Psychologists Becoming More Sophisticated In Their Custody Evaulation Practices, Survey Finds

April 01, 1997

WASHINGTON -- It has been a decade since psychologists were surveyed about how they conduct child custody evaluations, and according to a new survey, published in the April edition of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA), there has been a notable change in psychologists' practices and attitudes during the intervening years.

"Psychologists," according to authors Marc J. Ackerman, Ph.D., of the Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology, and Melissa Ackerman of the University of Denver, "have become more sophisticated in the custody evaluation process in that they use more test results, review more materials, and are less likely to make recommendations on the basis of a single variable."

For example, the 1986 survey of 82 psychologists, psychiatrists and masters-level practitioners found that only about three quarters of them tested children or adults involved in custody cases. The 1996 survey (of 201 psychologists) found that 92 percent test children and 98 percent test adults.

Psychologists, the authors say, were also "more careful in their decision-making process in 1996 than they were in 1986." Participants in both surveys were given a list of situations involving one parent or the other (or the child) and were asked to rate the importance of each situation in terms of which parent (or neither) they would lean to in making a custody recommendation based on that situation. For example, "Parent A is threatening to move to another state with the children" or "Five-year-old child would prefer to live with Parent B."

While in 1986 more than half of the situations on the list prompted an endorsement of one parent over the other, by 1996, less than a quarter of the items resulted in endorsement of one parent over the other, indicating a greater preference for joint custody over sole- or single-parent custody than in 1986.

While the relative importance of most of the situations listed remained about the same from 1986 to 1996, attitudes about some did change. For example, in 1986 54 percent of respondents faced with "Parent B is currently involved in a homosexual relationship" said they would be inclined to endorse custody for Parent A; in 1996, 88 percent said they would not recommend either parent on the basis of sexual orientation. On the other hand, "Parent B is an active alcoholic" (which was not included in the 1986 survey) was judged the most important situation in deciding which parent to endorse in the 1996 survey. "Parent A is a recovering alcoholic" ranked much lower in importance.

Another major shift that has occurred over the past decade is in how psychologists prefer to be retained in custody evaluations. In 1986, nearly a third of those surveyed preferred to be retained by one parent or the other in a custody dispute; by 1996 nearly 100 percent preferred to be retained by the court, the child's legal guardian or both parents.

Article: "Custody Evaluation Practices: A Survey of Experienced Professionals (Revisited)" by Marc J. Ackerman, Ph.D., Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology and Melissa Ackerman, University of Denver, in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 28, No. 2.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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American Psychological Association

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