Custody Evaluation

By Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

Typical Questions that are asked of us by the Courts, and various persons or agencies involved in settling custody disputes, include which factors of personality, interpersonal style, disciplinary style, and emotional health and adjustment will influence what custody arrangements will be best for the child(ren) whose living arrangement is in question.

Factors related to positive adjustment following divorce were published in a comprehensive study done by Wallerstein and Kelly in their 1980 book Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce. They identify the following seven characteristics related to positive post-divorce adjustment:

  1. Parental ability to resolve post-divorce conflict and anger.
  2. Ability of the custodial parent to successfully resume the parenting role.
  3. Ability of the non-custodial parent to maintain a mutually satisfying relationship with the child.
  4. Personality characteristics of the child and the ability to develop coping skills.
  5. Ability of the child to find and use support systems.
  6. Diminished depressive or angry responses by the child.
  7. The age and sex of the child.

The same source identifies factors related to poor adjustment to divorce, including:

  1. Failure of the parents to adjust to the divorce, as evidenced by continued distress and parental conflict.
  2. Insufficiency of parenting following divorce due to the parent's (often the mother's) social and economic overload as a single parent.
  3. Chronic dissatisfaction of the custodial parent (often the mother) with regard to her present life.
  4. A history of poor parenting on the part of the mother from the beginning (the pre-divorce years) and continuing in the post-divorce phase, characterized by a fluctuating interest in the children's care and welfare and preoccupation with her own social and sexual activities.
  5. A psychiatrically ill mother.
  6. Economic stress, characterized by a downward change in the family's standard of living and a discrepancy between the father's lifestyle and that of the mother and children.
  7. Child(ren)'s failure to understand the divorce.
  8. Continued anger and depression on the part of the child (especially in adolescence).

In a ten-year follow-up study, published by Judith Wallerstein (Second Chances: Men, Women and Children A Decade After Divorce), children who "looked good" had:

  1. A mother-child relationship characterized by mutual respect, consideration (within boundaries), and a mother who had reorganized her life and "had a life."
  2. Children who had moved to live with their father, had a similar relationship with their father as described in 1). Father had set limits on his professional development so he could have a relationship with his children.
  3. Had a positive relationship with a good set of grandparents (who stayed of of the parental conflict and identified and met children's needs).
  4. A history of stability in the post-divorce family arrangements. Organized households in which there were rules and clear expectations were important.
  5. Had seen a good, health and positive adult couple relationship between at least one parent and a new partner.

The psychologist's job, when asked to render an opinion on custody, is to obtain a "snapshot" of each member of the divorcing family, taking into account the factors mentioned above, and piece these pictures together into a sort of collage - as balanced as possible, but of course some of the pictures maybe closer to each other, and certain ones may be farther apart, with the children and their needs in the center of the page.

Making such recommendations is never undertaken lightly, since the psychologist is aware of the profound impact such recommendations could have on the children's emotional and psychological development, for the rest of their lives. We often use Psychological Testing as a way of increasing the information we have with which to make such important suggestions, but also important are the face-to-face interviews with each of the parents, sessions in which we can observe the parents' interactions with the children, and sessions in which we can get to know the children, their special needs and motivations.

Psychologists can also be quite helpful in situations where one or both of the divorcing parents have not been able to let go of the conflict, and are perhaps involving the children in their conflict with each other or are using the children against each other. This situation is extremely harmful to the children and should be prevented at all costs. Hurting the ex-partner is never worth the damage done to the kids by putting them in the middle, between two people whom they love.