Recent research has found that although court-appointed custody evaluators influence court decisions in disputed child custody cases, many lack adequate domestic violence training needed to consistently make custody recommendations that enhance the safety of children and victimized parents.
...researchers recommend screening all court-appointed evaluators for knowledge of domestic violence and requiring evaluators to undergo training on risk factors for ongoing and lethal violence
Custody evaluators conduct family assessments and recommend custody and visitation arrangements that serve children’s best interest. In cases involving allegations of domestic violence, the court must balance the goal of protecting children and victimized parents with the goal of granting custody arrangements that allow children to maintain relationships with both parents.
Few states require evaluators to have training on domestic violence and its impact on victimized parents and children exposed to violence. As a result, the wide variability in the professional training, expert knowledge, and investigative approaches of the psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists who conduct custody evaluations may lead to inconsistent outcomes for families.
Researcher Michael Davis, Ph.D., and the New York Legal Assistance Group set out to understand how custody evaluators’ beliefs and investigative practices influence their custody recommendations, which affect the safety of children and victimized parents. These recommendations, called parenting plans, address visitation, custody, and arrangements for transferring children for visits. With NIJ support, the researchers reviewed case files, custody evaluation reports, and judicial decisions from 69 cases of contested custody involving domestic violence allegations.
The research team assessed the safety of the parenting plans recommended by evaluators by looking at the extent to which the plans contained elements that protected the victimized parent during the exchange and children during visitation, including general safety contingencies and provisions.
In terms of factors that influenced the safety of the parenting plans recommended, the researchers found that recommendations were not influenced by the severity of domestic violence or by the evaluator’s investigative thoroughness. Instead, the best predictor of parenting plan safety was the evaluators’ assessment of ongoing risks of serious domestic violence. This assessment was largely dependent on characteristics of the evaluators themselves, including their knowledge of domestic violence and their beliefs about the underlying causes of domestic violence. Evaluators who analyzed information during their investigations through a model of domestic violence known as “the power and control model” recommended custody arrangements that were safer for victimized parents and children.
Interviews with 15 of the custody evaluators revealed wide variability in evaluators’ beliefs and investigative practices concerning domestic violence. Areas of disagreement included how evaluators defined domestic violence and the relevance of different forms of domestic violence to the perpetrators’ parenting ability. Evaluators also held divergent views about the role that substantiated domestic violence should play in recommendations for visitation.
When they compared evaluator-recommended visitation and custody arrangements with the final custody arrangements ordered by the court, the researchers found that court-ordered arrangements largely conformed to the evaluators’ recommendations.
Collectively, these results suggest that custody and visitation arrangements ordered by courts are influenced less by the facts of a given case than by the characteristics of the evaluator appointed to assess the validity of domestic violence allegations.
Based on these findings, the researchers recommend screening all court-appointed evaluators for knowledge of domestic violence and requiring evaluators to undergo training on risk factors for ongoing and lethal violence. Such practices would increase consistency between custody evaluators and ensure that all families are appointed evaluators who are knowledgeable about domestic violence and its impact on victimized parents and children.
About This Article
The work described in the article was supported by NIJ grant number 2007-WG-BX-0001, awarded to the New York Legal Assistance Group.
This article is based on the grant report “Custody Evaluations When There Are Allegations of Domestic Violence: Practices, Beliefs, and Recommendations of Professional Evaluators,” (pdf, 156 pages).
[note 1] The study’s authors use “domestic violence” rather than “intimate partner violence” in their report because the term domestic violence is used in the New York law that governed the cases in their sample.