A Solution to Assessing Parental Capacity

I teach a graduate level course in assessment.  Professional assessment begins with first defining the construct to be assessed. 

For example, if we seek to create an assessment for intelligence, we must first define what we mean by the construct of “intelligence.” 

If we are creating an assessment for self-esteem, we must first define what we mean by the construct of “self-esteem.” 

The professional process of developing an assessment procedure BEGINS with defining the construct to be assessed.

In professional psychology, defining the construct to be assessed is called developing an “operational definition” for the construct.  For example, do we define intelligence as the amount of knowledge a person has, or is intelligence an approach to reasoning and solving problems?  Or both?  Based on our operational definition of the construct, we then develop an approach to assessing for that definition of the construct.

If we define intelligence as being the amount of information the person knows, then we develop questions to sample how much the person knows.  If we define intelligence as the person’s reasoning ability, then we develop questions that challenge the person’s ability to solve abstract problems.  In professional psychology, our assessment procedures are dependent on how we define the construct to be assessed – our “operational definition” for the construct.

However, child custody evaluations have entirely skipped this crucial step in the assessment process.  Child custody evaluations are supposedly assessing two key constructs of family functioning:

  • Parental capacity
  • The best interest of the child.

Yet neither of these key constructs is operationally defined in the custody evaluation procedures.

The failure to operationally define the key constructs that are being assessed by child custody evaluations leads to a fundamentally and fatally flawed assessment in which the evaluator is allowed to make up his or her own idiosyncratic definition of these constructs, which introduces into the assessment process the inherent biases of the individual evaluator.  Different evaluators will have differing interpretations and definitions for the key constructs of “parental capacity” and “best interests of the child,” leading to differing conclusions and recommendations from different evaluators.

Reliability and Validity

Reliability: The stability of the findings from one assessment to the next (test-retest reliability), or from one evaluator to the next (inter-rater reliability).

Validity:  The truth and accuracy of the assessment’s findings.

If the conclusions and recommendations reached by an assessment practice are not stable across evaluators (if an assessment procedure is not reliable) then the conclusions and recommendations cannot, by definition, be valid.

If an assessment procedure for a person’s intelligence results in a finding of normal-range intelligence when the assessment is administered by Psychologist A, but results in a finding of significant cognitive impairment when the assessment is administered by Psychologist B, then this assessment procedure is not reliable, and if an assessment procedure is not reliable, then the findings, by definition, cannot be valid

In this example, is the person being assessed of normal-range intelligence?  Or is the person cognitively impaired?  If the results of an assessment depend on who conducts the assessment, then the findings are not a valid indicator of person’s actual intelligence but are simply a reflection of the personal biases introduced by the individual evaluator.

The first step toward making an assessment reliable (stable across evaluators; called “inter-rater” reliability), is to operationally define the construct to be assessed.  Operationally defining the construct allows all assessors to apply the same definition of the construct to the assessment data, thereby improving the inter-rater reliability of the assessment.

Operationally Defining Parental Capacity

In developing an operational definition for the construct of parental capacity, the central issue is to identify the key factors of parenting that capture the quality of parenting behavior.  Identifying the key qualitative descriptors for parental behavior will allow evaluators to more reliably assess parental behavior on these key qualities.

In an effort to provide a solution – or at the very least to initiate a discussion of the issue – I have developed a checklist of key parenting qualities that can describe parenting practices.  This checklist is on my website:

Parenting Practices Rating Scale

This rating scale identifies four aspects of parenting behavior as central to defining the construct of parental capacity:

1.)  Classification of Parenting Behavior:  A categorical classification of parental behavior within a 4-tiered hierarchy.

Level 1: Child abuse

Level 2: Severely problematic parenting

Level 3: Problematic parenting

Level 4: Healthy parenting

 2.)  Permissive-Authoritarian Parenting: A dimensional rating from 1 to 100 along the parenting spectrum of permissive parenting, through communication-based and discipline-based parenting, to authoritarian parenting practices.

 3.)  Capacity for Authentic Empathy: A rating from 1 to 5 along the parenting dimension of authentic empathy for the child’s experience; from narcissistic self-absorbed parenting at one end of the spectrum, through authentic empathy, to over-intrusive enmeshed parenting at the other end of the spectrum.

 4.)  Issues of Clinical Concern:  A categorical indicator of additional issues of clinical concern relative to the parent.

If court-involved mental health professionals, including child custody evaluators, court-involved therapists, and court-appointed parenting coordinators, were to begin including this brief Parenting Practices Rating Scale in their assessments and reports, the increased clarity afforded by this rating scale would substantially improve the standardization for the definition of parental capacity.

Professional assessment BEGINS by operationally defining the construct to be assessed.  The Parenting Practices Rating Scale is my offer of an operational definition for the construct of parental capacity.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

4 thoughts on “A Solution to Assessing Parental Capacity”

    1. According to Wikipedia: “deprogramming” refers to coercive measures to force a person in a controversial belief system to change those beliefs and abandon allegiance to the religious, political, economic, or social group associated with the belief system.

      The online dictionary definition of “deprogramming” is: release (someone) from apparent brainwashing, typically that of a religious cult, by the systematic reindoctrination of conventional values.

      I don’t think “deprogramming” is the correct word for what happens. Once a child understands they are safe and they feel safe, once they understand its okay to love the rejected parent again, their attachment system will naturally pull the child to that parent. Dr. Childress always says that’s the easy part.

      Now, what does need to be done is to educate the child to help them develop critical thinking skills and healthy coping mechanisms. I don’t know the inner workings of the High Road Protocol, but I believe that is essentially what they do. It’s not replacing one set of beliefs and values with a new set, that’s for sure.

      1. This is 100% correct, Jason. It’s not a matter of “deprogramming” (I am against the use of constructs such as “brainwashing” and “deprogramming” – these are not clinical psychology principles). Therapy restores the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system. We need to remain fully within the standard and established principles and constructs of professional psychology.

        And restoring normal is actually relatively easy. The central issues are:

        1) relieving the suppression of the child’s normal-range attachment bonding motivations toward the targeted parent that occurs when the targeted parent is nullified as a protective-nurturing parent by the distorted parenting communications of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent;

        2) the resolution of the child’s misunderstood grief and sadness at the loss of a loving and affectionate bond to the beloved-but-now-rejected targeted parent.

        The barrier to accomplishing these two things is the continuing pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent that seeks to maintain the child’s symptomatic rejection of the other parent by placing the child in a continuing loyalty conflict. The child is being forced to take sides in the spousal conflict by the psychologically coercive parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Once the child is freed from this triangulation imposed on the child by the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and once the formerly targeted-rejected parent is restored as a nurturing parent for the child, then the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system reemerges, bonding takes place, and the grief response disappears – poof. It’s the resolution of the grief response that’s key.

        The attachment system is the brain system that manages all things love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss. It is a neurologically embedded set of brain networks. It’s always there, it’s always on. It’s expression is simply being suppressed by the distorted parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who is forcing the child into a loyalty conflict and who is defining the other parent as a “predator threat” relative to the functioning of the attachment system. Once the influence of the distorted parenting practices of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are straightened out, the normal-range functioning of this brain system resumes.

        Craig Childress, Psy.D.
        Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

  1. Good morning Dr. Childress. Your  ‘Solution to Assessing Parental Capacity’ via ‘Parenting Practices Rating Scale’is the most complete answer to Attachment-Based Parental Alienation I’ve encountered in  17 years of intensely painful, circuitous bureaucracy, conspicuously flawed, dangerously oblivious to the best interest of the child…yet is allowed to function with no accountability, impunity and recklessness.  I totally agree that “Professional assessment BEGINS by operationally defining the construct to be assessed”. Parenting Practices Rating Scale is the answer Targeted Parents and victims/survivors of Domestic Violence will fully appreciate. On another sad note, Brooklyn’s District Attorney, Ken Thompson, who was elected 3 years ago, died 3 days agoof cancer at the age of 50.He was truly a Beautiful Light who did a lot of Good. Ken Thompson was doing so much to combat Domestic Violence. I just knew he would be on board with the PA component of DV because right before his election at a prayer breakfast and fundraiser, I mentioned the communityand mental health crisis being created by AB-PA. He was unfamiliar with the topic and told me to come into his office to discuss the topic further. He was interested to hear how I thought it was closely related to Domestic Violence. I was so looking forward to introducing him to you, Dr. Craig Childress. Then, much to my relief, you not only confirmed the relationship between DV and AB-PA, but you alsoproposed the most complete solution ever.  I cannot even tell you what this means to me and countless other Targeted Parents. We are Heard. The “Parenting Practices Rating Scale” is clear proof.  Therefore we are Hopeful. Again, Thank You. Best Karlene

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