Considerations Common in Custody Disputes
A number of issues are common to custody disputes. Addressing these issues with the children and family can result in the creation of a clinical database that is helpful to the evaluator in giving opinions and recommendations. Here are a number of considerations:
- Continuity: The arrangement that seems most stable and permanent and also reduces disruption for the family.
Attachments: The parent-child connection must be protected. The opportunities for the child to maintain continuity with attachment figures also enter into the ultimate forensic recommendations.
- Preference: Judges give more weight to a child's stated preference when the child is older than age 12. When small children state a preference, the evaluator must assess its meaning and context, particularly whether the child came to this opinion freely, or whether a parent rehearsed or heavily influenced the child.
- Parental Alienation: When a child in custody disputes appears extremely hostile toward one of the parents, finds nothing positive in the relationship with that parent, and prefers no contact, the evaluator should assess this apparent alienation and hypothesize its origins and meaning.
- Child's Special Needs: Handicaps - vision or hearing, mental illness, or chronic physical conditions - must be considered, as well as whether either or both parents are attuned sufficiently to the child's needs.
- Education: Each parent's educational plans for the child and the appropriateness of these plans must be evaluated in regard to the child's educational history and needs, particularly when one parent seems more sensitive to this than the other.
- Gender Issues: The evaluator should focus on each parent's sensitivity to the child's need for appropriate gender-role-models, as well as the quality of each parent's relationship with the child. There is no rigorous scientific support for the notion that boys should be placed with fathers or girls with mothers.
- Sibling Relationships: Sibling bonds and the sensitivity of each parent to these special relationships are very important because brothers and sisters in a family undergoing divorce and custody dispute lend emotional support to each other. Separating siblings as a solution to a custody dispute, unless the peculiarities of a case warrant this unusual outcome, is very uncommon.
- Parents' Physical and Psychiatric Health: The physical and mental health of both parents must be considered, such as whether either parent suffers from a physical ailment that could directly affect the parent-child relationship or interfere with the parent's ability to care for the child. This includes drugs or alcohol abuse. Allegations about a parent's psychiatric history may be made in argument against granting custody to that parent.
- Parents' Work Schedules: How each parent views his or her work and how it relates to the time spent with the child, and the appropriateness of childcare plans and their effect on the child, should be considered.
- Parents' Finances: A general knowledge of each parent's finances and earnings potential is appropriate in order to assess any effects upon the child.
- Styles of Parenting and Discipline: The focus should be on the "goodness of fit" between each parenting style and the child, which at times may be apparent in the joint parent-child interviews. When it is not, the evaluator should explore this area. The evaluator also should assess how each parent views the child's relationship with the other parent and each parent's philosophy toward discipline. Often, litigating prompts parents to exaggerate the harshness or permissiveness of each other's manner of child rearing.
- Conflict Resolution: The resolution of conflict is key in a child evaluation. It is also important to assess how conflict between the parents is handled.
- Social Support Systems: The presence or absence of supports for the child that might be in place depending upon the custodial recommendation must be considered. For example, grandparents, other relatives, or friends might have a bigger role in the child's life at one location than another.
- Cultural Issues: Issues of culture and ethnicity may have an impact on the growth and development of the child.
Ethics and values: An evaluator must try to remain neutral, but if one parent shows, for example, an antisocial personality disorder or tendencies, the evaluator should advise the court about how this pattern of behavior could affect the child.
- Religion: Sometimes discord emanates from religious differences, and the child may be taken to one church by one parent and another one by the other. The evaluator should warn the parents of the harm that can come from ongoing parental conflict over this issue.
- Infancy: The evaluation of the needs of infants in custody disputes presents special challenges. The evaluator should assess each parent's attachment to the child and the reasonableness of their plans for the child. Parents may argue for visitation arrangements that are developmentally unsound given the child's age and status.
- Emerging Social Phenomena: The changing texture of American cultural life affects child custody disputes. These impacts include: a homosexual parent; stepparents' and grandparents' rights; parental kidnapping; relocation problems; allegations of sexual abuse; and advances in reproductive technology, such as artificial insemination. Judges seek assistance from clinicians when faced with the complexities of these issues.
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