Do family report writers/custody evaluators ignore science?

Do family report writers/custody evaluators ignore science?

When I attended the Queensland Family Law Residential recently, basically a bunch of family lawyers, social workers and the like getting together at a conference, one of the most challenging presentations was by Stephen Ralph, a psychologist from Darwin. His presentation, “Family Violence and Children: Considering the Best Interests of Children” challenged the accepted view that family report writers, or custody evaluators as they are known in the US, get it right.

These experts are engaged to make recommendations to the court about what is in the best interests of children.

Mr Ralph, citing research, noted the following:

  • assessments in family reports are mostly reliant on interviews and observations
  • are based on the untested information supplied by the parties
  • seldom include reliable collaborative data
  • are conducted in a narrow window of time, ie a snapshot
  • are often reliant on logic and reason v. expert knowledge
  • in the making of recommendations, the report writers may be ethically and empirically unsound, particularly when the report writers do not acknowledge the limitations in their knowledge and methods

Mr Ralph cited research by well-known researchers Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston who stated in 2005:

Our own observations and reviews of evaluations over several decades lead us
to the same conclusion- that custody evaluators are more likely to make inferences and recommendations from unsubstantiated theory, personal values and experiences, and cultural and personal biases.

This view is reflected in a recent article in Newsweek “Why psychologists reject science“, in which the author, Sharon Begley states:

When confronted with evidence that treatments they offer are not supported by
science, clinicians argue that they know better than some study what works. In
surveys, they admit they value personal experience over research evidence…

which, if accurate for family report writers here, is frightening stuff for those who have an “expert” write a report about their family, which may quite profound implications for their family, but who decides to ignore the research in favour of their own biases and opinions.

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Family Law Section Law Council of Australia Award
Member of Queensland law society
Family law Practitioners Association
International Academy of Family Lawyers - IAFL
Mediator Standards Board