There are two ways to make custody evaluations holistic
1. The “whole” picture means the past, present, and future are equally important.
During custody disputes, there is a recognition that everyone is under stress and therefore not going to look their best. Some of the most intellignet, nicest people on earth just don’t do well under stress. And what could be more stressful than the legal process which reinforces people as adversaries? That means that in order to learn how parents really function, the evaluator needs to get a picture over time. She needs to get a past history and several present interviews. Personality tests taken now, when things are highly stressed, give a distorted picture. Old tests, say for military service, taken when people were performing at their peak, will give me a much more accurate picture of the person.
On the other hand, we all should be learning from experience. Parenting classes, for example, provide the kind of information that, if taken seriously, literally change the personality of the person taking them. It is up to the evaluator, during intensive interviews, to determine just how life-changing such learning experiences actually were for the parent. Based on this information, a sensitive evaluator can make fairly good predictions as to the future behavior of a particular individual.
2. The “whole” picture includes the whole family.
The evaluator meets individually with the parents and the child or children. It is important to find out the parents’ strengths, resources, and readiness to resume the challenges of parenting. The evaluator also needs to meet the child alone to find out his or her functioning, fears, desires, and needs. It is important to listen to the child with respect. The child’s fears and possible trauma must be assessed for, and meetings with his or her present caretakers assist in this process.
Trauma may originate from abuse, neglect, removal, separation from parents, divorce battles, frequent environmental changes, and loss of basic nurturing needs. Thus, an abused or neglected child may be doubly and triply traumatized through efforts to protect or return him or her, and a child caught in parental divorce proceedings can be inadvertantly traumatized through each parent’s deep desire to win custody.
One way that the evaluator can assess which placement will not only do the least harm but will begin the healing process is to observe the child together with the family. In order to do this, the child must be willing to have such a meeting. The child’s willingness must be freely given and not coerced by either side in the dispute. Coercion can be obvious or subtle. The skilled evaluator can determine possible coercion and what the child actually wants after personal interviews with the child and several opportunities to observe the child and the different caretakers interacting together.