Child Custody Evaluations
The disputes that occur at the end of a marriage or long-term relationship can be acrimonious. This is particularly true of disagreements about child custody arrangements. In amicable situations, parents agree on child custody and parenting time schedules and submit an agreement to the court as a formality for approval. When parents are unable to reach an agreement, however, the court may appoint a psychologist to conduct a child custody evaluation to help resolve the dispute. Extensive expertise is necessary to properly conduct a custody evaluation. Child custody evaluations are complex undertakings because they often involve multiple, serious allegations that require detailed investigation and careful consideration of each family member’s point-of-view.
Child custody evaluations assess allegations and concerns including:
- Best interests of the child
- Change of domicile
- Child alienation
- Child physical abuse
- Child sexual abuse
- Domestic violence
- High conflict divorce
- Parental alienation
- Parenting capacity, competence, and skill
- Visitation resistance or visitation refusal
Change of Domicile
A parent’s request to relocate presents the court with the dilemma of whether to permit relocation and protect the child’s relationship with the custodial parent, or deny permission to avoid disrupting the child’s relationship with the non-custodial parent. Whether a court permits a change of domicile is determined by many factors, including the anticipated benefits and potential risks to the child. Litigation can make change of domicile decisions even more complicated, particularly if parents minimize one another’s importance or exaggerate each other’s shortcomings. Faced with a difficult change of domicile request, courts may refer the family for a child custody evaluation to clarify which decision is in the child’s best interest.
Change of domicile evaluations consider many factors, including:
- Best interests of the child
- Impact of relocation on children at different ages
- Motives of the custodial parent seeking relocation
- Motives of the non-custodial parent opposing relocation
- Prospective advantages of the move for improving the child’s general quality of life
- Realistic opportunities for preserving and fostering the relationship with the non-custodial parent
A serious problem following separation or divorce occurs when a child harshly disparages or vehemently rejects contact with a parent. This behavior pattern has been labeled parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome (PAS); although, contemporary child custody examiners prefer the term child alienation. When a child is alienated from a parent, it causes understandable concern. However, divorced parents often disagree about the basis for their child’s negative, polarized attitude. When child alienation becomes extreme, the family may be referred for an evaluation to determine the origin of the problem and to identify appropriate interventions. Child alienation typically involves multiple influences, and correctly identifying each one is crucial to formulating a plan to repair the damaged parent-child relationship and to supporting a child’s post-divorce adjustment.
Indications of child alienation include the following:
- Child strenuously resists or refuses contact with parent
- Child rejects a parent without guilt or ambivalence
- Child harbors an extremely negative, polarized view of a parent
- Child exaggerates minor parental flaws into serious personality shortcomings
- Child denies or refuses to acknowledge positive aspects of relationship with parent
Visitation Resistance or Refusal
Following divorce, parent-child relationships can be marked along a continuum. At the healthy end of the continuum, a child has a positive—or allied—relationship and maintains contact with both parents. Allied children sometimes resist contact with a parent for developmentally normal reasons or because of a stronger affinity for the other parent. At the other end of the continuum, a child is alienated from a parent. Alienated children typically express distorted or exaggerated reasons for rejecting a parent and deny any positive feelings for that individual. And in the middle, a child prefers contact with one parent, either because of a stronger alliance with that individual or because the child is estranged from the other parent. Estranged children often resist or refuse contact due to a history of violence, abuse, or neglect, and express credible reasons for their resentment and trepidation. A thorough evaluation can differentiate between allied, estranged, and alienated children. This is an important distinction because estranged children and alienated children require different assistance and therapeutic interventions.
Visitation resistance and refusal evaluations explore critical questions:
- Has the child been exposed to sexual abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse?
- Has the child witnessed domestic violence?
- What parent characteristics play a role in the child’s visitation resistance or refusal?
- Has the child been exposed to a parenting style that is too harsh or too lenient?
- What is the other parent’s role in the child’s visitation resistance or refusal?
- What child characteristics play a role in the child’s resistance to parental contact?
When a spouse files for divorce and contends that physical abuse occurred during the marriage it is extremely important to properly investigate the allegation. This spouse may also assert that the abusive parent will perpetuate future domestic violence, including child abuse, and seek custody. Children that have been exposed to the abuse of a parent are at risk of being abused themselves and require protection. When the court system is confronted with allegations of domestic or family violence in the context of divorce, careful investigation is required to distinguish selective reporting of historical events or intentional misrepresentation from actual violence or credible threats of harm. An accurate and thorough assessment of allegations of domestic violence is critical to determining child custody and parenting time schedules that are in the children’s best interests.
Assessing claims of domestic violence include:
- Determining if a pattern of abuse complaints exists
- Psychological examinations of alleged victim and alleged perpetrator
- Seeking corroboration or disconfirmation of allegations from third-parties
- Verification of objective data such as police reports
- Forensic interviewing of children
Meet Dr. Daniel Swerdlow-Freed
Dr. Daniel Swerdlow-Freed has over 20 years of experience as a neutral, independent child custody evaluator. He is widely recognized by judges and attorneys to possess the knowledge, skill, and expertise needed to conduct comprehensive, fair, and unbiased evaluations of parents and children. He has the specialized expertise to assess allegations of child alienation, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and the psychological functioning of parents and children. His evaluations carefully examine all relevant facets of a family’s situation and meet the highest standards of his profession.
Dr. Swerdlow-Freed’s opinions and recommendations are based on scientifically-derived knowledge of factors that influence children’s post-divorce adjustment, and are relied upon to settle child custody and parenting time disputes. He is highly skilled at identifying the sources of a child’s negative attitude and distinguishing genuine alienation from realistic estrangement. He is widely recognized for his skill at identifying factors that influence a child’s resistance or refusal to have contact with a parent, and his extensive knowledge of family violence, child sexual abuse, child physical abuse, and child neglect enables him to determine if a child’s safety is at risk and warrants protection. Does the child’s behavior reflect a normal developmental stage? Is the child resisting because of exposure to poor parenting? Has the child witnessed a parent under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Dr. Swerdlow-Freed’s evaluations carefully consider the myriad of reasons for a child resisting contact with a parent or displaying a negative attitude and offer practical, realistic recommendations to resolve the problem.
As an experienced child custody evaluator, Dr. Daniel Swerdlow-Freed takes a child-focused approach to custody and change of domicile evaluations that considers the potential short and long-term consequences that may impact a child’s psychological and emotional well-being. Findings from comprehensive evaluations are integrated with social science research to assist the court in reaching a final decision that is based on the child’s best interests. Judges, attorneys, and parents find his reports useful because recommendations are clearly specified and practical, and can be easily implemented and monitored for compliance.
Dr. Daniel Swerdlow-Freed has been providing expert advice and consultation on a variety of issues related to child custody evaluations, including change in domicile, child alienation, visitation resistance, and assessing claims of domestic abuse or violence for over 20 years. All forensic psychological services are available to prosecution, plaintiff, and defense counsel throughout Michigan and the United States. If you need advice when planning or executing trial strategy, contact Dr. Swerdlow-Freed at 248-539-7777 to schedule a consultation.