Lack of research on family report systems: researchers

Lack of research on family report systems: researchers

One of the most common ways that children’s matters are assessed is by the obtaining of a family report. This is a report prepared by a psychiatrist, psychologist or most commonly a social worker, in which each of the parties and the children are interviewed and assessed. The purpose of the process is hopefully to give guidance to the court (and to the independent children’s lawyer and hopefully the parties) about what the issues in dispute are and any recommendations as to what is in the best interests of children.

Writing in the latest Family Court Review, American researchers Robert Kelly [email] and Sarah Ramsey [email] have suggested that there is lack of systemic research about family reports, or as they are called in the US, child custody evaluations, and call for greater research.

They say:

Child custody evaluations need to be studied systemically as a human service
system. There is little research on the history, caseload dynamics, economics,
delivery systems, or impact of custody evaluations. This article identifies five
systems-level questions about custody evaluations and examines one, outcomes
assessment, in detail by developing seven outcome hypotheses. The article
concludes that such research could improve the practice and use of child custody

Given the extensive use of family reports, their comments are concerning:

Because of the absence of rigorous scientific studies assessing the accuracy and
impact of custody evaluations, it is not possible to determine whether custody
evaluations have no overall effect, significant overall negative effects,
significant overall positive effects, or some combination of positive and
negative effects. This is distressing in light of the fact that courts consider
the evaluations, often recognize evaluators as experts, and it is recommended
that forensic child custody evaluations be scientifically informed.

The researchers pose 7 unanswered hypotheses about the possible benefits of family reports (which they were unable to test, because of a lack of research):

1. Settlement. Upon completion of a custody evaluation and/or high-quality custody evaluation, parents will be more likely to reach a non-court-imposed settlement than if no custody evaluation is done and/or the custody evaluation is poorly done.
2. Quicker Trials. Disputed custody cases and/or high-conflict disputed custody cases that go to trial will be adjudicated more rapidly when a custody evaluation and/or high-quality custody evaluation is done relative to the cases in which no custody evaluation is done or the custody evaluation is of poor quality.
3. In cases that go to trial, judges will express higher levels of satisfaction with their decision-making process and their actual decisions both when they have a custody evaluation versus no custody evaluation and when the custody evaluation they have is high quality versus low quality. 4. When a custody evaluation, independent of quality, or a high-quality custody evaluation is part of the resolution process, whether there is a pretrial settlement or an adjudication, parents will be: (a) more likely to abide by the agreed-to or court-imposed parenting plan and (b) less likely to engage in subsequent parental conflict and litigation.
5. On average parents will be more satisfied with the parenting arrangements that emerge in disputed custody cases when a custody evaluation, or a well-done custody evaluation, has been done than when there is no custody evaluation or the custody evaluation is poorly done.
6. Children in custody arrangements subsequent to a custody dispute for which a custody evaluation or a well-done custody evaluation was produced are likely to score better on child well-being measures than children from custody-disputed cases in which no custody evaluation was produced or the custody evaluation produced was of poor quality.
7. As custody evaluation institutionalization increases, court efficiency and effectiveness in disputed custody cases will be significantly affected.

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