What Psychologists Consider Important in Child Custody Cases

In an interesting study by Jameson, Ehrenberg, and Hunter (1997), psychologists were asked to rank sixty criteria obtained from legal and psychological authorities that were relevant to the best interest of the child in determining custody. The top five criteria were as follows:

(a) sexual abuse of the child by a parent;
(b) physical abuse of the child by a parent;
(c) the child’s view and preference when the child is fifteen years old or older;
(d) the emotional needs of the child; and
(e) each parent’s ability to understand his or her child’s needs and separate them from his or her own needs.

In another study by Ackerman and Ackerman (1997) two hundred psychologists were surveyed who reported that they had had child custody experience. They were asked what they considered to be significant to determine decision making. The top four criteria were as follows: (a) parent B is an active alcoholic; (b) parent B often attempts to alienate the child from other parent by negatively interpreting the other parent’s behavior; (c) Parent A exhibits better parenting than parent B; and (d) Child appears to have a closer emotional bond with parent A.

What does the combination of these two studies tell us? First there are several concrete and specific criteria which a lawyer may use as an index of the relative merits of his/her request for greater custody (e.g., alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, child’s preference at age fifteen and above). Another less definitive criterion is the psychological stability of the parent. However, clinical psychologists are quite comfortable in assessing these criteria since it is well within the scope of everyday practice. Similarly, assessing the emotional needs of the child is readily assessed by a mental health professional who has expertise in child development. Assessing each parent’s ability to understand his or her child’s needs, and the degree of emotional bonding are far more difficult to assess. There are no tests available that can give definitive answers to these two criteria.

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