What Psychologists Consider Important in Parenting Plans

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: (1) sexual abuse of the child by a parent; (2) physical abuse of the child by a parent; (3) the child’s view and preference when the child is fifteen years old or older; (4) the emotional needs of the child; and (5) 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 had child custody experience. They were asked what they considered to be significant in their decision making concerning custody. The top four criteria were as follows: (1) parent B is an active alcoholic; (2) parent B often attempts to alienate the child from other parent by negatively interpreting the other parent’s behavior; (3) parent A exhibits better parenting than parent B; and (4) child appears to have a closer emotional bond with parent A. Nothing has changed in the literature in the past 15 years with respect to these priorities.
What does the combination of these two studies tell us? First there are several concrete and specific criteria which a lawyer must consider in his/her request for a parenting plan evaluation. Standard of care requires that the investigator rule out alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse. If the child is 15 or above, his or her preference should be noted in the evaluation report.
Another criterion that needs to be examined is the psychological stability of each parent. Clinical psychologists are comfortable in assessing this criterion since it is well within the scope of everyday practice. Similarly, assessing the emotional needs of the child is reliably 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.
A psychologist can conduct a thorough assessment interview with all involved parties as well as observation of the child-parent interactions. The criterion of who exhibits better parenting is the most difficult to evaluate because it is laden with value judgment. The expert would do best by listing both the positive and negative attributes of each parent.
Social investigations or forensic evaluations are based upon data, scientific evidence, and common sense. They are approximations of an ideal parenting plan rather than the “one true plan.” As such, the parties need to be flexible in its execution.

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