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Psychological Evaluations for Child Custody

Paul Carpenter

[In response to an e-mail on the Gay Dads list from another father facing the same prospect, Paul writes]

You asked,

Have any of you been through psychological evaluations for 
child custody? Were your experiences good? Bad? Weird?

I have. And I'm glad I didn't pass it the first time.

My experience was what I made of it, more than the thing itself. I expect this would be true of most folks. In other words, if you expect it to be weird, you will look for the weirdness in it and find it. If you look back at it trying to remember what was good or bad about it, you will.

If you're not looking for advice, skip to the next paragraph. My advice to you is to relax and be yourself, without trying to put any kind of spin on anything and without apologizing or polishing or emphasizing or concealing. This will serve you far better in the long term than trying to maintain any kind of an image. So, even if you believe an occasional beating is good for a kid, or if you believe spanking is unconscionable child abuse, say so. And also say if your behavior differs from your beliefs, and why. If the consequences of being honest are that the state tells you your child-rearing techniques fall short of their standard and that you will have only restricted visitation until after you have attended parenting classes, that's a far better thing than being told it by a judge after the kids have been taken away. The courts hate liars, and frequently refuse them a second chance; and they love to see struggling-but-honest people successfully redeem themselves. So don't be afraid to be completely human.

What the psychological evaluation will be looking for:

  • Are you likely to keep the kids and yourself safe?

Obviously you-all need to be safe from physical/sexual abuse, but also from substance problems, avoidable health problems, and financial instability (poverty is OK, but unpredictability is not). Also, you need to provide living conditions that are both unhazardous and adequate in terms of hygiene and living space.

  • Are you likely to provide nurturing/enrichment for the kids?

This is less subjective than you might think: Regardless of your own health, education, religion, or culture, are you committed to equipping your kids with the level of physical, intellectual, moral, and social development expected of fully functional members of society?

  • Will you meet the developing emotional needs of your kids?

This gets subtle, and nobody expects saints. Warning signals include: 

  • emotional entanglement/dependency (are you using your kids to achieve your goals rather than theirs?); 
  • inappropriate role-playing or modeling (do you use your kids as an audience? or as an excuse to play a part?); 
  • and insufficient sensitivity or ability to provide age-appropriate emotional support (when your kid admits to a misdeed, do you focus exclusively on either the bad behavior or the truthfulness? 
  • how do you allow kids to learn how to negotiate for what they want without becoming a doormat to them? 
  • how do you decide which information -- TV, language, behaviors -- is age-inappropriate for which kids, and how do you act on your decision?

In truth, nobody has all the answers to all parenting questions. But if you have none of the answers, you're dangerously callow; and if think you have all the answers, you're dangerously wrong.

As for me: I underwent evaluation when I was young and naive. My experience was:

Good, because

  • They treated me fairly. (Although I didn't know it then.)
  • They took me seriously.
  • I was able to impress them with my good points.
  • I was able to register my good intentions.

Bad, because

  • I was judged by standards that were not my own.
  • Nobody cared how intelligent or rich I was.
  • My emotional immaturity was noticed and duly noted.
  • My failings were recorded in writing by strangers.
  • I didn't get custody. (Not until a year later.)

Weird, because

  • I couldn't figure out what they wanted. (Just as well.)
  • I felt like the fate of my child rested on the results of a two-hour interview. (Note: It didn't.)
  • They seemed to believe the incredible stuff my ex and ex-in-laws were spouting about me. (Note: Some of it was true, and I was simply in denial about it at the time.)
  • They treated me like an adult, confounding all my usual strategies -- nobody cut me any slack on account of my being bright and charming and earnestly good-intentioned.

So that's one man's story. The process, like all institutional processes, was flawed; but on its own terms it mostly succeeded, just as most other institutional processes mostly succeed. And, although I didn't realize it until later, it also succeeded on my terms: The year of anguish, sacrifice, and metamorphosis it forced on me did me a world of good. More importantly, it gave my child a much better parent. (I now have sole custody.)

May your evaluation be conducted fairly and objectively, and may it ultimately bring good for your children