Is Having A Child Psychologically Evaluated Feasible In A Parental Alienation Case?

More often than not having a child psychologically evaluated is beneficial in a parental alienation case. However, it is important to be careful about the type of psychologist that is used. It is best practice to use someone who is familiar with and has experience in being a court involved therapist; somebody who understands how therapy is impacted by court involvement.

Often when people go in to see a therapist they really want help. They are candid and honest with the therapist. Litigation often changes all of that. Oftentimes one litigant will want to use the therapist as a super charge to their argument. Therefore, they will present this distorted information to the therapist in hopes that he or she will rely on that information to render an opinion about what is in the child’s best interest. It’s absolutely inappropriate for a therapist to do so. However, many if not most therapists don’t understand how litigation changes their own ethical rules.

There is an organization called The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. This is an association consisting of attorneys and therapists that has promulgated additional guidelines to help keep therapists out of hot water when there is court involvement. A therapist has to approach a court-involved case much differently than any other types of client.

Here are some of the AFCC guidelines that should be adhered to and that therapists are often not even aware of: The court-involved therapist should not render opinions in psycho-legal issues such as parental capacity, child custody, validity of an abuse allegation, joint or sole custody, as these are beyond the scope of the treatment role and properly the providence of other professionals in the court.

The court-involved therapist should also avoid service simultaneously in multiple roles, particularly if these multiple roles create a conflict of interest.

A court-involved therapist should not serve simultaneously as a therapist and an evaluator or as a therapist and a friend. Similarly, a court-involved therapist is strongly discouraged from performing different roles sequentially.

For example, a therapist who becomes an evaluator has to understand that the difference between a therapist and an evaluator are very different. They might have the same licensure, but the roles are very dissimilar. In order to become a therapist, you have to develop a therapeutic alliance and actually treat someone. In order to be an evaluator your job is to find facts. That means an evaluator needs to be dispassionate, remain objective, should not form an alliance, but instead use the instruments of the trade to help determine what the facts are and then render an opinion to the court. That is the difference between therapeutic work and forensic work.

Therapists often will write letters to the court saying, “I’ve been treating this child for so long and in my opinion it’s in the best interest of the child that they stay with their mother.”

That is engaging in both therapeutic work and forensic work simultaneously and is unethical. The treating therapist cannot give recommendations to the court including statements regarding what is in the child’s best interest if they are providing therapy. The child’s “best interests” is the province of the court or the forensic expert witness. A court-involved therapist should not allow their role to be misused.

The court-involved therapist should also use particular caution to ensure that he or she has accurate data on which to base any opinions or assessments. The responsibility is to form and express such opinions within the confines of the therapeutic role and available information while remaining cognizant of the impact of court involvement on the family and on treatment information. There are many other such guidelines that if a therapist is unaware they could end up doing more harm than good.

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*Child Welfare Law Specialist Nat’l Assoc. of Counsel for Children