Forensic Evaluations in Family Court

As described in a previous newsletter article, there are several types of psychological evaluations, and one type is the forensic psychological evaluation. “Forensic” just means that the evaluation is conducted as part of a legal or court case. One way to organize the types of forensic evaluations is to examine whether the case is being heard in family, civil, or criminal court, and this article will focus on the types of forensic evaluations conducted in the family court system.

Types of Family Court Evaluations

Sometimes there is a need to evaluate a single person in a family, perhaps due to mental health concerns, but sometimes the whole family is included in an evaluation. A court may order these evaluations, or individuals or attorneys may request them.

Individual Psychological Evaluation:
In this type of evaluation, an individual is assessed due to a mental health issue being raised. The evaluation would include a diagnostic interview, psychological testing, record review, and collateral interviews with third parties. This assessment provides information on the individual’s functioning, any symptoms or problems, and whether the person meets criteria for a psychological disorder. It also provides recommendations for treatments and other interventions. Note that individual evaluations, even when conducted as part of a custody case, cannot provide recommendations related to custody (like a recommended schedule or interventions for children), and they also cannot provide recommendations for other individuals involved in the case.

Individual Psychological Evaluation with a Parental Capacity (or Parental Fitness) Component:
This assessment is an individual evaluation with an additional, specific assessment of parenting abilities; this includes any personality traits, disorders, or problems that may affect an individual’s ability to parent. These evaluations usually include a specific parenting interview, a parent-child observation, additional tests, and sometimes an interview of the child (depending on age and capacity). This assessment provides the court with information on the individual’s psychological functioning and problems, as above, but it also provides detailed information about the ability to parent. However, note again that these evaluations still cannot provide the court with any recommendations for custody.

Child Psychological Evaluations:
A court may request an individual evaluation for a specific child to answer diagnostic or educational questions, particularly if the parents disagree about the child’s mental health or treatment. A child evaluation usually includes diagnostic interviews, testing, and collateral contacts (with third parties like therapists and teachers). This assessment provides a summary of the child and any psychological diagnosis as well as treatment recommendations.

Custody Evaluations:
A custody evaluation is perhaps the most comprehensive of all psychological evaluations, as it involves the assessment of all family members, including the parents, stepparents, children, stepchildren, and any significant others living in the households. The goal of a custody evaluation is to consider the best interests of the children – in terms of a custody schedule, visitation, and treatment needs. This evaluation includes diagnostic interviews with parents and significant others, psychological testing of parents and children, parent-child observations, record review, and collateral interviews with third parties. It also includes specific parenting interviews and measures to examine parental capacity. These evaluations focus on the specific needs of the children, including their health, developmental, psychological, and academic needs, and considers how those needs can best be met. Because they are so comprehensive, custody evaluations allow an evaluator to make recommendations about custody and visitation as well as other interventions for all family members. The court utilizes this evaluation when making decisions for the family, or parents may come to an agreement on their own after being able to review the results. Because of their scope and thoroughness, these evaluations can take significant time to complete.

Future newsletters will discuss other types of forensic evaluations, such as those for other civil court cases or criminal cases.

For more information, please view our Evaluations Page.

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