HOW DOES A PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATION WORK?
The purpose of a psychological evaluation is to have the parties diagnosed by an expert in order to make recommendations in the case.
In most instances, this requires the psychologist to predict what will happen if the child is returned to you.
Parents, guardians, and sometimes other parties are often required to undergo a psychological evaluation. Children are usually evaluated also.
If there is a question of their mental competence, then a competency evaluation might be included.
Further, there are often interactional evaluations, in which the parent and child are evaluated together to see if they appear bonded and comfortable.
Any court considers evidence. The major sources of evidence are witnesses and documents.
Witnesses may be either fact witnesses or expert witnesses. A fact witness generally gives the facts known to him or her, but does not offer an opinion.
An expert witness is allowed to offer opinions.
Certain psychologists may be qualified as experts, meaning that they can give their opinions, usually with regard to reunification.
HOW DOES THE PSYCHOLOGIST PREPARE AN OPINION?
The psychologist generally has the following tools:
1. Questions to be answered
There is no such thing as an opinion in the abstract. Psychologists are given a list of questions to answer.
In former days, DCF alone prepared the questions. This was unfair. As the saying goes,
“He who controls the questions controls the interview.”
Now, thanks in part to the efforts of this office, all the lawyers in the case have a say in the selection of questions. If the lawyers cannot agree, then the Judge makes the decision.
2. Documents submitted
The psychologist is given certain documents to read in advance, in preparation for the interviews.
In former days, DCF loaded the documents with all sorts of information, almost all unfavorable to the client. Now, it is standard procedure for all the lawyers in the case to have a say in the selection of documents. Further, your lawyer can submit documents to challenge the assertions in the DCF documents. If the lawyers cannot agree, then the Judge makes the decision.
Some people think that psychologists have special training which prevents them from being biased by what they read in advance. According to their own peer-reviewed literature, this is simply not the case. Psychologists are subject to the same biases and prejudices that the rest of the world is. It is necessary to ensure that their mind is not made up before they see you.
3. Collateral Contacts
The psychologist is given lists of other people to call, who may be useful in preparing an opinion.
In former days, DCF had the psychologist call its own clinicians and therapists. Now, it is standard procedure for all the lawyers in the case to refer the psychologist to others who may have a different opinion of reunification, based on their own knowledge. If the lawyers cannot agree, then the Judge makes the decision.
In former days, a psychologist often said that he had “left messages for the parent’s witnesses”, but that the calls were not returned. This made the evaluation report incomplete. Nowadays, the lawyers work with the Court Service Officer (CSO) to eliminate these communication problems.
The psychologist interviews certain persons, normally adults and children involved. The lawyers work to develop the list of people to be interviewed. If the lawyers cannot agree, then the Judge makes the decision.
Suffice it to say that most persons are nervous about such interviews. Many have never had them before, and do not know what to say.
Persons often assume that the psychologist is the Judge, and try to explain why they are right and why DCF was wrong. They may “clam up” when difficult questions are asked, or may say too much and go on forever.
We prepare adults for the interviews, based upon our reading of hundreds of evaluations and dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles. We thoroughly explain the purpose and nature of the evaluation. Innumerable cases have been lost at the interview stage; but seldom if the client is properly prepared.
In most evaluations, the client is given written tests. These are of two types:
Objective Tests. The client is given a question, and answers “Yes or No”, or “True or False”, or “Always, Often, Sometimes, Seldom, Never”, etc. The client is not allowed to expand on his answer.
Projective Tests. The client is shown an ink blot and asked to state what it looks like, or may be shown a picture and asked to make up a story about it, or the like. These are open-ended questions, in which the client may expand his answer freely.
Many persons are nervous with these tests. They often try to “psych out” the test and give the “right” answers. However, the tests have built-in detectors to spot what is called “trying to improve your image.”
Many persons who answer a “close” question one way then try to “make up”, by answering another close question the other way. However, the tests have built-in detectors to spot inconsistent answers.
We prepare adults for these tests, based upon our prior research. We thoroughly explain the purpose and nature of the tests. DCF has enough advantages, and you should not be blindsided by a psychological tool.
ARE PSYCHOLOGISTS INDEPENDENT?
In former days, the psychologists were hired by, paid by, reviewed by, and subject to dismissal by, DCF. It is true that dismissal seldom occurred, but the threat was always there. When I tried to find out the exact nature of DCF’s “review” of psychologists, I ran into a stone wall. One psychologist told me that she had given too many opinions against DCF, and found herself no longer doing evaluations.
Thankfully, that is no longer true. This office worked with then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, starting in February, 2008, to correct the situation. It took a year, but by early 2009, the court-appointed psychologists were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Judicial Department, and not DCF.
CAN PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATIONS BE CHALLENGED?
Yes, absolutely. Just because the psychologist is an expert does not mean that your lawyer cannot question him or her. Also, in some cases, you might consider hiring your own psychologist to conduct an evaluation. Needless to say, that must be carefully coordinated.
The problem is that psychologists make predictions. Psychologists, like economists, have extensive education, training, mathematical tools, and learned journals to study. Yet their prediction record is often spotty. And seldom do they conduct long-term studies to verify the accuracy of predictions. Further, the judgment of even an experienced psychologist may be no better than that of a beginner. And, as mentioned earlier, psychologists are subject to their own individual prejudices.
All of these assertions, and others, are documented in learned journals of the clinical psychology profession itself. However, these journals are not easy to come by.
If you check a volume such as “Cross-Examining Experts in the Behavioral Sciences”, published by West Group, and spend a lot of time finding articles at the Homer Babbidge Library at UConn, these will be available.
Another excellent volume is “Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology”, S. Lilienfeld, editor. This is an excellent critique of the field by one of its leading academics and practitioners.
A very readable popular volume is “The Story of Psychology”, by Morton Hunt, 1993. While not a scholarly study, it provides excellent insight on how psychology has developed since ancient times, and how clinical psychology asserted itself through testing methods.
Psychologists do a difficult job. Clinical psychology is a great field, but it is not so deep and mysterious as its practitioners often claim. Neither is it an exact science. See Some Problems with Psychological Evaluations for more details.
A clinical psychologist is simply another witness in the case. However, he or she may be the most important witness. Nearly all judges are inclined to follow the recommendations of psychologists.
It is to your advantage to be prepared for a psychological evaluation, and to be certain that your lawyer has done everything to ensure a fair evaluation.