Former spouses who are ending a relationship where children are involved may want to access psychological services to help determine how best to organize their parenting responsibilities now that they are no longer functioning as a couple. Primary questions that the parents may have include “
- Is my former partner competent to take full care of the children?
- What is the best way to share time with the children and what kind of visitation – co-parenting schedule would best serve their developmental needs?
- How can I best determine what the children want?
There are well established assessment procedures to answer each of these questions. The following are brief descriptions of these assessments and their uses.
A parental assessment is generally used to determine if a parent has the capacities to provide “good enough” parenting to children under their care or to determine any needs there may be for parental support or parent training. The objects of the assessment are the parents and they are the focus of the testing, the interviews and the out of family consultations. These assessments are not intended to result in recommendations on custodial arrangements for reasons described below. Some clinicians are using parental assessments to make custodial recommendations but these reports are being increasingly challenged.
Custody evaluations are a more thorough assessment process where by the parents, the children, the extended family and other involved parties are interviewed, tested (in the case of family members) or consulted in order to gain a full picture of each family member in terms of their needs, their abilities, their limitations and their wishes. From that data, recommendations on custody can be developed. It is an assessment pursued over a period of time that aims at providing a set of custodial recommendations from the present to the point of independence. When we say that a voice of the child is included in these assessments, we mean that the child’s observations, concerns and wishes are recorded and taken into account when developing recommendations.
Voice of the Child
This is an assessment where by a child may express their wishes re custodial arrangements to the court. The assessment is child focussed and involves asking the child (in an age appropriate way) re their wishes, an assessment as to why these wishes are being expressed and an evaluation of the possibility that the child may be coached or pressured to provide those statements.
The Rights of the Child
The persons most affected by custody questions are the children. The courts have generally been unwilling to have children testify in court re their views, wishes or concerns with custodial arrangements in recognition that the procedures of the court are generally confusing for children and not child friendly. They have requested that such views be collected in more clinically defined processes to minimize the stress on the child. As the person most affected by these decisions, the child does have a right to at least be heard and for their views to be appreciated and taken into consideration, always within the context of taking into consideration the developmental stage that the child is in and how that stage affects a child’s thinking on such issues. I would refer you to the growing literature on children’s rights within the context of court based custody decision making. It is important to recognize that in our practice, respect of children’s rights have always been a priority.
Everyone understands that assessments of this kind are anxiety provoking and threatening. The assessor’s challenge is to keep the parents as empowered as possible as the assessment is taking place. But regardless of how careful a clinician is, there are almost always times when the parents involved will feel vulnerable or misunderstood. In the end, however, the parent must have faith in the impartiality and objectivity of the assessor and in the integrity of the information gathering and recommendation generating process. Asking questions of the assessor in terms of why certain information is gathered, how assessment tools contribute to the decision making process and how impartiality is guaranteed are ways that a parent’s understanding of and trust in the process can be improved.