Parent/Child Observations and Home Visits During Custody Evaluations

Robert J. Loveland, Ph.D.

When a new client and I are discussing the custody evaluation process during that parent’s first appointment, two of the most frequently asked questions are, “What will happen during the parent/child observation?” and, “Will you be doing a home visit?” These two questions and the anxiety in the parent’s voice are a sure sign that this particular parent has done some Internet research because parent/child observations and home visits are frequently mentioned on websites devoted to custody and family law evaluations. Parent/child observations refer to an evaluation technique where parents are seen jointly with their children, and they are observed performing a structured task of some sort (perhaps an arts and crafts project), or they are simply allowed to play and interact with each other in some unstructured fashion. Home visits are just that; the evaluator spends time in the family home to conduct interviews, see the residential setting, and perhaps conduct a parent/child observation. Custody evaluators frequently use these techniques as part of the overall evaluation process, although I have spoken to many other evaluators who believe as I do that the techniques are not particularly helpful.

Psychologists who conduct custody evaluations tend to generally follow the guidelines that are espoused by the American Psychological Association. These Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings mention parent/child observations or home visits in only vague terms by stating in Section 10 that, “Direct methods of data gathering typically include such components as psychological testing, clinical interview, and behavioral observation.”  However, other professional organizations encourage these evaluation techniques in much stronger terms. One of those professional organizations is the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), a much-respected organization to which I belong. The AFCC has published a non-binding set of suggestions for custody evaluators, the Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation. An entire section, Section 10, of these standards is devoted to “Observational-Interactional Assessment” of parents and children. In that section, the AFCC standards state that, “Observations of parents with children shall be conducted in order that the evaluator may view samples of the interactions between and among the children and parents, and may obtain observational data reflecting on parenting skills and on each parent’s ability to respond to the children’s needs. In the course of such observations, evaluators shall be attentive to (1) signs of reciprocal connection and attention; (2) communication skills; (3) methods by which parents maintain control, where doing so is appropriate; (4) parental expectations relating to developmentally appropriate behavior; and, (5) when parents have been asked to bring materials for use during the interactive session, the appropriateness of the materials brought.” As an experienced custody evaluator I do not believe that any such thing can actually be measured in any comprehensive fashion during a parent/child observation or home visit (unless an evaluator were to move in with the family for a few months), and these are the types of statements that parents read on the Internet that make them very nervous. Parents who are engaged in a custody evaluation are understandably concerned about parent/child observations and home visits. They are worried about how they might be seen or how their home might be viewed, and they tend to be even more worried about what the evaluator might think if little Johnny or Susie has a particularly bad day on the day of the appointment.

For any parent who might be reading this article in preparation for coming to work with me in a custody evaluation with your children, allow me to lay aside your fears regarding the manner in which parent/child observations and home visits fit into my own practice. I do sometimes conduct parent/child observations, particularly with younger children, and I have been invited into hundreds of family homes for professional visits. However, the information that is gathered from these family contacts is used in the most careful and conservative terms. At no point is this information used to make global or broad assumptions about some of the crucial family characteristics mentioned in the AFCC standards. In my entire career I have never had an evaluation tip one way or the other based on information gathered from an observation or a home visit. Allow me to explain.

As a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in family law matters, I am duty bound to employ evaluation techniques that are as reliable and as valid as possible. Both the A.P.A. Guidelines and the A.F.C.C. Standards clearly mention the need for reliable and valid measurement procedures. Reliability and validity are common everyday words but they are also mathematical and statistical terms that have special meaning to psychologists. In the psychological world, if an evaluation technique is reliable it means that the same result is likely to occur every time that the technique is employed. Reliability refers to the consistency of a measurement tool. If an evaluation technique is valid, it means that the technique is actually measuring what it is supposed to be measuring. A measurement tool can be reliable but not valid and it can be valid but not reliable. Psychologists hope to use evaluation techniques that are 100% reliable and 100% valid, but that is not typically possible in human affairs. It does happen in other scientific areas. For example, if I am holding a bowling ball and let it go, it will reliably and consistently drop to the floor 100% of the time, and the fall itself will be an accurate and valid demonstration of the power of gravity. Human behavior is a bit more complicated than gravity, so psychologists often employ measurement tools for human characteristics with reliability and validity ratings hovering around 80% or so, and sometimes slightly better. That means that psychologists must use techniques that are only “basically reliable” or “basically valid”, but we do the best we can with the evaluation tools themselves combined with the wisdom that comes from years of experience with people.

When these concepts are applied in a realistic fashion to parent/child observations and home visits, it is clear to me and to other professionals in this field that these evaluation techniques are neither reliable nor valid. I could spend an hour or so observing a father and his child on 10 different days and still see something different every time. This would not be a reliable measurement of anything. I could do the same with a mother and her child, and I am still only measuring how a nervous mother might be relating to her child in a strange environment with a relative stranger. This would not be valid regarding the real quality of the parent/child relationship. Moving the parent/child observation to the home environment does nothing to improve the odds. In other words, my observing a parent and a child together in my office or in their home in either a structured or unstructured fashion might be interesting and even fun, but the observation itself cannot reliably or validly be used to form broad conclusions regarding the issues related to custody and parenting plan decisions. Consequently, even if I have spent significant time with a parent and child together, none of my reports will ever draw conclusions that are based solely on what I may or may not have observed.

This latter point is why I take issue with the lofty respect that is accorded the parent/child observations as an evaluation tool by some legal and mental health professionals who perhaps have not given this issue much thought. For example, some evaluators spend relatively little time observing a parent and child together, and then they make broad statements in their reports that could not possibly be supported by what they might have observed. As an experienced evaluator I have been asked by attorneys to review a very large number of reports from other evaluators where a brief parent/child observation is used as the basis for forming broad and general conclusions about such concepts as parent/child bonding and attachment, discipline approaches and parenting style, general parenting skill, and even personality issues of parent and child. This is not proper, nor is it reliable or valid. I would imagine that there are instances where something absolutely extraordinary happens during an observation that is worthy of note, but an occasional or unusual event does not support the misuse and over-interpretation of what can be learned from watching a parent play checkers with their child in an evaluator’s office.

In addition, psychologists are duty bound to avoid as many sources of evaluation bias as possible. Parent/child observations and home visits are both rampant sources of potential bias in several areas. The AFCC mentions only one by warning of observer effects: “Evaluators shall be mindful of the fact that their presence in the same physical environment as those being observed creates a risk that they will influence the very behaviors and interactions that they are endeavoring to observe.” There are many more potential biases than just this one.

That being said, these two evaluation techniques certainly have a place in my practice, but they are both used in a limited, down-to-earth, and child-friendly fashion. Their use varies from family to family, and they are only employed when circumstances justify that some reasonably reliable and valid data might be the end result. I do spend a great deal of time with parents and young children together in my office or playroom. This is done to avoid any stress for a young child rather than as a specific evaluation tool. I spend a good deal more time interviewing children on their own, provided that they are old enough and secure enough to separate from their mom or dad and participate in their own interview. Children universally report to their parents that they had a great time, and the information that is gathered is much more meaningful and useful than anything that I have ever gathered during a parent/child observation. With older children, and certainly with adolescents, interviewing them alone is infinitely more reliable and valid than placing them in an awkward situation with their mom and dad, particularly when the divorce process frequently heightens emotions. The custody evaluation process involves gathering family information from a wide variety of sources and employing a variety of measurement tools. Parents who involve themselves with my practice can be assured that regardless of what they might have read about evaluations on the Internet, parent/child observations or a home visit will not become a nerve-wrecking experience for either parent or child.