Revised guidelines address child custody evaluations

New APA guidelines clearly distinguish between forensic evaluations and the support psychologists provide to children and families in the normal course of psychotherapy and counseling

by Governance Operations Staff

March 26, 2009 — At its February 2009 meeting, the American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives approved newly revised guidelines for child custody evaluations titled Guidelines for the Evaluation of Child Custody in Family Law Proceedings.

The new APA guidelines make a clear distinction between forensic evaluations and the advice and support that psychologists provide to families, children and adults in the normal course of psychotherapy and counseling. Evaluations occurring in other contexts such as child protection matters are not covered by these guidelines.

The Committee on Professional Practice and Standards (COPPS), in collaboration with the APA Board of Professional Affairs (BPA), revised the guidelines over a nearly four-year period. They solicited public comments and governance input to update the resource for practitioners engaged in child custody evaluations where there are disputes over decision-making, caretaking and access in the wake of marital or other relationship dissolution.

The new guidelines are also informed by the American Psychological Association's (APA) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct ("Ethics Code," APA, 2002), setting them apart from previous versions of the guidelines.

Among other factors that distinguish the new APA guidelines from previous versions:

An updated introduction provides the context in which child custody evaluations take place. Although some states have begun to favor such terms as "parenting plan or time" or "parental rights and responsibilities" over "custody" (American Law Institute, 2000, pp. 131-132), the substantial majority of legal authorities and scientific treatises still refer to "custody" when addressing the resolution of decision-making, caretaking and access disputes. In order to avoid confusion and to ensure that these guidelines are used as widely as possible, the guidelines developers applied the term "custody" to these issues.

The classic custody paradigm of sole custodian versus visiting parent is no longer assumed. Rather, many states recognize some form of "joint" or "shared" custody that affirms the decision-making and caretaking status of more than one adult.

Disputes are recognized as not exclusively "marital" and may not involve "divorce" per se. Some parents may never have been married and disputes may arise after years of successful co-parenting, when one parent seeks to relocate for work-related or other reasons. The new guidelines use the term "parents" in the broadest sense to refer to persons who seek legal recognition as sole or shared custodians.

The guidelines address important developments and distinctions in family law proceedings. For example, if parties are unable to reach agreement, the court must intervene in order to allocate decision making, caretaking and access, typically applying a "best interests of the child" standard in determining a restructuring of rights and responsibilities.

In general, while aspirational in intent, guidelines do much to inform professional practice as they recommend specific professional behavior, endeavors or conduct for psychologists. COPPS and BPA hope that these guidelines will serve as useful tools for practitioners in performing child custody evaluations and will advance practice in this important area.

For further information, contact Mary G. Hardiman, Director of Board Operations, Governance Operations, APA Practice Directorate at (202) 336-5881.