Court-Involved Clinical Psychology and Child Custody Decision-Making

Targeted parents are human beings.  They are people.  Psychologists are not allowed to hurt people.  Anyone.  Targeted parents qualify.

Psychologists are not allowed to hurt people.  We’re not allowed to do anything that would hurt the targeted parent.

Making professional recommendations that would limit the time that targeted parents share with their children to anything less than the maximum time possible, hurts the targeted parent.  It makes them sad, very sad, it takes away from them a fundamental self-identity role of mother or father, it takes from them life experiences with their ever-growing child that can never be recaptured or recovered, the child is only five once, only ten once, only fifteen once, never again.  Lost time is lost, and this hurts the targeted parent.

Psychologists are not allowed to hurt people, not even targeted parents.  They are people.

What is the maximum amount of time?  Following divorce, that would be 50-50% shared custody visitation.  We learn about sharing in preschool.  We take turns.  It’s a fundamental principle of social cooperation.  We share.  We take turns.

Following a divorce, that would a be 50-50% shared time.  A psychologist cannot advocate for anything other than that, because anything other than that will hurt one parent or the other, will make one or the other sad, very sad, and will take from them a fundamental life role, an important experience of self-identity, their role and experience of being a mother or father.  That would hurt them.  Psychologists are not allowed to hurt people.

But sometimes situations and limitations imposed by external factors make a shared 50-50% custody visitation schedule impractical or impossible.  What do psychologists do then?  We work to limit the harm.  We don’t make decisions as to who is harmed.

This is the APA ethics code on Avoiding Harm to the client, Standard 3.04a:

3.04 Avoiding Harm
(a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

We’re not allowed to harm people, and if harm is unavoidable, we “minimize harm where it is forseeable and unavoidable.”

Sometimes the child’s need to attend a single school requires that the child has a school-week residence with one or the other parent.  This will hurt the less involved parent, it will make them sad and damage their life experience as a mother or father.  But it is unavoidable.  The child needs to be at a single school location during the school week, the child needs a single school residence.

If both parents can live close enough to each other that they can share custody visitation time with the child and the child can also have a single school, then this is the best option, then we share, we take turns, and a 50-50% shared visitation schedule is the best in “minimizing harm” caused by the divorce itself – the separation of the family structure.

But if that’s not possible, then an every-other-weekend to one parent and primary school-week custody visitation with the other parent becomes the next available option for a fair distribution of time with a minimization of the unavoidable harm to one parent or the other from divided custody time.

Giving one parent only every-other-weekend is a severe restriction on this parents time, and is less than the maximum possible.  The maximum possible would be every weekend.  If the limitation is the child’s need for a single school so that one parent is the school-week parent, then the more limited-time parent could be the weekend-parent, this would be the best outcome for the more-limited, and therefore harmed, parent.

But then the school-week parent is harmed in another way.  The school week is task oriented with homework and after-school activities, and coincides with the work-week schedule and stresses.  Weekends are a time of relaxing and quality bonding.  If we take all of these weekend times of bonding relaxation away from the school-week parent, this harms them because it harms the quality of their relationship with the child.  One parent, the weekend parent, would receive all the quality bonding time of relaxation, and the other parent would receive all the task-oriented time of schoolwork and activities.

We want to balance the quality bonding time of weekends, so we assign an every-other-weekend schedule for visitation.  But then this is less than the maximum time available for the limited-time parent, and an every-other-weekend schedule imposes a two-week absence between only brief visitation times.  We would like minimize this unavoidable harm and provide additional time to this limited-time parent if possible, to maintain a consistent presence of contact and involvement.

Because the more infrequent time parent is being harmed, and because of the long period of absence between weekend visitations, we try to add some additional consistent time for this parent.   Typically this is through additional weekday time, often a Wednesday or Thursday dinner with the child every week, sometimes for a block of time, sometimes overnight if the infrequent time parent is able to maintain the child’s single school attendance the following day.

Psychologists, however, do not decide which parent is the school-week parent and which parent is the every-other-weekend parent.  That is not our role.  Ever.  It is not the role of a psychologist to decide who is harmed, who is sacrificed.  The second clause of Standard 3.04 says we “minimize harm” – it does not direct us to decide who is harmed.  The recommendations provided above regarding shared 50-50% custody visitation time, and an alternative every-other-weekend custody visitation schedule when the harm is “unavoidable,” meets this standard to “minimize harm where it is forseeable and unavoidable.”

We do not decide on who is harmed.

But what about the greater good?   If the child would benefit from more time with one parent than the other?

Two responses.  First, psychologists do not judge people to decide who deserves to have children and who doesn’t.  That is NOT our role.  Parents have the right to parent according to their cultural values, their personal values, and their religious values.  Psychologists should NOT assume a professional role of judging which parent is the “better parent” based on criteria that cannot be supported.  If there is no child abuse, then parents have the right to be parents.  If there is child abuse and child protection factors are a consideration, then there should be a corresponding DSM-5 diagnosis of child abuse.

Psychologists should not be in a role of judging who “deserves” to be a parent and who doesn’t.

Second, the “greater good” argument for causing harm is specifically prohibited by the APA ethics code.  Standard 3.04b prohibits psychologists from consulting for or collaborating with torture practices (enhanced interrogation) of terrorists.  Even terrorists, where there is a greater-good argument about the information they possess, psychologists are not allowed to harm terrorists.  The greater-good argument for causing harm is specifically prohibited.

Psychologists are not allowed to harm people.

Targeted parents are people.  We are not allowed to harm them.

The argument made by the allied parent is that the targeted parent “deserves” to be harmed, because they are a “bad parent,” and the allied  parent wants psychology and the court to judge the targeted parent, and to punish the targeted parent because they are a “bad parent” by limiting or restricting the parent’s time with the child.

It is not the professional role of psychologists to judge people to decide if the person “deserves” to suffer and be punished for some flaw or frailty.  That is never the professional role of psychologists.  If the court wishes to take up the matter of whether one parent deserves to be punished for bad parenting, that is a legal consideration of the court.  Psychologists are never in the role of judging someone’s frailty or vulnerabilities to decide if they should be a parent, or to decide if they need to be punished for their frailty.

Psychologists do not harm people.  Targeted parents are people.

If there are frailties, we fix them.  Parents have the right to parent according to their cultural values, their personal values, and their religious values.

Everyone can recognize how we do not override cultural or religious values in parenting rights, I want to highlight personal values.  Society has no authority to override parents in their right to parent according to their personal value system.  This provides a broad latitude to parents regarding their decisions as parents.  As long as there is no child abuse (documented with a corresponding DSM-5 diagnosis of child abuse), then parents have the human right to parent according to their personal values.

Personal values are embedded in cultural values, personal values are embedded in spiritual and religious belief systems.  Personal values are respected by professional psychology.  Psychologists do not judge who is the “better parent” who “deserves” to have a larger share of time with the child, psychologists do not judge who is a “bad parent” who deserves to be less involved with the child.

If there is no child abuse, then the rights of parents to parent according to their cultural values, their personal values, and their religious values is their human right and is respected.

If there is child abuse, then this needs to be documented by a corresponding DSM-5 diagnosis of child abuse, V995.54 Child Physical Abuse, V995.53 Child Sexual Abuse, V995.52 Child Neglect, V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse.  If there is no DSM-5 diagnosis of child abuse, then there is no justification for restricting a parent’s time and involvement with their child.

Custody Visitation Schedules

The practice of child custody evaluation is a professional abomination, psychologists should never be in the role of judging parents and parceling out pain and suffering based on some ill-formed and arbitrary criteria.

Psychologists do not harm people.  Anyone.  Ever.

Targeted parents are people.  They qualify.

Child custody decision-making following divorce is not complicated.  A shared 50-50% recommendation would be the default option in all cases because it minimizes harm to each parent created by the separated family structure and need to divide visitation time with the child.  We share, we take turns.  This is a foundational principle of social cooperation taught to all of us in preschool.  It applies in adult social cooperation as well.

We share.  We take turns.

If this is not possible, and harm must be done to one or the other parent by limiting their time and involvement with their child, then an every-other-weekend (and an evening during the week) custody visitation schedule becomes the second option.

This is not complicated.  That is the recommendation of professional psychology in all cases.  Professional psychology is not in the role of judging parents and parceling out pain based on who “deserves” to suffer because they are a “bad parent” (bad spouse).

Geographic Separation

In some cases, parents are geographically separated by long distances.  In these cases, neither the 50-50% shared visitation schedule nor the every-other-weekend visitation schedule is possible.  Additional harm is unavoidable.

In geographically separated families, the child’s need for a single school location requires that one parent be designated as the school-year parent, and the other parent will receive visitation time during the child’s school vacations.  As with the every-other-weekend schedule, the limited-time parent should receive all of the vacation time to maximize their available time with the child, but then this would harm the school-year parent by taking from them all of their relaxed bonding time with the child.

Similar to weekends, holiday and vacation bonding time is typically divided equally in geographically separated families, although sometimes additional time considerations are granted to the limited-time parent during summer vacations, and a strong argument can be made in favor of this compensation summer-bump to the limited-time parent’s custody visitation time with the child.

Move Aways

When a separated family structure occurs because of the parents’ divorce, the geographic location is established and the rights of each parent-spouse are established.  No move aways are permissible except in the most exceptional of circumstances.  Each parent’s individual rights are equally valid.  To take the child away from either parent would significantly harm the limited-time parent.

Psychologists are not allowed to harm people.  Any people.  Deciding if someone should be harmed is not the professional role of psychologists.  Once the home geographic location is established, if one of the spouse-parents wants or needs to move away from that region, for whatever reason, that is their choice.  Their choice, however, should not impinge on the liberties of the other spouse-and-parent, which include the right to be an active and involved parent with their child.

Life circumstances can be difficult and can impose difficult choices.  Personal life situations and choices, however, are not the responsibility of the ex-spouse following divorce, and the rights of the ex-spouse and parent to be an active and involved parent are not made void by the wants and needs of the other spouse-and-parent.

The court may decide that special extenuating circumstances exist that warrant allowing the move away of one parent with the child.  In these circumstances, the geographically separated custody visitation schedule of a school-year parent and a vacation-primacy parent becomes the recommended custody visitation schedule.

All Children – All Families

These recommended custody visitation schedules and the sequencing of their application applies to all children and all families.

Altering these schedules for child protection factors should be accompanied by a DSM-5 diagnosis of child abuse.

Psychologists are not allowed to harm people.  Anyone.  Targeted parents are people, they qualify.  Psychologists are not allowed to do anything that harms the targeted parent…. Standard 3.04 of the APA ethics code, Avoiding Harm.

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

One thought on “Court-Involved Clinical Psychology and Child Custody Decision-Making”

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “We do not decide on who is harmed.

    But what about the greater good? If the child would benefit from more time with one parent than the other?

    Two responses. First, psychologists do not judge people to decide who deserves to have children and who doesn’t. That is NOT our role. Parents have the right to parent according to their cultural values, their personal values, and their religious values. Psychologists should NOT assume a professional role of judging which parent is the “better parent” based on criteria that cannot be supported. If there is no child abuse, then parents have the right to be parents. If there is child abuse and child protection factors are a consideration, then there should be a corresponding DSM-5 diagnosis of child abuse.

    Psychologists should not be in a role of judging who “deserves” to be a parent and who doesn’t.

    Second, the “greater good” argument for causing harm is specifically prohibited by the APA ethics code. Standard 3.04b prohibits psychologists from consulting for or collaborating with torture practices (enhanced interrogation) of terrorists. Even terrorists, where there is a greater-good argument about the information they possess, psychologists are not allowed to harm terrorists. The greater-good argument for causing harm is specifically prohibited.

    Psychologists are not allowed to harm people.”

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