Evaluating mental health functioning and parenting abilities
in the midst of court crisis and litigation trauma.

Picture this: Within the past week you were notified that you are being audited by the IRS on Friday, a hurricane just struck and caused irreparable damage to your home making it unlivable, and your closest friend suddenly passed away. Today you are told to go into a strange office and complete a bunch of tests and interviews to see if you are fit to retain custody of your children. You’ll do great, right?!

Probably not, but it is in high crisis times like these that evaluations are often ordered by the courts. Typically, individual psychological evaluations for use in a custody case or custody evaluations of the whole family are ordered when there has been extensive litigation, allegations of abuse, or one party is stating the other suffers from a mental illness.

Many marital separations are characterized by blame, shame, and criticism, often with considerable anger and resentment. There is grief over the loss of dreams, hopes, and the contract of permanent attachment. Those who have experienced childhood wounding are re-wounded. Adding ongoing litigation can create further stress and trauma.

High conflict divorce can be horrendous for all parties and mimics trauma in many ways. It is a battlefield of accusations, feelings of betrayal, deep feelings of abandonment, a sense of personal assault, a profound sense of loss and an intense distrust of your former partner. Those involved often feel out of control; external influences (courts, attorneys, GAL, therapist) are significantly influencing their lives, and emotional turmoil is high. The court system is adversarial by nature. One party “wins” while the other “loses” and there is an unwritten agenda to defeat the other parent. It is your job to make your “opponent” look bad and parents are forced to disparage each other in an effort to simply maintain their roles as parents. Fear and hostility run high when parents are threatened by the potential loss of their children. Additionally, during high conflict divorce both parents can engage in alienating behaviors at one time or another. This series of stressful events is the very definition of a crisis.

How might this look on a psychological evaluation? The experience of a crisis carries into the evaluation room and can cause the individual to appear angry, paranoid, aggressive, and anxious. The current trauma of custody disputes can very well create personality traits that distort the results of psychological testing. The natural emotions stemming from divorce and custody disputes include a combination of stress, frustration, grief, powerlessness, and numerous other emotions. These are natural reactions and have nothing to do with the basic personality of the individual or their ability to parent. Testing may show that one or both parents experience traits closely related to their concerns (e.g. anxiety/paranoia – the other party is “out to get you” or discredit you). Don’t think you are off the hook if you do not show any of these responses. This may be indicative of more antisocial and abusive attitudes and enjoyment of being able to deceive others, remain engaged with your former spouse, and create anxiety in your former spouse. It is vital the evaluator parse out traumatic reactions to the current crisis from long-standing personality issues.

Defensiveness is also common in custody evaluations. Who would not want to “look good” when they are being evaluated in order to maintain their relationship with their child? This can be misinterpreted as one parent trying to “hide” something or as lacking insight regarding their own “psychological issues.” This may be an inaccurate conclusion. In times of trauma, denial may be necessary to maintain daily functioning and again not an overriding characteristic of the individual. Disorganization and emotional flooding may also be present and interpreted as stable characteristics rather than as occurring secondary to the crisis of custody litigation.

If one parent does experience a significant mental health issue, the other parent’s evaluation may be impacted as well. It is rare to find one parent with severe mental health illness or personality problems and the other without some deficits as well. The “healthy” parent has likely developed some unhealthy coping strategies to get by, thinking has likely become distorted, and they may have lost sight of what is “normal.”

It is important to tease these issues out and determine what is long standing, what is transient and specific to the trauma/crisis associated with divorce and custody litigation, and what characteristics will likely remain moving forward. If a parent does have a long standing mental health issues, the evaluator must determine how it impacts their parenting and the best interest of the child. Their mental health may or may not be relevant to custody. A former or current mental health diagnosis does not prevent a person from being a good parent. The impact on parenting must be assessed.

When looking at testing results, be sure your evaluator has dug deeper. Look to see your evaluator has done a true forensic evaluation in which multiple sources of data are used and history is explored in depth for a full picture of past and current functioning. Be sure the evaluator has distinguished between long standing mental health issues that could impact parenting, versus current trauma reactions to the crisis that will likely pass. Clinically significant scores may not indicate “crazy,” but rather an ongoing crisis that would make us all look a little crazy. An experienced forensic evaluator should be able to parse out the difference.


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