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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Divorce is never easy and when children are involved, it's even more difficult. Most parents are able to resolve custody issues without going to court. When that fails, judges often turn to a child custody evaluator, it's a mental health professional who gives psychological tests, interviews parents and children, then tells the judge how much time each parent should spend with the kids. It's a hard job, much is at stake, and the science guiding custody decisions is ambiguous at best.

NPR's Alix Spiegel has the story.

ALIX SPIEGEL: To give you a sense of what can happen when a custody decision goes wrong, I offer this example. A couple of years ago, psychologist Bill Zuckerman was asked to work with two young sisters whose parents were going through an ugly divorce. It quickly became clear that the children seemed to hate their father. They absolutely despised him. After a number of sessions, Zuckerman concluded that what was happening was the mother was poisoning her children against the father.

Dr. BILL ZUCKERMAN (Psychologist; Child Custody Evaluator, Virginia Courts): The father wasn't really a bad guy. He probably done some things to create some problems in the midst of all this conflict. But the mother, in her fears, had created this alienating circumstance. And by virtue of her disordered behavior, she was robbing the children of this relationship with the father.

SPIEGEL: So, several months into Zuckerman's therapy with the sisters, the divorce court appoints a child custody evaluator.

Dr. ZICKERMAN: The custody evaluator thought that taking the children away from the mother and putting them with the less disordered father, the healthier father, would be good.

SPIEGEL: The evaluator's theory was that if these girls were separated from their mother, they would realize their father's virtues, and ultimately, would be happier. But according to Zuckerman, practice didn't exactly conform to theory.

Dr. ZUCKERMAN: They were sneaking away to visit their mother, called their mother, you know, they were plotting against the father, they were - I mean, there's all kinds of things. It was like they were at war. They were like prisoners of war. That's exactly what they were like. They behaved as though they were prisoners of war.

SPIEGEL: The mental health of the children deteriorated and eventually the decision was reversed, but not before damage had been done.

Now, Bill Zuckerman himself does child custody evaluations, so he knows how important these kinds of decisions are. But Zuckerman feels certain that the majority of the time, child custody evaluators make good decisions about the most difficult cases.

Dr. ZUCKERMAN: Are they perfect? No. Do they help? Definitely.

SPIEGEL: But not everyone feels this way.

New York lawyer Timothy Tippins is an expert on child custody evaluations. And he says many of the evaluations that come across his desk are troubling.

Mr. TIMOTHY TIPPINS (Family Law Lawyer; Child Custody Evaluation Expert): The quality of most, and I'll say not all, most of the evaluations that I see is abysmal.

SPIEGEL: One reason is that several of the tools evaluators use most frequently don't do what they promise. Take for example psychological tests. Evaluators are expected to use tests in every custody evaluation. But Marc Ackerman, one the country's leading child custody evaluators, says some of the most popular tests are deeply flawed, including a series of tests commonly used to figure out children feel about their parents.

Dr. MARC ACKERMAN (Child Custody Evaluator): They are basically not formulated on scientifically sound literature or opinions. They just, frankly, should not be used.

SPIEGEL: A recent study which reviewed these tests concluded they weren't actually able to discover a child's preferences. But on an even more basic level, there is not clear agreement in the psychological community about whether the wishes of a child should be consulted at all. Many evaluators, like Ackerman, believe that at least until age 15, the feelings of children should play a limited role.

Dr. ACKERMAN: We don't let children decide whether they go to school or not. We don't let children decide whether they take their medication or not. Why would we let children decide which parent that they live with or whether they visit with a parent or not?

SPIEGEL: But other evaluators feel differently, including evaluator Bill Zuckerman who says the preferences of the child are absolutely critical.

Dr. ZUCKERMAN: Because it is attachment that underlies, more than anything else, the down-the-road security that a child will feel.

SPIEGEL: And these are not the only areas where the science used by evaluators is ambiguous and opinion is bitterly divided. There are profound disagreements on a range of basic issues. And although the American Psychological Association and other professional organizations published guidelines for custody evaluators, there's no one who systematically evaluates their work or qualifications. Moreover, as Timothy Tippins points out, there is no way for evaluators themselves to know how their work affects families.

Mr. TIPPINS: The reality is that these evaluators file the reports in these cases and then they have no idea what happens to these children thereafter. They don't know how many of those kids turned out just great and how many jumped off bridges because they were in depression, because the parenting arrangement was wrong.

SPIEGEL: So, individual evaluators can't tell. And despite the fact that psychologists have making child custody decisions for over 30 years, there are no published outcome studies of how they're doing.

Dr. JEFFREY WITTMANN (Director, Center for Forensic Psychology): If the question is do we have adequate scientific literature to be making custody determination, absolutely not.

SPIEGEL: This is Jeffrey Whittmann, director of the Center for Forensic Psychology in Albany, New York. He says given the limited science, custody evaluators shouldn't claim they're able to offer scientifically grounded opinions, particularly since evaluator recommendations are so often followed by judges.

Dr. WITTMANN: It's a kind of pretense. We are acting as if we can do something that has no evidence that we can do.

SPIEGEL: In fact, one common criticism of evaluations is that evaluators just pass of personal preferences as scientifically informed opinions.

Reena Sommer, a former custody evaluator who runs a Web site called badcustodyevaluations.com, recently talked about one of the hundreds of alleged biased cases she hears about each year - a case involving a stay-at-home mom whose anxiety about her divorce affected her relationship with the evaluator.

Dr. REENA SOMMER (Former Custody Evaluator; BadCustodyEvaluations.com): She was so highly anxious over this whole thing - her children were her life. And she probably came across as pushy, overbearing and somewhat neurotic.

SPIEGEL: Sommer, who reviewed the case, says she read the evaluator's report and was shocked by what was in it.

Dr. SOMMER: The child custody evaluator concludes that mom is unlovable.

SPIEGEL: That's the actual word he used - unlovable.

Dr. SOMMER: That was his sort of personal bugaboo and that really has nothing do with what's in the best interest of the children.

SPIEGEL: Apparently, the children were very attached to their mother. Still, the evaluator recommended that the father get custody, which drove the mother, a wealthy woman, to do something dramatic.

Dr. SOMMER: The mother negotiated an out-of-court settlement, basically, bought her children for probably a very handsome sum of money, I can't remember how much it was. And the father basically disappeared off the radar screen.

SPIEGEL: But for Marc Ackerman's perspective, bad custody evaluators exist no more often than, say, bad lawyers exist or bad airplane pilots. And bad divorce outcomes are not usually the result of the work of child custody evaluators, but of the parents themselves - people who can't seem to put their differences aside for the benefit of their children.

Dr. ACKERMAN: I have had cases where the mental instability of the child goes unnoticed. I can't get the parents to listen because all of their wanting to do is to fight about the money and fight about who gets placement. I've had kids who have ended up psychotic in hospitals because their parents continue to fight.

SPIEGEL: Robert Emery, director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia, supports Ackerman's view.

Dr. ROBERT EMERY (Director, Center for Children, Families and the Law, University of Virginia): It's absolutely clear that what's best for children in the middle of one of these incredibly difficult painful disputes is for their parents to somehow get a grasp of their own emotions. Set them aside, put them on hold and make their own decisions about what's best for their own kids.

SPIEGEL: In other words, perhaps the best thing parents can do is skip the child custody evaluation, sit down and figure it out themselves.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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