubled behavior?; (4) are

there reasons to believe that the child has been exposed to some

form of abuse; (5) are there reasons to believe that the child has

been the victim of some form of abuse?; (6) are there reasons to

believe that the child has interpreted events as abusive?; and (7)

if the child has been exposed to or a victim of abuse, is the abuse

“pure abuse” or is it combined with alienation dynamics?

The competent evaluator needs to be aware of how different

factors are empirically linked to specific areas of family function-

ing. The competent evaluator also needs to systematically ex-

plore each of the variables known to be associated with different

forms of violence and maltreatment. For example, if a referral

question focuses attention on partner violence during the mar-

riage, the evaluator must explore concerns about child abuse per-

petrated by each parent, and not merely by the alleged aggressor.

V. Considerations in Using Mental Health

Professionals in Child Custody Litigation

Given the above analysis of methodological problems com-

mon to CCEs, a threshold question in the preparation of a cus-

tody dispute case is whether to use a forensic mental health

expert at all. In cases in which the facts clearly mitigate in favor

of one parent and against the other as custodian, expert testi-

mony may add little or no new information. Conversely, a CCE

will be indicated in cases in which expert testimony can assist the

trier of fact in understanding the evidence or in determining the

facts at issue and when the expert is qualified by adequate

knowledge, skill, experience, training or education.105

If lawyers are generally ill-prepared to cope with scientific

and technical material, many mental health professionals are sim-


While a licensed mental health professional may generally be permit-

ted to opine in all areas of his or her discipline, when a matter arises in a new

and emerging field that is highly specialized, most courts also require additional

expertise before admitting testimony on the subject. Examples of such highly

specialized areas include clinical phenomena such as recovered memories of

sexual abuse and clinical diagnoses such as Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy.

Page 39



Seq: 39



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


ilarly unprepared to work with legal concepts and evidentiary is-

sues. Nonetheless, forensic training is more available in the

mental health field than is behavioral science and research train-

ing in the legal field. The preferred custody expert is one who

has had significant education in the area in which he or she is

opining, as well as experience with the rules of evidence.106


view and verification of the expert’s curriculum vitae is essential;

copies of prior forensic mental health reports and authored arti-

cles may also prove useful. If psychological tests will be used, the

expert can be asked for a copy of the manual and any articles in

the legal and scientific literature that explain or critique the tests

and their application in CCEs.

Local rules will govern discovery opportunities with respect

to adverse expert testimony. To the extent permitted by local

law, production can be demanded of all notes and material in any

media (including electronic media), and any test results (includ-

ing raw data). Practitioners should demand an index of any ma-

terial asserted to be privileged, the nature of the material, and

the basis for the assertion of privilege. This can constitute the

foundation for a subsequent motion to compel production or an

in camera inspection of the material asserted to be privileged.

Finally, since most law school curricula do not include statistics

or research methodology classes—fields of learning essential to


Who qualifies as an expert obviously depends upon the issues in a

given case. Where a specific clinical condition is at issue, it would appear that

training and experience relevant to the diagnosis and treatment of that condi-

tion would be necessary. However, this is not necessarily the case. Jurisdictions

do not agree as to the necessity of a local license or specific training and experi-

ence. For example, North Dakota takes the position that Federal Rule of Evi-

dence 702 does not require licensure in a particular field, or licensure in the

court’s jurisdiction, to qualify as an expert. Rather, it is the witness’s actual

qualifications that count. Anderson v. A.P.I. Co., 559 N.W.2d 204, 206-07 (N.D.

1997); State v. Carlson, 559 N.W.2d 802, 809 (N.D. 1997); Oberlander v. Ober-

lander, 460 N.W.2d 400, 402, (N.D. 1990). Furthermore, in North Dakota, any

educated and experienced psychologist should be able to qualify as an expert to

testify about child custody factors. Unfamiliarity with the statutory factors af-

fecting the legal determination of custody, a potential conflict of interest, and

bias might affect the weight given the opinion, but these factors go to the credi-

bility–not to the admissibility–of the evidence. Kluck v. Kluck, 561 N.W.2d 263,

266 (N.D. 1997). Obviously, a review of the local jurisdiction’s views on these

issues is necessary both in choosing an expert and in questioning an adverse


Page 40



Seq: 40



316 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

the litigation of admissibility issues and the examination and

cross-examination of scientific experts—counsel may wish to

hire a consulting expert who can explain the scientific methodol-

ogy underlying the expert’s opinions, critique flawed or unscien-

tific methodologies and assist in preparing direct and cross


VI. Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code

of Conduct Relevant to Daubert

The American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles

of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (Ethics Code) set forth

enforceable rules for conduct as psychologists.108

The Ethical

Standards (ES) are not exhaustive: if conduct is not specifically

addressed, it does not mean the conduct is ethical or unethical.

The newest version of the Ethics Code came into effect on

June 1, 2003, and amended the 1992 version of that Code. The

amended Code is designed to give the psychologist a greater abil-

ity to exercise professional judgment regarding the appropriate

response to a variety of situations, in part by increased use of the

terms like “reasonably,” “appropriate,” and “potentially,” and

decreased use of “must” or “should.” The general directive is to

do what a “reasonable psychologist” would do.109

The Ethics Code applies only to psychologists’ activities that

are part of their scientific, educational, or professional roles as

psychologists (i.e., counseling, clinical, research, teaching, foren-

sic activities), not their private conduct. Further, a finding that a

psychologist has violated a provision of the Ethics Code is not

intended to be a basis of civil liability against that psychologist.

A psychologist who violates the Ethical Standards faces sanctions


See also Barbara Ellen Handschu, Tips, Strategies for Questioning Your

Expert on Direct Exam, 15 MATRIM. STRATEGIST 1 (Dec. 1997); James J. Jim-

merson, Cross-Examining an Opposing Expert at Trial: Preparation (Part I of

II), 18 FAIR$HARE 2 (May 1998); Stuart B. Walzer & Jan C. Gabrielson, Strate-

gic Cross-Examination in Commandments of Cross-Examination, 3 LITIGATION

18 (Winter 1977).


American Psychological Association, supra note 40 .





Page 41



Seq: 41



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


ranging from educational advisories to an expulsion from the

APA (if he/she is a member).

Several Ethical Standards have specific relevance to the re-

quirements set down by the Court in Daubert.

1. ES 9.01(b) – “Except as noted in 9.01(c), psychologists provide

opinions of the psychological characteristics of an individual only

after they have conducted an examination of the individual ade-

quate to support their statements or conclusions. When, despite

reasonable efforts, such an examination is not practical, psycholo-

gists document the efforts they made and the result of those efforts,

clarify the probable impact of their limited information on the relia-

bility and validity of their opinions, and limit the nature and extent

of their conclusions or recommendations.”110

Exception – ES 9.01(c) – “When psychologists conduct a record

review or provide consultation and an individual examination is not

necessary for the opinion, psychologists can explain this and the

sources of information on which they based their conclusions and


This Ethical Standard specifically addresses the importance

of in-person evaluations of individuals about whom psychologists

will offer a professional opinion. Under this standard, with few

exceptions, psychologists must conduct individual examinations

sufficient to obtain personal verification of information on which

to base their professional opinions and refrain from providing

opinions about the psychological characteristics of an individual

if they themselves have not conducted an examination of the in-

dividual adequate to support their statement or conclusions.

2. ES 9.02(a) – “psychologists administer, adapt, score, interpret, or

use assessment techniques, interviews, tests, or instruments in a

manner and for purposes that are appropriate in light of the re-

search on or evidence of the usefulness and proper application of

the techniques.”112

3. ES 9.02(b) – “psychologists use assessment instruments whose va-

lidity and reliability have been established for use with members of

the population tested. When such validity or reliability has not


American Psychological Association, Ethical Principles of Psycholo-

gists and Code of Conduct, Ethical Standards § 9.01(b) (2002) available at http:/



Id. at § 9.01(c).


Id. at § 9.01(a).

Page 42



Seq: 42



318 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

been established, psychologists describe the strengths and limita-

tions of test results and interpretations.”113

A psychologist should ensure that a test has been validated

for use with individuals of the age, gender, ethnicity, etc. of the

client. Some of this information will come from the test manual.

The psychologist also needs to be sufficiently familiar with the

research on the test to be able to assess whether new research

supports or questions particular uses of the test or interpretations

of the results. If a test is used despite the lack of research-based

support for the particular use, the psychologist is required to

specify why it was used, the advantages of using it and any limita-

tions on interpretations and recommendations as a result of its


4. ES 9.06 – “When interpreting assessment results including auto-

mated interpretations, psychologists take into account the purpose

of the assessment as well as the various test factors, test-taking abil-

ities, and other characteristics of the person being assessed, such as

situational, personal, linguistic, and cultural differences, that might

affect psychologists’ judgments or reduce the accuracy of their in-

terpretation. They indicate any significant limitations of their


5. ES 9.08(a) – “Psychologists do not base their assessment or inter-

vention decisions or recommendations on data or test results that

are outdated for the current purpose.”115

VII. Conclusion

Given the psycholegal import of CCEs, it is imperative that

forensic mental health professionals tender evaluations that have


Id.at § 9.02(b). Of note, on April 8, 2005, a Youngstown, Ohio psychol-

ogist’s license was suspended for two years. Among the factors considered by

the Board in making its decision was the use by the psychologist of “an insuffi-

ciently validated instrument . . . as a basis for reaching conclusions in psycholog-

ical assessments.” Other factors were also considered by the Board, so there is

no way of knowing how much weight was assigned to this one particular ele-

ment. Also of interest, from the same case, the Board cited a section of Ohio

law referred to as the “Specialty Standard of Care,” which states that “one who

undertakes practice in a given specialty area will be held to the standard of care

within that specialty while he/she is practicing in that area.” The suspension is

stayed pending its appeal. See https://license.ohio.gov


Id. at § 9.06.


Id. at § 9.08(a).

Page 43



Seq: 43



Vol. 19, 2005

Forensic Evaluations


been conducted with due regard for scientific methodology, be-

havioral science literature and ethical guidelines. Evaluators

who purport to assess the best psychological interests of children

involved in custody disputes must take precautions not to inad-

vertently harm those interests. As Chief Justice Frank D. Cele-

brezze of the Ohio Supreme Court wrote, “While statues can be

amended and case law can be distinguished or overruled, we take

judicial notice of the fact that children grow up only once. When

a mistake is made in a custody dispute, the harmful effects are



In re Wonderly, 423 N.E.2d 420, 427 (Ohio 1981).

Page 44



Seq: 44