What is a Good Forensic Report?

 

Assuming the court appointed forensic evaluator is in fact neutral, highly experienced, well educated in family dynamics, psychological testing, personality assessment, interviewing, a good forensic report must, have certain features. The following descriptions of forensic report components have varying degrees of applicability depending upon the specific circumstances of each case.

 

First, the report is developed in such a manner as to allow the reader to determine how the findings and recommendations of the report were based upon the various forms of forensic data the evaluator gained. This means that the data section of the report and the findings and recommendations section of the report should be separated. The findings and recommendation section should contain whatever discussion the evaluator may develop, though the discussion should be seen as an analytic product derived logically from the forensic data the evaluator described earlier. When I have reviewed other evaluators’ reports, I have seldom seen a clear delineation between “data” and “findings,” “discussion” and “recommendations.”

 

Good forensic reports have more than adequate samplings of behavior to ensure that the forensic sample of behavior is as representative as possible of the parties’ typical thinking, responding, feeling and interacting. Forensic evaluators should be aware of the fact that child custody litigation itself has a stressful impact upon litigants undergoing examinations and as such may distort their responses to the evaluation in turn leading to faulty conclusions. Consequently, evaluators must rely upon adequate amounts of alternative methods of assembling forensic data including but not limited to: (1) interviews of the parents and children; (2) interviews of those professionals, relatives, friends, sitters, etc., involved with the children determined to be of relevance to the case by the evaluator; (3)Interviews of those professionals, relatives, friends, sitters, etc., involved with the children determined to be of relevance to the case by the parties; (4) review and assessment of all relevant past and present records; (5) the use of standardized measures of behavior, including psychometric tests, structured measures of children’s perceptions of their parents given under standardized and non contaminating conditions; (6) where applicable, the use of standard measures of parenting capability; (7) close consultation with other experts as conditions dictate; (8) the careful assessment of substance abuse possibilities through all appropriate means including drug testing; (9) the use of all relevant and useful screening measures, where there are allegations of domestic violence, including assessment of police reports, review of CPS reports and determinations; review of hospital and medical records; and careful interviewing of involved mental health professionals; (10) the use of all relevant and useful screening measures, where there are allegations of child sexual abuse, including assessment of police reports, review of CPS reports and determinations; review of hospital and medical records; careful interviewing of involved mental health professionals; and where appropriate, the use of such measures as the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest  Click here for the Abel Assessment Web Site as well as the polygraph.

 

Additionally, (11) variations from the standard question and answer “exploratory” interview (i.e., the use of custody essays) should also be used to enable as wide a sampling as possible of litigants’ representations of their behavior, thinking, emotions and reasons for wanting a change in custody, to preclude response bias caused by the interview procedure itself. Some parents undergoing forensics do better when they are asked questions, and some do better when they have the opportunity to express themselves in writing. Where relevant and appropriate, (12) direct observation of parents interacting with their children either in the home and/or in the office setting should be undertaken as well as conducting of (13) “interactive interviews” involving each parent and each child. (14) Careful use of projective methods for children may be useful in order to add to the assessment of their emotional makeup. Evaluators using projectives have had extensive education in their use and seek to integrate projective data with overall case data derived from all other sources, in order to add to the depth of understanding of each child, while also adding to the convergent validity of the evaluation.

 

Good forensic reports should be (15) prescriptive regarding best interests post judgment interventions. Since many forensic experts believe custody determinations, while necessary, are in many cases the least important recommendation needed to ensure the case does not become a chronic, re-litigation case, it is essential that the evaluator, taking into consideration all relevant case parameters including domestic violence considerations, is able to make appropriate recommendations for post judgment intervention. The need for appropriate post judgment intervention can not be overstated and as such it is imperative that evaluators also be highly experienced and trained in the various forms of available intervention including supervised visitation, “parent coordination,” therapeutic supervised visitation, reconstructive family treatment, and case management.

 

Forensic reports must (16) be formulated in consideration of all relevant professional, ethical guidelines.

 

What about the issue of weather forensic experts should make recommendations regarding custody? Orders appointing forensic evaluators frequently ask the forensic expert to provide a recommendation regarding custody. Judges may ask for recommendations in order to assist with the formation of their judicial determinations based upon their assessment of the appropriateness of the report’s foundation. In the process of reviewing a report, a judge may find the report well founded or defective in some particular dimension, which may result in either the use or preclusion of the report’s recommendations. Aside from the issue of the judicial assessment of a forensic report, there are other considerations. In my opinion, the major issue is the validity of the forensic recommendation per se. Validity, is a scientific principle that refers to the ability of an assessment method to predict an optimal, appropriate outcome. In the strictest sense of the term “validity,” it would be necessary to hold forensic assessments up to the same validation process as a blood test or an IQ test. In order for a test to be valid it must be demonstrated to be able to predict a particular relevant criterion.  In order to “validate” a blood test or an IQ test, a researcher would have use the statistical technique of correlation to ascertain weather the blood test or IQ test was able to predict a particular “criterion” with a sufficiently high degree of accuracy to be able to describe the test as valid. Thus in the case of an “IQ” test, the test would have to be able to predict intelligent behavior such as success within an academic environment. Once an IQ test has been demonstrated to be able to predict the criterion of academic success, the test could be described as having “predictive validity.” A particular blood test technique could be described as having “predictive validity,” if it was able to predict the presence of various blood components from a sample.

 

Forensic recommendations for custody could be described as having certain other kinds of validity (other than “predictive validity”) if the report was deemed to be comprehensive in scope, and appropriately evaluative of the important behavioral features, which on the face directly relate to custodial competence. As a hypothetical example, if an evaluation could convincingly determine who had been the primary care taker of the children, and who is emotionally best equipped to be the primary care giver, and who is rated more highly by the children regarding parenting and who was most likely to be supportive of visitation, an argument could be made that a particular forensic report had “face validity.” With “face validity,” the report would be deemed to have the components necessary to make a scientifically based recommendation of custody. On the other hand, a report having “face validity,” would be nice, though not as good as would be the case if it also had “predictive validity.”

 

Since the idea of forensics reports is to provide the court (judge and attorneys) with all relevant professional information, which may assist judges render decisions and parties settle their differences without a trial, reports that provide all relevant forensic data, will probably be fairly well understood in terms of its relevance to what is in “the best interests” of the children, even without a specific recommendation regarding custody. Thus, a report without a recommendation of custody circumvents the problem of “predictive validity.” This is not to say that forensic reports lack validity. In fact, in my opinion, a well founded report which connects relevant data to well developed recommendations, could have, at least, “face validity,” “concurrent validity” and “construct validity,” if not “predictive validity.” However, those opposing the use of forensic reports may argue that they lack “predictive validity.” The argument is likely to be used, possibly with some success; though in my opinion there is plenty of evidence forensic reports do have validity. The fact that judges rely on them itself suggests usefulness and validity. Some examples of their validity derive from the fact that judges more often than not rule them in evidence and again more often than not utilize their recommendations. An additional line of reasoning derives from the fact that psychologists performing forensic reports are typically highly experienced at providing treatment services to individuals, couples and families. There is little controversy as to the assistance which these services provide. The efficacy of these interventions derives from the assessment and treatment skills of the psychologist. It is reasonable to presume the same skills apply to the assessment of families in conflict regarding custody.

 

Ultimately this issue could be solved by providing high quality reports which allows the reader to reach a reasonable conclusion.

 

Finally, it is unthinkable that high conflict families would be directed towards various post judgment interventions without a proper forensic assessment to determine what specific recommendations regarding the parenting plan and what particular interventions would be appropriate. Every relevant aspect of the family must be carefully assessed through a high quality forensic procedure performed by a highly experienced psychologist-evaluator, in order to develop the best possible recommendations and interventions.

 

 

This essay is a “work in progress,” and will be updated periodically.

 

The following forensic report recommendations were provided to the NYS Matrimonial Commission on April 21, 2005:

 

The family, broken or intact, is the incubator from which our society’s next generation of good and bad derives. Effective co-parenting, when possible, is the foundation upon which divorced families thrive.

 

The family’s protection and advancement becomes a sacred, social trust when parents are no longer able to preserve their families’ functional integrity, which if not sufficiently restored, will surely compromise their children’s capacities to reach their full human potential.

 

Irrespective of families’ ability to pay, our state’s children, caught in the middle of their parents’ legal conflicts regarding custody and other related issues deserve the best possible assessment and intervention services. Our State should provide the needed funding to uniformly provide for these assessments and interventions described in my presentation.

 

Our adversarial legal system, while delivering justice, may be unintentionally intensifying the suffering of the state’s children caught in the middle and may be needlessly intensifying their parents’ struggle to “win,” by not adequately addressing their needs for adequate and appropriate assessment and intervention.

 

My Recommendations for improving the Quality of Court Ordered Forensic Evaluations:

 

1. High Conflict matrimonial litigation involves families, interacting with an adversarial justice system that as a consequence frequently become more distressed and less capable of appropriate problem solving. In turn, the extreme and sole emphasis on trying to “win” greatly intensifies and lengthens the suffering of their children. High conflict parents lacking appropriate management skills cause their families to be unable to self-regulate and/or self-correct. The combined influence of both the adversarial justice system and lack of appropriate management skills is overwhelming. These parents frequently go to our courts in an attempt to “win” rather than seek rational solutions, because all too frequently the rational solutions are not available or effectively promoted.  Custody modifications, while sometimes appropriate, are at best only a part of the solution needed to reduce conflict. The impact upon these families having chronic, unresolved high conflict, exacerbated by our mainly adversarial justice system, is incalculable and will be measured by their children’s failure to reach their full human potential. In addition, such families have a higher incidence of distress, depression, substance abuse, anxiety, underachievement and ADD.

 

2. Forensic experts must be selected from senior mental health professionals, who have had many years of successful practice assessing and treating families, parents, and children in crisis and who have been recognized by their respective communities as effective, intelligent, ethical family practitioners. This qualification would promote the likelihood that the forensic expert has a demonstrated positive, effective, professional track record, which may be applied to families in crisis within the legal system. By definition, such practitioners have survived the test of consistent evaluative and treatment success at the independent practice level, enhancing the likelihood the expert will be well qualified to render forensic and intervention services within the legal system.

 

3. In order to ensure New York State moves in the direction of providing maximum appropriate intervention to reduce conflict and continuing litigation, it is essential high conflict families be fully assessed for the purpose of providing optimal direction to whatever intervention may follow. Thus, the forensic expert must be able to make prescriptive recommendations to reduce conflict and assist as much as possible in the decision making process. This information, when properly constructed, may assist Courts direct high conflict families towards appropriate decisions and helpful intervention.

 

4. Forensic experts should have special, advanced training in domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, triangulation and alienation. In addition, forensic experts must be educated as to the various available intervention models including case management, parent coordination, reconstructive therapeutic intervention, supervised and therapeutic visitation.

 

5. Forensic experts should participate in routine continuing education, and peer review. Forensic experts should have their work supervised for the first 5 years, by a senior forensic expert having at least 10 years of experience, and who has dual qualifications as a forensic psychologist as well as a Parent Coordinator.

 

6. Forensic reports must meet all applicable ethical guidelines.

 

7. A properly constructed forensic report could be of invaluable assistance to intervening professionals and courts considering best interests interventions and custody determinations, because the report could recommend solutions to the high conflict parties, which might enable alternative conflict resolution. Post judgment intervention is essential to provide opportunities for new and improved alternative dispute resolution and the appropriate implementation of a recommended/agreed upon/ordered “parenting plan.”

 

8. When possible, the best forensic reports should positively engage parents in litigation by effectively challenging them to reach their stated objectives regarding the best interests of their children, in the least invasive, most conservative, minimally destabilizing manner possible.

 

9. Forensic experts must be highly experienced at developing positive, appropriate co-parenting plans and recommending alternative methods of dispute resolution specifically tailored to each case. Hence, forensic experts should have much experience in case management and/or parent coordination and/or therapeutic intervention for problematic visitation in addition to their respective required professional education.

 

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