The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of the beliefs and investigative practices of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who had been appointed by a court to evaluate families in disputed custody cases when there were allegations of domestic violence. Objectives were to examine the relationship between the evaluators’ beliefs and practices and their recommendations for custody and visitation, and to examine how the evaluators’ recommendations influenced case outcomes, including settlement agreements and court orders following trial.
The parenting plans recommended by the evaluators did not differ significantly from those ordered by the courts. Parenting plans in settlements were significantly more similar to the evaluator-recommended plans (85% concordance) than were the court ordered plans (70% concordance), but both were highly correlated with the parenting plans recommended by the evaluators.
Surprisingly, settlement agreements and court ordered plans were similar in regard to the safety of exchange and visitation arrangements. The strongest predictor of the safety of the parenting plan recommended by the evaluator or ordered by the court was the evaluator’s consideration of indicators of ongoing risk of domestic violence. Also significantly associated with the safety of the parenting plan was the evaluator’s knowledge of domestic violence and use of a power and control model to analyze domestic violence. Neither the thoroughness of the evaluator’s investigation (e.g., collaterals interviewed, documents reviewed), nor the severity of the abuse in the history of the relationship was predictive of the safety of the parenting plan. The quantitative data and the interviews of the evaluators revealed a wide range of beliefs about domestic violence and the child’s best interest that affected the evaluator’s conclusions and the court outcome.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Given the overwhelming influence of custody evaluators’ conclusions on the court outcome, there should be greater consistency across evaluators: a family’s fate should not depend on which evaluator is appointed. Recommendations include screening of court-appointed evaluators for knowledge of domestic violence and training of evaluators on risk factors for ongoing and potentially lethal violence. It is also recommended that courts conduct fact-finding regarding the domestic violence rather than relying on the custody evaluators to conduct investigations.
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