Child custody and access: the views and practices of psychologists and lawyers




Jameson, Barbara J.

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This study examined the views and professional practices of 52 psychologists, 26 from Alberta and 26 from British Columbia, and 53 family lawyers, 21 from Alberta and 32 from British Columbia, who have current or past experience in the area of child custody and access. Participants completed a survey designed to explore issues in custody and access (CA) practice that were relevant for each professional group. The survey also asked respondents to complete the revised Best Interests of the Child Questionnaire (BICQ-R) in which participants rated the extent to which 77 specific Best Interests of the Child criteria should be considered in determining custody. These items were presented in three areas of assessment relevant to custody and access evaluations: (a) relational assessment, (b) needs of the child assessment, and (c) abilities of the parents assessment. With regards to practice issues, differences for psychologists between the two provinces tended to appear on those questions regarding issues of training and competency rather than in questions that delved into the actual CA evaluation process. There were few differences for lawyers between the two provinces. Forty-nine of the lawyers answered four optional questions regarding ethical dilemmas in their child custody and access practice. On average, these lawyers reported feeling caught 23% of the time between their professional responsibility to their client and their personal beliefs about what would be in the best interests of the children involved in the custody dispute. The majority of psychologists and lawyers agreed that psychologists should continue to gather information and make recommendations in their role as CA evaluators. Psychologists tended to believe that lawyers' provided more litigation support to their clients than lawyers reported providing. Psychologists also believed that case conferences should be held significantly more often than lawyers would prefer. Psychologists and lawyers generally agreed on the main ways in which each profession was helpful or harmful to the resolution of child custody and access disputes, and there was also some consensus regarding the stresses and rewards of practicing in this area. The effects of personal child custody and access experience on professionals practicing in this area was also explored, and a personal CA experience by professional group interaction was revealed for male practitioners. The data for the BICQ-R were transformed to correct for potential response biases from the psychologists and the lawyers. Results indicated that the means for the three assessment areas were significantly different: both psychologists and lawyers rated the relational assessment area the highest, followed by the needs of the child assessment area, followed by the abilities of the parents assessment area. There was a significant gender difference for the needs of the child assessment area mean. Multivariate analyses of variance with number of years of experience as a covariate revealed significant professional group differences for the relational and needs of the child assessment areas. A significant gender difference on the abilities of the parents assessment area was also found with male practitioners rating the items as being relatively more important. Significant differences between psychologists and lawyers on various specific BIC criteria are reviewed, and the implications of these findings in the context of current empirical research are discussed. The study concluded that, in general, psychologists and lawyers rated the relative importance of various aspects of the BIC criterion in a similar manner, and that this consensus could form the foundation for developing a consistent and uniform understanding of the BIC criterion across professional boundaries. The limitations of the current study are outlined, and future research directions are suggested.



Custody of children, British Columbia, Alberta, Psychological aspects