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The Best Interests of the Child in Custody Evaluations: An Explication of the Construct and Preliminary Content Validation Study
AuthorTolle, Lauren Woodward
AdvisorO'Donohue, William T.
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Forty percent of marriages with children end in divorce in the United States, ten percent of which require a child custody evaluation. Approximately 100,000 child custody evaluations are conducted annually (Bow, 2006). Despite the fact that these evaluations affect the lives of thousands of children and parents every year, there is very little research and few guidelines for the mental health professionals who conduct child custody evaluations. This study has four main aims: 1) to discuss the past and current state of science regarding child custody evaluations with a focus on the construct of the Best Interest of the Child (BIC); 2) to propose a preliminary model (the Egregious/Promotive Factors Model) that is based upon an extensive review of the empirical research related to factors that have been found to be predictive of poorer or positive outcomes in children in order to conduct valid child custody evaluations; 3) to identify and review existing psychological assessments that can reliably measure risk and promotive factors to support the Egregious/Promotive Factors Model; and 4) to gain feedback and preliminary evaluation of the Egregious/Promotive Factors Model (EPFM), a pilot study involving family court judges was conducted examining child custody decision-making when provided either a EPFM-guided report or the more standard, unspecified constructs report. Thirty-two judges completed and mailed back feedback questionnaires regarding the report they had received. Results indicate that judges who received the Egregious/Promotive Factors Model report found it to be more acceptable, were more likely to find that its recommendations had clear rationales, and were more likely to recommend evaluators write reports this way than judges who received the unspecified constructs report. In addition, judges who received the EPFM-guided report were more likely to make custody decisions that adopted the evaluator's recommendations, and reported that factors from the Egregious/Promotive Factors Model were influential in decision-making, with the promotive factors most frequently cited. Implications and future directions are discussed.