Assessing the Behavior-Chain in Parent-Child Conflict

In my consultation work with attorneys, I am often asked to review the clinical psychology data contained in child custody reports.  One of the prominent features that I have noticed is the highly variable and often inadequate approach to the clinical interview that is evidenced in these child custody reports.

Forensic child custody evaluators believe they are exempt from the standards of practice required of clinical psychology.  In their book, Forensic Psychology Consultation and Child Custody Litigation: A Handbook for Work Product Review, Case Preparation, and Expert Testimony, Stahl and Simon (2013) indicate that “clinical thinking and the clinical mindset are no longer felt to be an appropriate approach to forensic psychological work” (p. 18), they “strongly disagree with the clinical approach” (p. 18), and they offer the opinion that, “while there is certainly some overlap between forensic thinking and clinical thinking, we view these modalities as distinct” (p. 20).

Unfortunately, their subsequent analysis of the supposed distinctions in “clinical” thinking and “forensic” thinking substantially mischaracterizes clinical psychology to the point of creating a straw-man argument.

Freed from the confines of the established professional practices and the scientifically established information base of clinical psychology, child custody evaluators believe themselves free to simply make up assessment procedures.  The Standards offered by the American Psychological Association (APA Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology) and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluations) provide only general guidelines but do not specifically address the structure of the clinical interview process and the specific application of established constructs and principles from professional psychology to the collected data.

A professional standard in the clinical interview process, derived from Applied Behavioral Analysis, is the collection of the behavior-chain sequence surrounding a behavior; the antecedent cue for the behavior, the expression of the behavior itself, and the consequences that accrue from the behavior.  In Applied Behavioral Analysis, this behavior-chain sequences is referred to as A-B-C; antecedent-behavior-consequence.

The clinical interview to obtain this behavior-chain sequence represents a structured and systematic approach to acquiring information in the clinical interview process, and it guides the assessment process relevant to making an accurate diagnosis regarding the cause of the behavior.

When applied to a parent-child conflict, the clinical interview assessment process of identifying the behavior-chain sequence surrounding the parent-child conflict involves specifically identifying the step-by-step sequence of behaviors that emerged during the parent-child conflict that served as eliciting cues for the subsequent steps in the behavior-chain sequence.

The Applied Behavioral Analysis assessment of identifying the behavior-chain sequence requires that each step in the behavior chain be described in term of specific behaviors, specific communications, and specific feelings.  The client’s use of vague or global descriptions prompts additional assessment for specificity in the description of behaviors and feelings.

Based on my review of current child custody evaluation practices, the standardized application of Applied Behavioral Analysis clinical interviewing to establish the specific behavior-chain descriptions of the parent-child conflict from the perspectives of both the parent and child would substantially improve the assessment process and the reliability of data collection in child custody evaluations.

I have recently prepared a handout for training mental health professionals in the application of the Applied Behavioral Analysis clinical interviewing procedure of identifying the behavior-chain sequence in parent-child conflict.  I have posted this handout to my website:

Assessing the Behavior-Chain in Parent-Child Conflict

Incorporating the Applied Behavioral Analysis clinical interview procedures for identifying the behavior-chain sequence in parent-child conflict with the structured Parenting Practices Rating Scale (Childress, 2016), also available on my website, would help standardize and therefore substantially improve the methodology employed in child custody evaluations by standardizing the collection and documentation of data collected through the clinical interview process of child custody evaluations.

The current practice of child custody evaluations is abysmal.

There is no scientifically established validity for the conclusions and recommendations derived from child custody evaluations.  There are no studies establishing the construct validity, the content validity, the predictive validity, the convergent validity, or the divergent validity of the conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations.

There is no established inter-rater reliability for the conclusions and recommendations derived from child custody evaluations.  If an assessment procedure is not reliable, then it cannot, by definition, be valid.

There are no operational definitions for the key constructs of “parental capacity” and the “best interests of the child.”  Defining the operational definitions for the key constructs of the assessment is the foundation for creating an assessment procedure.

Child custody evaluations violate ALL of the established professional procedures for developing an assessment methodology.

Furthermore, child custody evaluations do not apply in any systematic way the established psychological principles and constructs from professional psychology to the acquired data.  Instead, each evaluator is allowed to individually and arbitrarily apply whatever psychological principles and constructs they wish, or none at all, to the acquired data.

The Parenting Practices Rating Scale is an initial effort to bring an operational definition to the construct of “parental capacity.”

The application of the Applied Behavioral Analysis clinical interview procedures for establishing the behavior-chain surrounding parent-child conflict would substantially improve the clinical interview methodology used in child custody evaluations by standardizing the data collection procedures of the clinical interview process.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

2 thoughts on “Assessing the Behavior-Chain in Parent-Child Conflict”

  1. I was ordered to attend a CIC (child inclusive conference) with the court in house family consultant – a childless, homosexual social worker. Cost me my child. The mother had stopped contact 4 weeks after child turned 12yo claiming this was the child’s “mature” wish – after 9 years of shared parenting. I filed contravention to resume contact. Her application for no contact was served in the courtroom demanding an urgent interview with child expert to determine the now terrified child’s wishes.

    This “expert” with 20 minutes notice, no history of the case or mental health evidence or any evidence save that provided by mother and child, refused to allow the child to be seen with me and sent child home.

    He told the judge he thought the child was not forthcoming and was hiding something.

    We found out since the mother had bought child a new iphone for the interview. The subpoenas of 4 Police interviews of child at the time of the alleged abuse found the child disclosed no abuse.

    Police, CPS, SOCA expressly refused to prosecute charges. The mother just made the allegations up to preempt intervention for child neglect. Her house was subsequently found to be unlivable, smelled of urine/feces and was without electricity or gas for many months. Family history of mental breakdown and hoarding.

    My contact with child has been suspended for 15 months. Child has not seen grandparents, aunts, uncles, sibling like cousins in that time and started self-harming. Mother covered it up.

    These inhouse social workers totally unqualified to assess mental illness or enmeshment are given immunity from prosecution. Bloody outrageous

    KUEHNLE (1996) “WHEN PROFESSIONALS RELY SOLELY ON THE SUBJECTIVE OBSERVATIONS OF CHILDREN’S NARRATIVE TO ASSESS THE ACCURACY OF ABUSE ALLEGATIONS, THEIR CONCLUSIONS ARE NOT MORE ACCURATE THAN CHANCE”.

  2. Dr. Childress, I have great respect for what you’re doing and stand for. I personally have little to no hope that the system will positively respond. You have great ability in explaining your point and truth. But in contrast, Hollywood does and can, very easily, portray the falsehoods of plaintiffs attorneys as real and true, leaving the vast majority holding, clinging to the staff of ignorance. As I’ve shared with Dr. Baker, Dr. Darnall and others, keep up the good work…from a childless father

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