Gordon, R.M. (2002) Child Custody Evaluators: Psychologists or Detectives? Pennsylvania, Bar Institute, Mechanicsburg , Pa. Summarized in Gordon, R.M. (2006d) An Expert Look at Love, Intimacy and Personal Growth. IAPT Press, Allentown, Pa. (Chapter 8
Gordon, R.M. (2002) Child Custody Evaluators: Psychologists or Detectives? Pennsylvania, Bar Institute, Mechanicsburg , Pa. Summarized in Gordon, R.M. (2006d) An Expert Look at Love, Intimacy and Personal Growth. IAPT Press, Allentown, Pa. (Chapter 8 Lies and Defenses)
Chapter 8 Lies and Defenses
Child Custody Evaluations: Psychology or Detective Work?is a book that I wrote that was published by the Pennsylvania Bar Institute in 2002. This book is based on my presentation to the Pennsylvania Bar about the role of the psychologist as an investigator of specific allegations such as child sexual abuse and spousal abuse. Many psychologists avoid investigating the accusations and focus on the current test results and observations. I advocated doing detective work.
I include this piece to show two things. First, to show how I seek and weigh evidence. Secondly, to show how love relations can become hateful and destructive when there are lies, primitive defenses (denial, splitting, projection, etc.) and little insight.
I often need to use psychological detective work to track down evidence in a child custody evaluation. It is not the type of evidence such as when a patient presents a symptom. As a treating psychologist, I try to find the symptom's cause. In my therapist role, I do not challenge nor try to independently verify the claims of a patient.
However, the examining psychologist in a forensic (court related) role is often confronted with individuals who have reasons to lie. They will exaggerate their virtues and deny or rationalize their misdeeds. They present accusations of others and avoid admitting to symptoms.
The court in a child custody case presents to the forensic psychologist parties with accusations of neglect, violence, substance abuse, sex abuse, and so on. Diagnostic interviews, home studies or psychological tests are helpful, but they cannot determine if someone engaged in a specific past act.
Psychological tests can hypothesize if such behaviors are typical or not of a given personality. However, very disturbed individuals may never hurt anyone, and some rather normal individuals may do some very bad things.
I use several different methods to go after specific relevant accusations. I employ interviews, surveys, standardized psychological tests, talking to witnesses, reading documents such as police reports and medical reports. Sometimes my methods are unconventional.
Example 1. Two brothers, 8 and 11, both claimed that their father beat them with a plastic baseball bat and shot a gun at them to terrorize them. Children and Youth services believed the boys since their stories were plausible and consistent. The mother who had left the boys with their father now wanted full custody of them.
The boys had not seen much of their mother, and longed to be with her. The father was a hostile, gruff man who quarreled with the mental health workers. He stated that the mother and his boys were lying in order to be together.
I believed the boys, but I was still uncertain. The boys had been successful in convincing social workers and psychologists. Therefore, I presented them with a laptop computer with a voice stress analysis program on it. I had no literal faith in using this program as a valid test. However, I did tell the boys that it could tell if they are lying.
I separated the boys. I first ask the youngest boy to tell me again how his father beat him with a bat and shot at him. As he again related his story, I looked confused. I looked between the computer and the boy, saying, "Something must be wrong. It shows that you are lying."
I felt that the boys would not have the same confidence with a computer as they had with the "experts". Eventually, he confessed that his older brother had practiced the stories with him. His brother promised that they would be able to live with their mother if they could fool the experts and the court.
I then went through the same bogus test with the older brother. I repeatedly stated that the computer was showing that he was lying. I also added towards the end, "Your brother told me that you told him to lie so you both can live with your mother. Maybe I can help you. But you must be totally honest with me." He then confessed to having fabricated the entire story.
The boys had no idea that their mother was mentally ill and was not a responsible parent. However, they missed her and they would lie to be with her. They saw their father as preventing this.
I called the brothers together and explained that they would not get into trouble for lying since they were so young. I told them that I would recommend that they see more of their mother and that I wanted them to have the help of a therapist. I explained that the therapist would teach them to find better ways to solve their problems.
These desperate boys were particularly conning. Had I not been creative, I am sure I would have made the same mistake as the other mental health experts.
I remember in court when the mother's attorney attacked me for tricking the boys into confessing. I responded, "What I did is no different than what you do in court." The attorney angrily responded, "Yes, but you are a psychologist!"
Here are a few other examples of psychological detective work in child custody evaluations.
Example 2: A four-year-old daughter told her mother, “Daddy put his finger around my pee-pee, and he licks it.” There was no physical evidence and the little girl later refused to talk about it to the Children and Youth investigators.
The investigators considered it “unfounded”. The mother remained convinced that her husband committed sex abuse. This was the last straw in their strained married. The mother left the marriage and refused to let the father visit with his daughter. (Note that the suspicion of sex abuse was before a separation or custody dispute.)
In the interviews with the mother, she gave a consistent and plausible history. My observations showed a close healthy relationship with her daughter. Her MMPI testing indicated that she took the test honestly and had a normal profile, which is consistent with her history and my observations.
The father was ingratiating and defensive in the interviews. His MMPI testing indicated defensiveness, poor impulse control and immaturity. He refused to take a polygraph exam since he said that it was a violation of his rights. He said that he was a Christian and that he would swear on a bible instead.
Collateral witnesses stated that the father was immature and had a drinking problem. I encouraged the father to rationalize inappropriate sexual behavior, by my saying that such sexual playfulness is natural and common in some cultures, and is often misinterpreted. The father then gave rationalizations for his touching his daughter, by stating that it was not sexual but playful, and that she had enjoyed it. He went on to state that his wife exaggerated what had happened to punish him.
I felt that the father probably had been sexually inappropriate with his daughter and was too narcissistic and defensive to have insight or remorse. I recommended only brief supervised visits and treatment for the father.
Example 3: After her two-year-old daughter's visit with her father, the mother claimed that her daughter said, “Daddy put soup up my bottom.”
The mother immediately assumed that this meant sex abuse and filed a complaint with Children and Youth services. They found no evidence for sex abuse, but the mother obtained a court order limiting the father to only supervised visits.
The father was wary of me, and was reluctant to have an examination by a psychologist. However, his MMPI indicated a normal personality. This was consistent with his history and my observations of him. He described his former wife as very suspicious. He said that she frequently distorted things so that she was often offended and felt victimized.
The mother was pleasant and seemed well adjusted. Her MMPI testing however was associated with paranoid traits. One collateral witness also described the mother as often misinterpreting even the most benign comments as slights against her. The review of documents was at odds with several of the mother’s claims against the father.
The child reacted warmly to both parents. On the conjoint interview, the mother’s distortions and anger come out in a manner very different from when she was alone with me. When I asked the father to take a polygraph exam, he tearfully rose up from his seat, went over to shake my hand, and said, “Thank God for that opportunity. She has been making my life hell. How soon can I take it?” He did, and he passed.
When I told the mother that there was no evidence of sexual abuse, she felt that I was biased toward the father and that I had treated her unfairly. Because of the mother's paranoia, I recommended that the father have legal custody of the child.
Example 4: A father and stepmother seeking full custody of a 6-year-old child claimed that the mother is mentally ill and that she had physically attacked the stepmother during an exchange. The step-mother filed criminal charges against the mother. The MMPI of the mother showed that she had many emotional problems, more so than the others. (At this point, I believed the claims of the step-mother.)
The stepmother’s mother claimed that she saw the mother attack her own daughter. However, when I continued to question her, she was inconsistent. At first, she claimed to have seen the mother attack her daughter (the stepmother) and later stated that she did not actually see anything but heard the attack.
The mother claimed that there was no attack at all, and that the stepmother was fabricating. Usually people exaggerate, minimize or rationalize an event to serve their needs. However, it is rare for one party to say that they were attacked and press charges, and the accused party say that the event never happened.
I offered the mother justifications and rationalizations such as, "Did the stepmother start the fight?" The mother refused any excuses and just repeated, “It never happened." The mother also had her witness, her husband. He also said that there was no attack.
I finally suggested that both women take the polygraph exam. Both agreed. The mother took the exam and passed. The stepmother called and cancelled the exam last minute claiming that she could not get off from work, and that she could not afford it. However, she also added, “Besides I felt justified in this instance because she (the mother) was being so uncooperative, I wanted to teach her a lesson."
The stepmother ended up confessing to making false charges against the mother. (She later denied making that confession to me.)
At the advice of her attorney, the stepmother dropped the criminal charges, but a year later filed a child sex abuse charge against the mother. The judge referred the case again to me. Again I found the stepmother to be fabricating. I recommended continued primary custody with the mother.
Example 5: A mother claimed that her husband had beaten her. She said that she could prove that it happened since she had a protection from abuse order and the incident was on a police report. The mother was upset when I asked for a copy of that report, and accused me of bias since I did not take her at her word.
She stated that up until me, the pervious mental health professionals involved in the case had believed her. She gave me her release to contact them. She saw their belief in her as independent support for her claims.
Indeed, my interviews with her therapist and previous custody evaluator confirmed that they felt that she had been beaten. However, they never checked into the police report. The previous mental health professionals did not consider her motives to lie, and they did not investigate her claims of abuse. The mother was a convincing victim.
I finally got a copy of the police incident report. It stated that the officers came to the home after the mother called claiming that she was beaten. The husband stated that she was lying and that she wanted him removed from the home so that her boyfriend could move in.
The police found no bruises, or redness anywhere on the mother. The police refused to force the husband to leave their house.
Nevertheless, the next day the mother was able to get a protection from abuse order and had her husband removed from their house. Soon after, she moved her boyfriend in with her.
Her MMPI looked normal except that her Lie scale was much higher than the norms for custody litigants. The father’s MMPI was associated with anxious, passive individuals.
Collateral witnesses stated that the mother was manipulative, and they did not feel that the father would ever hit her.
The father took and passed a polygraph exam, the mother refused to take it. The mother had alienated the children from the father, and they refused to see him. They made the visits with him very difficult.
I recommended that the father have legal custody of the children. I also recommended that the court appoint a mental health professional to help the children with their parental alienation syndrome, with the eventual goal of the father having full physical custody of the children.
In all these cases, there is a parent with little insight and primitive defenses (denial, projection and projective identification) that does harm to children.