A Solution to Assessing the Best Interests of the Child

In my previous blog post, A Solution to Assessing Parental Capacity, I describe how the most basic and fundamental principle in developing an assessment procedure for any construct is to first define the construct (which is called its “operational definition” for assessment purposes).

This is absolutely Assessment 101 – basic and foundational. 

First, operationally define the construct.

For the construct of intelligence, Spearman proposed a two-factor definition of intelligence involving an overarching form of intellectual ability – a general intelligence factor which he called g – along with specific individual factors which he callled s, such as Vocabulary, Reading Comprehension, Arithmetic Reasoning, and Computation, .

Thurstone, on the other hand, rejected Spearman’s proposal of a general factor (g) and instead proposed a multi-factor theory.  Thurstone analyzed scores from 56 different tests taken by children of different ages, from which he identified seven “primary mental abilities” that include; 1) Numerical Ability, 2) Verbal Comprehension Ability, 3) Word Fluency Ability, 4) Memory Ability, 5) Reasoning Ability, 6) Spatial Ability, and 7) Perceptual Speed.

Raymond Cattell and John Horn proposed a two-factor model for intelligence comprised of Fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems and adapt to new situations) and Crystallized intelligence (acquired knowledge through education and personal experience).

Sternberg proposed a Triarchic theory of intelligence comprised of three aspects, Analytic intelligence which is the ability to perform academic problem-solving tasks, Creative intelligence which is the ability to respond effectively to novel situations by finding new solutions to problems, and Practical intelligence which is the ability to solve real-life problems as they arise.

Alternatively, Howard Gardner (different Gardner) proposed a theory of Multiple Intelligence that includes eight different types of intelligence; 1) Linguistic Intelligence, 2) Logical/Mathematical Intelligence, 3) Spatial Intelligence, 4) Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence, 5) Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence, 6) Interpersonal Intelligence, 7) Intrapersonal Intelligence, and 8) Naturalistic Intelligence.

Look how much effort has been put into the assessment of children’s intellectual development, their “intelligence,” because the assessment of children’s intellectual development and the recommendations that result from the assessment can have such profound effects on the lives of children.

Child custody decisions can have equally profound effects on the lives of children.  Yet no effort has been employed by professional psychology to define the construct of “best interests of the child” which is central to the child custody evaluation.  This absence of professional rigor is unconscionable.

Each of the differing definitions of intelligence will produce a different method for assessing “intelligence.”

What’s more, the process of first defining the construct of intelligence promotes vigorous professional dialogue which enhances our understanding for the core meaning of the construct.  Vigorous professional debate surrounding the definition of the construct greatly improves our ability to assess the construct.

But all of this valuable professional debate is absent surrounding the construct of “best interests of the child” as applied in child custody evaluations. There is no established operational definition for what the construct of “best interests of the child” means in the context of child custody evaluations.

The absence of an established definition of this fundamental construct in child custody evaluations is described by Stahl and Simons,

“A critical subject facing those working in the field of family law, whether they’re legal professionals or psychological professionals, is the concept of the best interests of the children. Even recognized experts in this concept differ with regard to what it means, how it should be determined, and what factors should be considered in determining what is in the best interest of a child. Thus, this ubiquitous term escapes consensus and remains fundamentally vague.” (Stahl & Simon, 2013, p. 10-11)

“It is defined differently from state to state; and even in Arizona, where there are nine statutory factors associated with the best interest of the child, the meaning behind many of the factors is obscure.  Additionally, when psychologists refer to the best interests of children, they are referring to a hierarchical set of factors that may have different meanings to different children with different families and that may be understood differently by psychologists with different backgrounds and different training.” (Stahl & Simon, 2013, p. 11)

Stahl, P.M. and Simon, R.A. (2013). Forensic Psychology Consultation in Child Custody Litigation: A Handbook for Work Product Review, Case Preparation, and Expert Testimony, Chicago, IL: Section of Family Law of the American Bar Association

And yet, despite this violation of a fundamental and incredibly basic principle of psychological assessment – to first operationally define the construct to be assessed – the scientifically unsupported (but financially lucrative) practice of child custody evaluations continues.

Determining Best Interests

So how should we define the best interests of the child relative to various custody time-share alternatives?

Answer:  There is no information in the research or theoretical literature that would allow professional psychology to develop or render an opinion regarding this question.  None.

I know the child development literature.  I know the clinical psychology literature. I know the research literature surrounding children, families, and divorce.  There is no information in the research or theoretical literature that would allow professional psychology to develop or render an opinion regarding this question.  None.

The best professional psychology can do is to identify child abuse, in which case a child protection response of 100% – 0% custody time-share is warranted for as long as the abuse potential exists.  But short of child abuse, there is no information in the research or theoretical literature of professional psychology that would allow professional psychology to develop or render an opinion regarding various custody time-share options relative to the “best interests” of the child.

There is no information in the research or theoretical literature of professional psychology that would allow professional psychology to provide an opinion that a 60-40% custody time-share will be in the long-term best interests of the child over a 70-30% custody time-share, or a 50-50% custody time-share.  These gradations are far too fine – exceedingly too fine – and far surpass our research and theoretical knowledge.

Define “best interest of the child” for me in a way that this definition can be applied to the variety and complexity of parent-child and family relationships (across cultural contexts).  You will immediately begin to see the immense (and unsolvable) problem posed by even attempting this definition.

Short of determining the presence of child abuse in which a child protection response is warranted, professional psychology should avoid being drawn into a spousal dispute to determine who is the “better parent” and who is to be “awarded the prize” of the child for being the “better parent.”  Becoming the arbiter in a spousal dispute as to who is the “better parent” to be “awarded the prize of the child” following divorce is an inappropriate professional role for professional psychology. 

If there is a problem in family relationships, psychotherapy can fix the problem.  But determining who is the 60% better parent relative to the other parent’s 40% good parenting, or who is the 70% better parent relative to the other parent’s 30% good parenting is not an appropriate role (and is actually an impossible role) for professional psychology to undertake.

If a custody evaluator decides that the child’s “best interests” are better served by an 80% custody time-share with the supposedly “better” parent (based on some yet undefined criteria for determining the “better” parent), how does the custody evaluator know this?  Where is the research literature that supports this decision regarding the long-term best interests of the child (based on some as yet undefined criteria for determining the long-term “best interests” of the child)?  Where is the research literature that indicates that the child’s long-term “best interests” are better served by being placed 80% of the time with the parenting practices of the “better” parent and that limiting the child’s contact and relationship with other parent to only 20% of the time is in the long-term “best interests” of the child?  Where is the scientific evidence to support this?  There is none.

There are simply too many complexities to this question that it far-far surpasses even the hope of an answer from the research base and theoretical literature of professional psychology.

There is absolutely no way – no way – professional psychology can come up with any opinion regarding the long-term benefits or impairments to a child from a 60-40% custody time-share, versus a 70-30% custody time-share, versus a 50-50% custody time-share in a specific individual family context.  Rendering such an opinion far exceeds the extent and capacity of our knowledge.

It’s analogous to asking a Neanderthal to design and build a computer.  The Neanderthal doesn’t even have electricity yet.  The Neanderthal is chipping spear points out of stone and making fire with sticks.  There is absolutely no way the Neanderthal can design and build a computer.

There are simply too many complexities (way-way too many) and too many variable factors (way too many), and our knowledge base is way too limited, to even get close to answering the question of whether a 60-40% custody time-share is in the long-term best interests of a specific child rather than a 70-30% custody time-share, or a 50-50% custody time-share.  It is just complete speculation.  Not even educated speculation.  Just pull it out of the sky pure unadulterated guesswork.

Might as well have a monkey throw darts at a dartboard.  Seriously.

Disagree?  There’s a Comment section on this blog.  Feel free to define for me the construct of “best interest of the child” in a way that can be applied to all the various complexities of parent-child and family relationships, and THEN cite for me any research whatsoever that would allow us to apply this definition of the “best interests of the child” to such a fine-grained discrimination as a 60-40% custody time-share versus a 70-30% custody time-share versus a 50-50% custody time-share, and that describes what parenting factors in all of the complexity of parent-child and family relationships (across cultures) would allow for such fine-grained custody time-share decisions relative to the proposed definition for the “best interests of the child.”

Impossible.  Impossible.  Impossible.

So why isn’t the impossibility of this exposed?  Because everyone in professional psychology is pretending that they see the emperor’s beautiful new clothing.

The emperor has no clothes.  The emperor is naked.

Once professional psychology lives up to its own established standards of practice regarding the development of “assessment techniques” (Standard 9.05 of the APA ethics code), or is forced to live up to these standards by the Court, so that an operational definition for the construct of “best interests of the child” becomes required of the professional assessment practice, then the entire house of cards surrounding the biased and unscientific practice of child custody evaluations will collapse.

Standard 9.05 of the APA ethics code regarding the construction of “assessment techniques” requires:

9.05 Test Construction
Psychologists who develop tests and other assessment techniques use appropriate psychometric procedures and current scientific or professional knowledge for test design, standardization, validation, reduction or elimination of bias and recommendations for use.

“…and other assessment techniques…” – like child custody evaluations. 

And “standardization” refers not just to standardizing the procedures for data collection, standardization also refers to standardizing the interpretation of the collected data. If two different evaluators can interpret the data differently based on the fact that the best interests of the child “may be understood differently by psychologists with different backgrounds and different training” (Stahl & Simon, 2013), then the interpretation of the data is not standardized.

Vigorous Professional Debate

For the life of me, I cannot come up with a cogent definition for the “best interests of the child” based on “current scientific or professional knowledge” – it’s like asking this poor Neanderthal to design and build a computer.  I can’t fathom how to accomplish the impossible task of defining the “best interests of the child” for the astounding complexity of the various parent-child and family relationship factors involved.

But if the practice of child custody evaluations is not to be replaced by a monkey throwing darts at a dartboard, it is incumbent upon the advocates for the practice of child custody evaluations to operationally define the construct of “best interests of the child” (like Spearman, and Thorndike, and Cattell, and so many others did relative to the construct of intelligence) in order to afford professional psychology the opportunity for the vigorous professional dialogue commensurate with the astounding importance of making custody decisions that will have such a profound impact on the child and family.

The methodology for child custody evaluations that is then created as a product of this vigorous and healthy debate within professional psychology should then be subjected to the rigors of inter-rater reliability, validity (construct validity; content validity; predictive validity; convergent validity; divergent validity), and cross-cultural validation that represents the “appropriate psychometric procedures… for test design, standardization, validation, [and] reduction or elimination of bias” referenced by APA Standard 9.05 of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

Until this is accomplished, there exists NO INFORMATION in the professional literature or research base that would allow professional psychology to answer the question regarding the “best interests of the child” relative to alternative custody time-share options (with the exception of determining child abuse that warrants child protection considerations; leading to a 100% – 0% custody recommendation for the duration of child protection concerns).

The Solution

Children’s emotional and psychological development benefits from a complex relationship with both parents.  The complexity of the parent-child relationship and the complexity of the relationship processes involved in healthy child development preclude the formation of any informed opinion or recommendation regarding the potential “best interests” of the child resulting from various custody time-share alternatives (with the exception of child abuse and child protection considerations; 100% – 0%) for specific individual family circumstances.

As a consequence of professional psychology’s inability to form or render a cogent, reliable, and demonstrably valid opinion regarding the “best interests of the child” that will result from various custody time-share options (with the exception of child abuse and child protection considerations; 100% – 0%), the custody recommendation from professional psychology for all cases that don’t involve child abuse and child protection considerations should be for a 50-50% time-share based on the principle that children benefit from complex relationships with both parents.

In the absence of child protection considerations, there is no scientifically or theoretically supported foundation for any other decision or opinion from professional psychology regarding a fine-grained discrimination in the child’s long-term “best interests” resulting from a 60-40%, 70-30%, 80-20%, or 90-10% custody time-share in specific individual family circumstances following divorce.

Professional psychology should avoid being drawn into spousal conflicts surrounding divorce to render an opinion as to who is the “better parent” to be “awarded the prize” of the child following divorce.

If the parents wish to work out some alternative custody time-share arrangement, that is their right and that is their prerogative. 

But if professional psychology is asked for an opinion, the only rational and supported opinion which can be offered by professional psychology given the immense complexity surrounding parent-child and family relationships (including the cultural context of parenting and family relationship structures) regarding various custody time-share alternatives is for 50-50% custody timeshare equally with both parents (with the exception of child abuse and child protection considerations; 100% – 0%) based on the principle that children benefit from complex relationships with both parents.

If family problems exist with a 50-50% custody time-share, this represents a family therapy issue, not a custody-related issue.  The family problems should be assessed and a treatment plan can be developed to resolve the family problems.  This is not a custody-related issue.  This is a treatment issue.

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

7 thoughts on “A Solution to Assessing the Best Interests of the Child”

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “Determining Best Interests
    So how should we define the best interests of the child relative to various custody time-share alternatives?

    Answer: There is no information in the research or theoretical literature that would allow professional psychology to develop or render an opinion regarding this question. None.

    I know the child development literature. I know the clinical psychology literature. I know the research literature surrounding children, families, and divorce. There is no information in the research or theoretical literature that would allow professional psychology to develop or render an opinion regarding this question. None.

    The best professional psychology can do is to identify child abuse, in which case a child protection response of 100% – 0% custody time-share is warranted for as long as the abuse potential exists. “

  2. Very few would argue that a children’s best interest factor would include having the child maintain a close, healthy relationship with both parents. Dr. William Fabricius at the 49th AFCC conference shared his research where he found a linear relationship between the amount of parenting time children had with their fathers during childhood and the closeness of their relationship in young adulthood. He further demonstrated that the same linear relationship existed when parents had high severe parent conflict before, during and up to 5 years after divorce. The study is included in Keuhle and Drozd (eds), Parenting Plan Evaluation: Applied Research for Family Court. Oxford University Press (2012).

  3. Hi Dr. Childress, I was wondering if you were the author or co-author of the petition for a new APA statement to view parenral alienation as child psychological abuse and if you are aware of certain websites appearing as news sites have said that they have changed their stance and have recognized PA as child abuse. Of course it is a hoax, as I emailed them and got this response :

    Dear George,

    Thank you for contacting the American Psychological Association. We have received many messages about this issue and are exploring the best ways to address the concerns that have been raised. The reports you have seen are not correct.

    Sincerely,
    Lauren Caldwell

    Lauren G. Fasig Caldwell, JD, Ph.D.
    Director
    Children, Youth & Families Office
    Public Interest Directorate
    American Psychological Association

    Do you know if we are making any progress with the petition? (I have gotten as many online to sign as possible ). And any tips as to what, if any, my response should be to Dr. Caldwell?

    1. I am not an author or co-author of the petition, but I am a supporter of the petition. Nor am I aware that websites are reporting that the APA has changed its stance, nor am I aware of any change in the APA position on the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation.”

      Pathogenic parenting is a standard and established construct in professional psychology referring to the creation of psychopathology in the child through aberrant and distorted parenting practices (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation).

      Pathogenic parenting that is creating significant developmental pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 1), personality pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 2), and delusional-psychiatric pathology in the child (diagnostic indicator 3) represents a DSM-5 diagnosis of V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. This is a diagnostic issue that is within the scope of individual mental health professionals. This diagnosis does not need “approval” from the APA. It is an available DSM-5 diagnosis for the pathology today – right now.

      Craig Childress, Psy.D.
      Psychologist, PSY 18857

      1. Dear Dr. Childress,

        Thank you for your reply. I want to also say thank you on behalf of alienated parents worldwide. You do great work, and I wonder if you are an alienated parent yourself, or were an alienated child? I ask as you speak with great emotion and passion. Also, where do we go from here? Do we drop PA as a term altogether, even AB-PA, and replace it with “pathogenic parenting”? What can alienated parents do to make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Once again, thank you for your reply, help, and work.

        Sincerely,

        George

      2. No, I am not alienated from my kids. My wife and I have been married for 25 years. My son just graduated college and is on the East Coast, my daughter is in college in Oregon. We all have a close and loving bond – even though we’re now separated by distance. My kids will be home for Christmas. So why did I get involved in this?

        My approach to therapy is that I want every kid – every single kid – that I see to receive the same quality of therapy that I would want for my son or my daughter. Every kid I see is “my kid.” As I adopted this approach, it wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t just the kids I see in therapy who become “my kids,” it’s all kids, all children, who are “my children.” I just had the privilege of living with and personally raising two of “my kids” – two pretty neat people, I might add. But other people have the privilege of raising my other kids – (they think that they’re their kids; but they are my kids too).

        Back in the mid-2000s I left my job as the Clinical Director for an early childhood assessment and treatment center where I was working with kids in the foster care system. I’ve seen the trauma of authentic child abuse up close and personal. I have a special place in my heart for my kids in foster care. They need me the most. When I left to enter private practice I was on my way to writing books about parenting generally, leading ultimately to a relationship-based cure for the symptoms of ADHD.

        But it’s when I entered private practice that I ran into my first case of “parental alienation.”

        Within two sessions, the “triangulation” of the child was pretty clear, as was the “cross-generational coalition.” Pretty standard family systems stuff. Plus the display of the child’s attachment system wasn’t authentic. I know the attachment system really well from my early childhood expertise and my work with kids in the foster care system. I know how it functions, and I know how it dysfunctions. In “parental alienation” the child’s attachment system display is inauthentic, that’s not how the brain works – even in response to the trauma of child abuse, the child’s attachment system doesn’t look like that.

        I spent the next 4 or so sessions meeting with everyone and confirming the diagnosis of the cross-generational coalition. What was also immediately apparent was the child’s absence of empathy for the targeted parent. The absence of empathy is an extremely distinctive symptom characteristic of only three pathologies, autism, anti-social personality disorder (the sociopath), and narcissistic personality disorder. The child wasn’t autistic, the child wasn’t anti-social (a sociopath), but narcissistic…? I looked for other narcissistic symptoms, and sure enough, there they were.

        Q: How does a child acquire narcissistic personality traits?
        A: From an enmeshed relationship with a narcissistic parent. It’s the parent who is the narcissist, and the parent is influencing the child’s attitudes and beliefs.

        So I conducted several clinical interviews with the allied parent, and yep, everything fell into place. In an individual session with allied parent I told this parent that I wanted them to release the child to have a relationship with targeted parent or else I would alert the minor’s counsel regarding the allied parent’s role in creating and maintaining the pathology. Poof – the allied parent had me removed from the case. I contacted the minor’s counsel and explained what happened and what the pathology entailed. Nothing. What? Why?

        I started to look into the situation and found out about “Parental Alienation Syndrome” and all the controversy, and how the mental health system’s response was broken, and how the legal system’s response was broken. Well that’s not right, that these self-absorbed narcissistic and borderline parents are destroying the lives of their children in order to get revenge on the other spouse for having the temerity of divorcing the narcissistic/borderline parent. That’s not okay to do to my kids.

        Well, dang. I gotta make this stop. That’s not okay to do this to my kids. So I set about analyzing the problem and developing the solution. Then I set about enacting the solution.

        So, am I a targeted parent? Technically, no. Because I’m married to a wonderful woman in a stable intact family and my son and daughter are fine. But these kids, your kids, are “my kids” too (you just have the privilege of raising these “my kids”). And it’s not okay to do this to “my kids.” My kids deserve the right to love both parents, and, just as importantly, to receive the love of both parents in return.

        Where do we go from here? I’ve written about his. First we fix the mental health system. Then we move into the CPS system and the court system. Fixing the mental health system is achieving professional competence in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of this attachment-related pathology. We want ALL mental health professionals to administer the Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting for ALL cases of attachment-related pathology surrounding divorce.

        If the three definitive diagnostic indicators of pathogenic parenting are evidenced in the child’s symptom display, we want ALL mental health professionals to make an accurate DSM-5 diagnosis of the pathology as V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed. And if they don’t, then we will hold them accountable. We will no longer accept rampant professional ignorance and incompetence. Not with my kids. Not for my son or my daughter; not for your son and your daughter. We will demand professional competence in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of ALL children (as required by Standard 2.01a of the APA ethics code).

        We want the American Psychological Association to revise their position statement on Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) to incorporate a new, second model of the pathology, an attachment-based model of “parental alienation” as described in Foundations (AB-PA). We want the American Psychological Association to convene a high-level conference of experts in 1) attachment theory, 2) personality disorder pathology, 3) family systems therapy, and 4) developmental trauma, to produce a white paper on the attachment-related pathology traditionally called “parental alienation” in the popular culture.

        In the new position statement of the APA, we want them to 1) acknowledge that the pathology exists (by whatever name they want to call it), and 2) designate these children and families, your children and families, as a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge and expertise to competently assess, diagnose, and treat.

        The repair of the mental health system is underway. I’m beginning to prepare for the battle to fix the broken legal system response. Soon, I will begin to engage the battle to reclaim Child Protective Services as your ally in fighting for your children.

        I need you, all of you, all targeted parents, to join me on this battlefield, fighting for our children. Write to the APA. Tell them your story (in two pages or less) and request a high-level conference of experts. Demand professional competence from the actively involved mental health professionals. Encourage them to email me requesting professional-to-professional consultation. And hold them accountable if they insist on being ignorant and incompetent. Be kind – always be kind – but be relentless.

        Ultimately, the term “parental alienation” will likely continue to be used in the general population, but mental health professionals will stop using the term. They will shift to the more accurate clinical psychology term of “pathogenic parenting” (and the clinical psychology construct of the “trauma reenactment narrative”). Ultimately we will seek the addition of the diagnosis of Trauma Reenactment Disorder to the DSM diagnostic system; with almost the same criteria as the DSM-IV diagnosis of Shared Psychotic Disorder except that the new DSM diagnosis of Trauma Reenactment Disorder will be in the Trauma and Stress Related Disorder section rather than the Schizophrenia and Psychotic Disorders section.

        As this moves forward, we will also turn to recovering the adult survivors of childhood alienation, and forming an online support group network of former alienated children who are now adults to serve as a resource contact point to recover other adult survivors of childhood alienation.

        We will not stop until all of your children are back in your arms.

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

  4. Thank you for your reply. It seems to be beyond ignorance with the APA, after all, these are highly intellectual professionals, no? Could “corrupt” be more accurate? Will a class action lawsuit cover a high-level corruption or would a request from a law-enforcement office to perform an investigation be needed? Just some thoughts. Thank you again for your time and consideration.

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