so they don’t miss real abuse. “It’s a scarlet A, and once it’s on a
mother’s forehead, it doesn’t matter what the facts are.”
Family courts also tend to over-rely on the idea of equity,
said psychologist Lenore E. Walker, EdD, executive director of
the Domestic Violence Institute and a professor in the Center
for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in
Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Florida.
“Family courts are supposed to be fair,” said Walker. “But
there’s no fairness when you’re talking about abuse.”
The standard assumption is that it’s good for kids to have
relationships with both parents, but that’s a big problem when
one parent is abusive, she said. In Walker’s experience, courts
also tend to over-rely on what the custody evaluator says to the
exclusion of almost all other evidence, including allegations of
abuse. Yet custody evaluators don’t always know what they’re
doing, said Meier, explaining that they may use the wrong
psychological tests to evaluate parents or misinterpret data.
And because judges and lawyers don’t always understand
what a good evaluation looks like, they can be swayed by the
evaluator’s personality rather than the facts of the case. Research
also shows that many family court judges and attorneys don’t
know enough about abuse or its psychological impact on
children, which can result in inappropriate custody decisions,
Judges and lawyers aren’t the only ones making mistakes,
said psychologist Robert Geffner, PhD, of the Institute on
Violence, Abuse and Trauma at Alliant International University.
He believes some psychologists and other mental health
professionals are also committing grave ethical offenses.
He believes some psychologists involved in contested
custody cases are practicing outside their areas of expertise.
Others violate the APA Ethics Code’s ban on dual relationships,
taking on roles as expert evaluators, parenting coordinators
and therapists with a family, he says. Others don’t get informed
consent from the family members they are evaluating. Other
problems include conflicts of interest, inappropriate release
of information and failure to report abuse to child protective
Rebecca A. Clay is a journalist in Washington, D.C.