American Judges Association
Date of this Version
Child-custody litigation is typically hostile, stressful, and expensive. For thousands of years, society has wrestled with the issue of properly assigning custody of children when parents fight over it. In King Solomon’s court, there were no licensed psychologists to extensively interview families, apply psychological tests, and offer recommendations. Today, it is commonplace in our society to have psychologists evaluate families litigating over custody. In the United States, approximately 100,000 custody battles take place each year. However, psychological evaluations are not ordered in all contested custody cases. By and large, a custody investigation is ordered when it is unclear who should be designated as the primary residential parent and when there are resources available to pay for the examination. Custody evaluations can be pricey. Results of a nationwide survey of psychologists in 2001 in the United States revealed that the average charge for a custody evaluation was $3,335, topping out at $15,000. While some jurisdictions provide programs that offer custody investigations at reduced cost, fees exceeding the nationwide survey maximum have been reported. In 2003, the Florida Court of Appeal noted that one psychologist charged $20,000—an amount equal to the parties’ entire net worth, and questioned how it could be in a child’s best interest for the family’s resources to be depleted by fees of this magnitude. There are no statistics available in the psychological literature that measure the degree to which custody evaluations influence judicial decisions, but there is little question that these investigations affect the lives of those so evaluated. In light of the impact of custody examinations on families litigating over such matters, it is important to understand how well these investigations perform. Are families getting their money’s worth? Do the recommendations stemming from these evaluations represent the best possible custodial arrangements? These are the fundamental questions underlying an order for a psychological evaluation of a family litigating over custody. To answer these questions properly, one should rely on sound scientific data. More specifically, well-conducted scientific research should tell us: (1) how a child’s best interest will be served by being placed primarily with one parent over the other; and (2) how to identify the parent who can best serve that interest. Custody recommendations to the court should flow from such research.
Published in Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association, 42:2 (2005), pp. 08-13. Copyright © 2005 National Center for State Courts. Used by permission. Online at http://aja.ncsc.dni.us/htdocs/publications.htm.