Child Custody: Practice Standards, Ethical Issues, and Legal Safeguards for Mental Health Professionals

Article excerpt

R.H. Woody. (2000). Child Custody: Practice Standards, Ethical Issues, and Legal Safeguards for Mental Health Professionals. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press, 147 pp. Paper ISBN 1-56887-062-0, $19.95.

Robert Henley Woody's most recent contribution to the literature on child custody is organized around a set of guidelines for mental health practitioners working in the field of forensic child custody evaluation. According to Woody, the purpose of the book is to "inform a wide variety of people about child custody cases, particularly the testimony that will be provided by mental health practitioners." In actuality, the book provides a basic, although surface, overview of the forensic role of mental health professionals in the child custody arena. The text is divided into 10 chapters ranging from a survey of the mental health literature regarding divorce and child custody to overviews of the custody evaluator's role and guidelines for the evaluator's participation in litigation.

Woody's guidelines for child custody evaluators are sifted from his synthesis of existing mental health literature regarding divorce and child custody. Through the guidelines he attempts to provide an overview framework for forensic child custody practice. Although the guidelines contain helpful information to assist the mental health professional so that she or he does not become a weapon of the parties and attorneys in the litigation, the book provides only a sketchy view of the legal processes involved and does not reflect the most recent developments in family courts, which are aimed at reducing the level of conflict in most custody cases.

In an era in which the emphasis in both legal and mental health circles is on the elimination and reduction of conflict in child custody cases, a book devoted almost exclusively to forensic child custody evaluation seems somewhat anachronistic. The text leaves the impression that all custody cases go to trial and are decided by the judge after the introduction of competing testimony by mental health experts. In fact, the most recent developments in the child custody arena emphasize nonadversarial dispute resolution such as mediation and court-sponsored intervention and treatment. Increasingly, courts are establishing court-- annexed family services programs aimed at providing treatment and education to disputing families. As a result of these developments, most custody cases do not go to trial, and the testimony of a custody evaluator is not necessary. Rather, the emphasis is on the prelitigation and pretrial phases of the proceeding in an effort to settle the case and thereby reduce the conflict to which the children) are subjected. Even in cases where trial cannot be avoided, a custody evaluator is retained by the court to serve as a neutral expert.

The report of the Fall 2000 Wingspread Conference (Wingspread Report and Action Plan, 2001), an interdisciplinary meeting of professionals involved in high-conflict custody cases sponsored by the American Bar Association and The Johnson Foundation, is indicative of this new focus. In that report, the recommendations regarding custody evaluations focus on (a) the need for neutrality and objectivity, (b) the importance of avoiding the testimony of competing experts or of resolving disagreements between the experts prior to trial, and (c) the importance of communicating results of evaluations to parents in a nonadversarial manner. Although Woody's guidelines overlap in small ways with this new emphasis on reduced conflict, his focus on the traditional custody evaluation in a confrontational, competitive litigation environment obscures the small contributions he makes to reducing conflict. …

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