Roles of Psychologists Pertaining to Care and Contac

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Chapter 3 Roles of Psychologists Pertaining to Care and Contact

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare, institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities, or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”
(Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2013, p.3)


Chapter 2 provided a discussion of Forensic Psychology and contextual descriptions of care and contact evaluations. As mentioned, psychologists are often a part of the professional cohort employed to provide services to the courts in custody matters (Austin et al., 2011). The roles that psychologists fulfil are plenteous but regardless of the mandate, psychologists are expected to ensure that their work remains in line with the best interests of the children, which remains the guiding principle (Austin et al., 2011; Burman, 2003; Fuhrmann & Zibbell, 2012; Goldstein, 2016a; Gould & Stahl, 2000; Rohrbaugh, 2008; Stahl, 1994; Thompson, 2012). This chapter expands on the roles psychologists fulfil in this field. Commentary is also provided as to ethical practices involved in these roles.

Roles Psychologists Fulfil in Care and Contact Disputes

As has been mentioned, the care and contact field is extensive, and addressing every aspect in its entirety is challenging and is beyond the scope of this thesis. This section therefore only addresses the literature that is relevant to the roles psychologists fulfil in care and contact evaluations, including: Evaluator, mediator, consultant and expert witness, case manager and a treating expert.


The AFCC describes an evaluator as a qualified mental health professional who functions as an impartial examiner in the custody evaluation process (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), 2006). Personality testing and evaluations offer an empirically grounded basis for generating and checking inferences and hypotheses (Erard & Viglione, 2014). Further to this, the evaluative process is regarded as a time-limited, objective view of the family (Greenberg & Sullivan, 2012). According to Meyer et al. (2001, p. 50), formal psychological assessment “is a distinctive and unique aspect of psychological practice”. In the role of evaluator, psychologists use an arsenal of methods and procedures that generally consist of tests and instruments aimed at assessing a variety of psychological constructs (Flens, 2005). According to Gould (2005) and Meyer et al. (2001), differentiating between psychological testing and psychological assessment is necessary. In essence, psychological testing (nomothetic) involves obtaining a particular score from a particular test without viewing the result in context, while psychological assessments (idiographic) use a variety of tests and scores and considers these in context (Gould, 2005, p. 50). Psychological assessment is evidently the more appropriate practice in custody evaluations. Gould (1999, p. 162) suggested that child custody assessments should include the following: (a) An assessment of each parent’s capacity for parenting (b) an assessment of the psychological functioning and developmental needs of the children and the wishes of the children where appropriate; and (c) an assessment of the functional ability, which includes an evaluation of the interaction between each adult and the children, of each parent to meet the needs of the minor children. Included in these evaluations is the assessment of parental psychopathology and substance use/abuse (Fuhrmann & Zibbell, 2012). These suggestions are in line with the AFCC recommendations of:

  • Assessing parents and parent figures
  • Assessing children
  • Assessing adult-child relationships
  • Obtaining collateral information.

In order to provide a comprehensive psychological report as to the above mentioned, psychologists use several sources of data to inform their psychological opinions. The sources of information generally include:

  1. Interviewing techniques
  2. Psychological testing
  3. Parent-child observations
  4. Home visits
  5. Collateral sources
  6. Document review
  7. School, medical and previous psychological reports (Fuhrmann & Zibbell, 2012, p. 94-97; Foster, 2016; Hynan, 2016; Lobel, 2016; K. G. Meyer, 2016; Pepiton et al., 2014, p.82; Roos & Vorster, 2009; Zumbach & Koglin, 2015).

According to a study conducted by Ackerman and Pritzl (2011), interviewing parents and children took approximately 15% and 8% of evaluator’s time respectively. Interactional observations comprised 8% of the time, while psychological testing and report writing involved 13% and 23% of the time respectively. The remaining period of the assessment period was as follows: Reviewing material (12%), collateral information (7%), interviewing significant others (5%), consulting with attorneys (3%) and testifying in court (6%). Despite the improvements in the field, there is still a need to conduct more empirical research on the effectiveness of using methods such as interview protocols, parent-child observations, child interviews and home visits (Stahl & Martin, 2013).

Assessing parenting capacity, psychopathology and the resulting parent-child relationship

Rycus and Hughes (2003) stated that the purpose of family assessment “is to identify and explore, in considerable depth, the unique complex of developmental and ecological factors in each family and their environment that may contribute to or mitigate maltreatment” (p. 11). Parental attributes and capacities in meeting the needs of their children correspond to the courts’ need for information with regards to the functional abilities and/or deficits of both parents (Fuhrmann & Zibbell, 2012). Parenting capacity is a core area of assessment in making decisions with regards to the minor children and rests upon the accurate identification of the needs of the children within their ecology (Eve, Byrne, & Gagliardi, 2014; White, 2005). Assessing parenting capacity is complex and difficult due to the emotionally-laden context and the high stakes of those involved (Schmidt, Cuttress, Lang, Lewandowski, & Rawana, 2007). At best, assessments of parents’ capacities can provide an informed objective perspective that enhances decisions regarding the children, at worst, they can contribute to inaccurate, biased and/or irrelevant information that impairs the decision-making process (Budd, 2005, p. 430).
Prior to embarking on the literature pertaining to parenting capacities and the possible presence of psychopathology, it is perhaps necessary to describe the different types of parenting styles. A parent’s capacity to parent successfully alongside the other parent has a direct influence on the minor children in the family. The findings of the various assessments can influence the recommendations with regards to parents’ abilities to co-parent. Stahl (2008) highlighted three primary parenting styles for families of divorce:

  1. Cooperative parenting
  2. Conflicted parenting
  3. Disengaged parenting.

The parents’ parenting capacity, personality styles and psychopathology influence their abilities to meet their children’s needs. The determination of a parent’s capacity to care for their children is a major concern (Houston, 2016) and so the assessment of parenting capacity as part of the family evaluation in determining custody arrangements for minor children is vital. Despite the importance, there is a lack of definitional clarity around what parenting capacity is, and what constitutes good parenting (Eve et al., 2014; Houston, 2016; Schmidt et al., 2007; White, 2005). White (2005) suggested that “parenting is predominantly seen as a task about the socialisation of children, within an ecological framework that considers children in relation to their family, neighbourhood, the larger social structure and economic, political and cultural environment” (p. 1). Moran and Weinstock (2011) succinctly summarised parenting capacity, which is complex, as encompassing parent-child interactions, multiple parenting skills, and the ability to vary child rearing techniques depending on the developmental needs of the children. These authors emphasised that this concept is multi-factorial and is “mediated by the child’s health, temperament, and stages of development; the family’s health status, geography, and ethnic traditions; and the parents’ social networks and work obligations” (Moran & Weinstock, 2011, p.182).
In line with the lack of clarity as to what parenting capacity is, several problems have been identified when assessing parenting capacity. These include:

  1. Vague referral questions.
  2. Evaluations of parents being completed in a single session.
  3. Lack of home visits.
  4. Using minimal sources of information and collateral sources other than the parents.
  5. Limited access to, or use of, and failure to, cite previous written reports.
  6. Rarely using behavioural methods with no direct information on the child-parent interactions.
  7. Stating purposes in general rather than specific terms.
  8. Relying on psychological instruments not directly related to parenting
  9. Emphasising weaknesses in reporting results.
  10. Neglecting to describe the parent’s care-giving qualities or child’s relationship with the parents (Budd, Poindexter, Felix & Naik-Polan, 2001; Budd, 2005, p. 432; Eve et al., 2014; White, 2005, p. 2).

According to White (2005, p. 2) addressing these problems entails:

  1. Using multiple sources of information.
  2. Avoiding over-reliance on psychological instruments.
  3. Recognising the impact of phenomenon of ‘faking good’ on psychological tools
  4. Recognising the importance of parental acceptance of responsibility and readiness to change.
  5. Collaborative practice.
  6. Worker awareness of the impact of their own judgements on appropriate parenting standards
  7. Supervision and training.
  8. Using research findings in practice.
  9. Recognising the impact of cultural diversity on parenting practices.
  10. Recognising the need to tailor parenting capacity assessments to take into account the individual circumstances of parents.

Chiu (2014) elaborated and identified the significance of cultural sensitivity in evaluations and suggested that evaluators pay particular attention to the culture of the family.
Ignoring the ethno-cultural factors in evaluations and the interplay of such factors in evaluations could lead to evaluators easily committing errors (Chiu, 2014).
Given the paucity of literature on the interplay of ethno-cultural factors in child custody evaluations, child custody experts are finding it difficult to keep updated on scientific knowledge about such dimensions so as to ensure the competency of their evaluation process (Chiu, 2014, p. 107).
Assessing parenting capacity is deemed a core task in protecting the child from physical, emotional and psychological risk and enhancing their developmental needs. In her parenting assessment model, Budd (2005) proposes that assessments should encompass three core areas. First, an assessment should focus on a “parent’s capabilities and deficits as a parent and on the parent child relationship,” second, it should employ a functional approach and address the behaviours and skills needed to parent successfully, and last, it must apply a minimal parent standard (p. 432). In extreme cases where abuse may be present, assessing parenting capacity can contribute to decisions to remove a child from the care of a particular parent (White, 2005).

Chapter 1 An Introduction to Disputed Care and Contact and the Ensuing Evaluations of a Problem-Determined System
Background and Significance
Definitions of Terms and Concepts
Chapter Summary
Chapter 2  A Contextual Description of the Problem-Determined System
A Contextual Description
Contextual Challenges in Forensic Psychology
Chapter Summary
Chapter 3 Roles of Psychologists Pertaining to Care and Contact
Roles Psychologists Fulfil in Care and Contact Disputes
Consultant and Expert Witness
Practising Ethical Forensic Psychology
Confidentiality .
Payment for Services Rendered
Chapter Summary
Chapter 4 South African Family Law and the Interface with Psychology
South African Law
Chapter Summary
Chapter 5 A Paradigmatic Scaffolding of the Problem-Determined System
A Second Order View
The Epistemology of Constructivism
Chapter Summary
Chapter 6 Research Design 
Purpose and Aims of the Study Revisited
Data Collection
Data Analysis
Ethical Consideration
Chapter Summary
Chapter 7 Findings and Discussion – Part 1  The Psychologists’ Involvement in the Constructions of the Problem-Determined System in Child Care and Contact Disputes 
Introducing the Respondents
Chapter Summary
Chapter 8 Findings and Discussion – Part 2 . Where to From Here? A Look Towards the Future 
Chapter Summary
Chapter 9 Overview and Concluding Comments 
Contextualising the Care and Contact Milieu
Critical Reflections and Recommendations for Future Research

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