Should Mental Health Evaluations Have a Role in Family Court

March 4, 2009 at 6:14 pm 2 comments

By Josh Hoff
One spouse is angry, the other is scared.  Both parties hire attorneys. One even brings in a mental health professional in an attempt to tip the scale in a child custody dispute.

Just how much influence do these mental health evaluations have in a child custody case? When the two parties in a trial become particularly adversarial, a mental health evaluator often enters the disagreement.  While it is rare for a mental health evaluator to appear at the trial, an expert very well may prepare a written report for submission to the court.  If the report is well-written, it is more likely to have an impact on the outcome of the case. 

The truth is, the weight of a mental health evaluation in a child custody case varies tremendously, with the judge in each case making the final determination.  Each judge does in fact know, however, that evaluators are often hired by one side or the other.  Bias may enter the equation, and judges know as much. 

In such cases, mental health evaluations are just one component in the much larger machinery of justice that has been set in motion.  There are other components as well.  The overall well-being of the child, for instance, is a factor.  If a child shows all the signs of good health, the court may be more accommodating in its assessment the parents.  The mental health of the child’s parents also needs to be considered.  One parent may very well be depressed but able to function in the role of a parent, while the other parent may suffer from a far more debilitating mental health condition that hinders their ability to perform as a parent.

The May 2005 issue of Family Court Review addresses the debate surrounding the role of mental health evaluation in child custody cases.  In an article by Timothy Tippins and Jeffrey Wittmann, the authors outline a model for what experts can justifiably present in a custody case – more specifically, the authors develop a four-level process that aims first and foremost to foster the best interest of the child.

According to their model, experts with sufficient training can offer family court judges admissible information at the first two levels – that is, level I, what the mental health evaluator observes, and level II, what the expert concludes about the psychological makeup of a parent, child, or family.  At level III, Tippins and Wittmann encourage operating in accordance with the conclusions grounded in empirical research within the discipline of psychology.  At Level IV, Tippins and Wittmann suggest that a recommended custody plan for the child would be inherently biased and, therefore, should not be admissible in court.  The plan thus acknowledges a place for mental health evaluation in a case, while implying the importance of limiting its admissibility in court.

Typically, however, if the court deems a parent unable to comprehend the scope of their role as a parent, it will try to protect the child.  Likewise, when the court does not trust a parent with a child, it might grant custody to the other parent and require supervised visitation.  It is important to note, however, that broad brush strokes are not employed in arriving at the final decision.  Rather, courts attempt to take into account the circumstances surrounding the case, enabling them to weigh psychological makeup on a case-by-case basis and adjudicate accordingly.

This tendency stems from the fact that there is no consensus about what constitutes mental illness, a term used to denote a problem that is fundamentally biological.  In some instances, perceived mental illness is in fact simply a matter of living.  For example, parents may be depressed but are still able to do what they need to do.  But a personality disorder, schizophrenia, and a bipolar disorder may pose more serious risks to the well-being of a child.  A bipolar parent, for example, needs to be treated, often with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.  The way for any parent suffering mental illness to be seen in the most favorable light in court is to be proactive and get into treatment.

Ultimately, the court will consider whether parents are able to put aside their own needs to take care of their children.  Furthermore, it is essential that a parent show the capacity to empathize. If so, more often than not, the impact of mental health evaluation will be just one of several factors contributing to the outcome of a child custody case.

Entry filed under: Child Custody, Family Court, Visitation. Tags: , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dr Jason Secord  |  August 13, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    As a behavioral scientist and counselor, it is my professional belief that mental health evaluations most definitely should have a role in family court. Having seen what occurs when these evaluations are not conisdered, it makes one tend to belive that EVERYTHING about both spouses and or custodians needs to be known to the courts in order to make a good decision.

  • 2. Background Investigator  |  January 28, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Hi this Wilson, thanks for sharing the useful information great post and keep posting.

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