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Custody Evaluations When There Are Allegations of Domestic Violence: Practices; Beliefs, and Recommendations of Professional Evaluators

NCJ Number
Date Published
May 2011
156 pages
The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of the beliefs and investigative practices of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who had been appointed by a court to evaluate families in disputed custody cases when there were allegations of domestic violence. Objectives were to examine the relationship between the evaluators' beliefs and practices and their recommendations for custody and visitation, and to examine how the evaluators' recommendations influenced case outcomes, including settlement agreements and court orders following trial.
The term "domestic violence" is used throughout this report to refer to intimate partner violence: violence between adult intimate partners who are or were married to each other and are or were previously "boyfriend and girlfriend." In this study, all the intimate partners have a minor child or children in common. The primary outcome of interest was the "parenting plan" recommended by the custody evaluator and in the final court order or settlement. The parenting plan refers to residential (physical) and legal custody, visitation time and conditions, and arrangements for transferring the children for visits. A sample of 69 cases was drawn from the case files of four New York City legal services organizations that specialize in representing domestic violence victims in civil legal proceedings, including custody and visitation litigation. Because of limited resources of the free and specialized legal services, the cases the organizations take are assessed and must meet certain criteria: there had to be serious need for legal representation (not necessarily the most physical violence), the case had to involve intimate partner violence, and child abuse or substance abuse could not be obvious confounding issues. To be included in the study, the court must have appointed a custody evaluator and the court must have issued a final order for custody and/or visitation. Given influence of custody evaluators' conclusions on the court outcome, there should be greater consistency across evaluators: a family's fate should not depend on which evaluator is appointed. Recommendations include screening of court-appointed evaluators for knowledge of domestic violence and training of evaluators on risk factors for ongoing and potentially lethal violence. It is also recommended that courts conduct fact-finding regarding the domestic violence rather than relying on the custody evaluators to conduct investigations.
Date Published: May 1, 2011