Today I am talking with Dr. Chris Mulchay, all about child custody evaluations. Some of you might recognize Chris’s name from being a co-moderator of The Testing Psychologist Community on Facebook. And if you are familiar with him in the group, I’m sure you will not be surprised to know that he really comes to this episode with extensive knowledge of this topic area and lays things out in a really easy-to-follow manner. I think you’ll be able to take a lot away from this if you are thinking about getting into child custody evaluations, and if you’re already doing them, he gave us tons of resources that can probably advance your practice even further.
So, let me tell you a little bit about Chris. He’s a [00:01:00] licensed psychologist in both North Carolina and Hawaii. His practice focuses on three types of assessments: ADHD, learning disorders, and custody evaluations. He moved to Asheville from Hawaii where he completed his post-doc several years ago.
He was one of a small team of 3 professionals to establish clinics in rural areas of Hawaii. They had a federal grant to conduct multidisciplinary evaluations for family court. He is honored to serve as a co-moderator for The Testing Psychologist, president for his local psychological association, and regional representative for his state psychological association. He’s also proud to be on a few committees of the International Council of Psychologists.
Outside of work, Chris enjoys spending time with his family and two Australian shepherds. He didn’t put this in his bio, but I can tell you that he has chickens in his backyard, which is pretty cool. He also enjoys spending time on the water via surfing, [00:02:00] paddling, swimming, and outdoor sea stuff like hiking and attending live music. So I hope that you enjoy this episode with Chris.
Before we jump to the episode, I wanted to highlight again, the Advanced Practice Mastermind Group, which we’ll be starting here in 2 or 3 or maybe 4 weeks depending on everyone’s schedule. This is a group coaching experience for advanced practice psychologists, just doing testing, who maybe have had some goals for your practice but you haven’t been able to realize those goals and can’t quite find the traction that you’re looking for. So this is a group where you can connect with others who are looking to take their practices to the next level, can get support from them, get guidance from them, provide support and guidance, of course, and really just keep one another accountable to get your practices where you want to go.
So you can find out more [00:03:00] information about that at thetestingpsychologist.com/advanced, and you can schedule a pre-group called there for us to chat and see if it would be a good fit. If that sounds interesting, I would love to have you and hope to talk to you soon.
All right, on to my conversation with Dr. Chris Mulchay.
Hey, Chris, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Chris: Thanks, Jeremy. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, thanks for coming on. I’m glad to be talking with you here in this format. I think a lot of people probably know that you’re one of the co-moderators of the Facebook group. So we interact a lot in that capacity, but here we are talking about custody evaluations. Thanks for coming on. I appreciate it.
Dr. Chris: [00:04:00] You’re welcome. I think that the Facebook group is such a wonderful platform for our community. I think of our work as testing psychologists as often being in a silo of sorts. We’re alone and we don’t get too much interaction with our colleagues. And so the Facebook group really allows for us to interact with psychologists all over the country, in Canada, and all over the world, really. We have some international folks that are a part of our group, and it’s really fun.
I feel like the hardest thing as a moderator is that our first couple of rules are to be kind, and we have to sometimes remind people to be kind. But the best part is that we get to see a lot of the comments that come in and get to know people on that platform. And it’s just been a wonderful experience for me.
Dr. Sharp: Good. Yeah, that’s so true. I’m thankful for your time doing the moderating. I like the idea that we [00:05:00] see a lot and get a lot of exposure to folks around the world doing what we do.
So here we are. We’ve got child custody evaluations on the table today. I am really excited to talk about this. This is another area that I really don’t know a ton about. So it’ll be a genuinely curious conversation and I know that you do a lot of work in this area. I wonder if we might start just, as usual, I’d love for you to tell me why this work is important to you.
Dr. Chris: I think that families going through litigation, going through a custody dispute, experience so much stress and there is so much pressure to determine what’s really in the kid’s best interest. I feel as psychologists, we have a role there [00:06:00] and that we can be supportive in that process. And it’s been an interesting journey learning how to step into that role and how to do it and in an ethical and in a way that really meets best practices. It’s been quite a challenge. And I feel like it’s an important arena for us to be in. I feel like families really need our support during this process and that if we’re court-ordered, the courts really need our expertise. So we have a role to play, and it is both one of the most challenging and litigious roles that we can step into as a psychologist. [00:07:00] And so I think it’s very important to talk about.
Dr. Sharp: Absolutely. Yeah, there are so many layers to this, and I’m anxious to get into all of them. So, I have a lot of questions for you. I like the way you frame that just to start off as these families need help just like all other families, and we can play an important role in that process as long as we are doing so ethically and competently, right?
Dr. Chris: Yeah, that’s right.
Dr. Sharp: So, let’s do a little basics. Can you just define some terms? When we say child custody evaluations, what is that? And I’m curious, how does that relate to, like I’ve heard the term CFI- Child Family Investigation/Investigator and PRE- Parental Rights Evaluation.
Dr. Chris: That’s right. PRE is a Colorado term. It might be in some other jurisdictions. I’ve had a few cases in Colorado. For those listening, a PRE is a parental [00:08:00] responsibility evaluation. Texas uses another term. They use the term, social study. I’m not quite sure how they got social study or where that comes from. Other states may use that term as well, but the way to think about a child custody evaluation or a PRE or a Social Study is that it’s a forensic evaluation. It’s not a clinical evaluation, and we can talk about the differences there.
The purpose of each of these evaluations is to assess the psychological best interests of the child. And no matter where you are, that’s the focus. The interesting thing is that different jurisdictions may have defined what constitutes the psychological best interest of the child. My state of North Carolina does not define it. And so, I often ask judges to define [00:09:00] it in the court order or we have to then define it after the fact. But most states define what a psychologist is supposed to look at in regards to the best interest of the child.
Dr. Sharp: I got you. Just right off the bat, what are some of those things that psychologists look at when you talk about the best interest of the child?
Dr. Chris: We can dive into these in more depth as we go on. The psychologist is supposed to investigate the needs of the child, the strengths and weaknesses of the parent, and how those strengths and weaknesses correlate to the parent’s ability to meet the needs of the child. Sometimes we have children that have special needs or may be experiencing emotional distress during the divorce or custodial proceedings. And so really looking closely at what that [00:10:00] child needs. The term goodness of fit can come into play. That was a term defined by Thomas and Chess. And we look at the goodness of fit between a parent and the child. And in some of these situations, we have multiple children to think about and a parent’s ability to meet the needs of those children.
Dr. Sharp: I see. Would you assess multiple children from the same family?
Dr. Chris: Yes. We’ll talk a little bit about my background. In my post-doc, we would do separate evaluations for each child, which was interesting but traditionally in a child custody evaluation, one evaluation would assess both parents, all the children, and it can even include other caregivers [00:11:00] or other people who are responsible for the wellbeing of the child. So if you have a step-parent or a grandparent or someone who has a primary role in the family, it’s important to really understand their capacity to meet the child’s needs.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, of course. So let me dial it back a little bit and just ask, what are some common situations where you might do this evaluation? In my mind, I’m like, parents are getting divorced. You need a custody evaluation. I would imagine there are other scenarios though.
Dr. Chris: Yeah. I think that most parents are able to agree to terms of custody. And so they normally wouldn’t need a custodial evaluation? The times where it comes into play is, at least from my perspective, [00:12:00] when there is a court order or what we call the consent order for custodial evaluation. That happens when the attorneys cannot come to an agreement and each parent is arguing in court. The judge may order a custodial evaluation or the attorneys can both agree that a custodial evaluation is warranted and they can come up with what’s called a consent order where they both agree.
Custodial evaluations are very long and we’ll talk about how long they tend to last. So most families hope to come into agreement pretty quickly after a divorce. It’s only when those attempts to agree on parenting time and [00:13:00] schedules don’t go well and don’t go well for a good period of time that then the attorneys will get to the point of deciding that a custodial evaluation is necessary. I found that some attorneys will even decide that they would rather try their chances in trial and try to argue their points to a judge without the custodial evaluation. I think that happens often. And so sometimes custodial evaluation only happens after there have been multiple attempts at resolution.
Dr. Sharp: I see, gosh, it already makes me nervous how contentious this stuff can get. So let me ask you this. I’ve been involved on the periphery of cases where there’s a consideration of say [00:14:00] termination of parental rights. Does that ever come? Would this fall in this world as well where one parent is say abusing substances or there’s an abuse and neglect issue or is it really strictly just divorced parents can’t decide on custody?
Dr. Chris: Those factors do come into play. If a parent is behaving in a certain way that the judge may take away their parental rights, that can certainly be the consequence of this investigation. Child custody evaluation really looks at all of the parties. And so, there are situations in which we might be ordered to look at one parent. Child custody evaluation would look at both parents or all of the parties involved and really try to describe for the court how that parent’s behavior [00:15:00] is impacting the children. But it’s interesting. I think sometimes a CPS or a DSS agency will ask us to do that for one parent. And that’s really a different process than a child custody evaluation.
Dr. Sharp: Okay. I’m just sorting through the nuances here making sure we got that dialed in. Well, let’s, if you’re okay with it, start at the beginning.
Dr. Chris. Okay.
Dr. Sharp: I guess the beginning could be, how do you even get into this? What does the training involve? Can we start there?
Dr. Chris: Yeah, I think maybe I’ll start from my beginning and then get into what I recommend for psychologists at home. I think that there were many times in my career where I never would have thought that I would be doing [00:16:00] child custody evaluations. My background is a little… I’ll try to work through it quickly.
I started by studying and I got my MSP- that’s a Marriage and Family Therapy degree. And so, I was already interested in working with families. And then I went to get my Ph.D. During the internship, I got an interesting offer to do a post-doctorate in Hawaii. I had never visited Hawaii when I did the interview. I was fortunate to rent places in California during grad school that was on the beach and I was an avid surfer, not a very good surfer. I’m still not a very good surfer, but I loved it. And it was my coping strategy during grad school. So I was really excited to move to Hawaii to surf and I’m very glad that I did because I got this really cool opportunity in this post-doc.
The post-doc was at Kapiʻolani Women’s and Children’s Hospital in [00:17:00] Honolulu. They had a federal grant to do evaluations for child protective services. And in these evaluations, we would evaluate every single family member. So if there was an evaluation that one child was abused, we would evaluate each child in the family dynamic to see how they were doing. We’d evaluate the parents if they were available, auntie and uncle, grandma, a cousin, a neighbor- if that neighbor was the best parents in the dynamic, and then we would turn in all of these evaluations to the court, and it was really pretty cool.
The best part was that while the hospital had to do these evaluations in Honolulu, and most of them happened in Honolulu, they also were responsible for doing evaluations from the outer islands. I was stationed on the big island of Hawaii and I helped, under [00:18:00] supervision of course because I was a post-doc, I helped to run three rural clinics. So I was doing this in rural areas of Hawaii with really unique diverse populations and a lot of interesting family dynamics. It was a really cool way to be trained under a really great supervisor in how to evaluate many different dynamics that were impacting a family and get to see so many different individuals from one family.
We did over a hundred evaluations during that post-doc. It’s a really busy time. And then my wife and I wanted to have children and she wanted to be closer to her family. And so she decided that we should move to North Carolina. And so we moved to North Carolina and we’ve been here almost a decade, 8 or 9 [00:19:00] years. And I set up short doing ADHD and dyslexia evaluations because that was easier than doing court-ordered evaluations. And it didn’t take long for psychologists in town to know that I have this background in doing court-ordered evaluations. I think that a lot of us have the experience of attorneys or agencies calling us up and asking us to do court-ordered evaluations.
I think many people listening to this podcast have been in that position where maybe a client call and said, “Hey, I need a court-ordered evaluation” or maybe they’ve called and said, “Hey, I need a psychological evaluation.” And then after you’ve done the psychological evaluation, they tell you, “Oh, by the way, thank you. I needed this for court. Will you please testify for me? And so a lot of us have been in that situation.
The more I got to that situation, the more I started relying on consulting with my postdoc supervisor, who is still in [00:20:00] Hawaii but was very supportive of me. She began inviting me to workshops and conferences, namely the American Academy of Forensic Psychology Workshop. And those were just spectacular. I would meet her at these workshops and learn a tremendous amount. At those workshops, the presenters would offer consultation and support, and mentor. And so I quickly signed up to consult with these experts in the field. So I had my postdoc supervisor who I thought was an expert, and I still do think she’s an expert, and these other experts in the field, really supporting me in learning how to do these evaluations.
The other thing that happened was that the more these I did, the more scared I became [00:21:00] of how complex and litigious they are. And then that motivated me to do more workshops and more training, and to get more consultation. And I found that I really had a vested interest in continuing to do this work. As I spent more time training and learning how to do it, it became a sunken cost bias, if you will.
Dr. Sharp: Right. Well, fear can be a powerful motivator as well especially if you’re looking like an idiot on the stand.
Dr. Chris: That’s right.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I got you. So you kind of, it sounds like fell into it a little bit or it fell into you maybe as a way to put it, but you said that there is a more traditional path, is that right? Or is it a different path, at least that folks might go down?
Dr. Chris: I think for folks who don’t have that unique postdoc experience, the path really [00:22:00] is to peek into the workshops and conferences and to find a consultant or a mentor to work with. I can mention these multiple times, but I think the American Academy of Forensic Psychology offers incredible workshops. And now, in this time of the pandemic, you don’t have to travel to them. Next month you will see them. We’ll talk about the MMPI-III and others will talk about providing these evaluations via remote administration.
I am going to be putting on a presentation in two months doing just that for AFC, which is another group. They are doing more workshops online. They provide excellent resources [00:23:00] in learning how to do these evaluations. They’re an interesting organization because they’re composed of both attorneys and psychologists or mental health providers who are doing these types of evaluations. And then I don’t know if you’re familiar with a group called Concept CE that’s doing recorded webinars and recorded workshops. They have a lot of forensic workshops available. So you can log on, pay for the workshop and then watch them from your own house or your office.
I do a lot of that. I watch a lot of workshops while I’m doing the dishes or cleaning up after the kids. That’s pretty common for me to work through some of those workshops then.
My experience is pretty much anybody who’s putting on those [00:24:00] presentations is open to being a mentor or to consulting, and I’ve had great success emailing those folks and getting responses and getting support. Sometimes it’s just a recommendation to read a certain book or some articles, sometimes it’s answering specific questions. And then the most time-intensive form of consultation is there have been very difficult cases in which I’ve asked a colleague to review an entire draft of my report and to give me feedback that takes a lot of time. It’s absolutely one of the best learning experiences to hear how somebody else would have approached the situation or a dynamic or to hear the opinions that they would have gathered from that data.
Dr. Sharp: I love that. I’m a big proponent of consultation and supervision post [00:25:00] licensure and I like to hear this. You anticipated my question which is, how do we find these folks? It sounds like most folks are pretty open to it.
Dr. Chris: I think they are. And I think that either in your group, The Testing Psychologist, I think there are a number of folks there who are open to just supporting others. In the child custody world, there’s another listserv here called the Best-Interests Listserv, and many of the folks that provide these workshops and provide consultation are part of that listserve.
I just want to reiterate it. I really have had an incredible experience and incredible responses from the folks that put on these workshops. They’ve been very supportive. And I think they understand the steep learning curve. So, they’ve been very kind and gentle at the [00:26:00] early stages and then very critical at later stages when I’ve been more open to those critical conversations.
Dr.Sharp: That sounds good. That’s a nice way to do it, be kind first and then hit the hammer.
Dr. Chris: That’s right. Yeah.
Dr.Sharp: And just to make it explicit, I’m guessing you are paying for these consultation services.
Dr. Chris: Yes. And sometimes I’m paying a lot. There are cases in which they’re so complex and I really value the input and feedback of a colleague that I’m happy to pay them for the time to review the report, talk on the phone, sometimes review the information that I’m supposed to be reviewing. I’ve had two cases where [00:27:00] the family has had multiple child custody evaluations, which is unique that doesn’t always happen, but we can talk about why that might happen. And reading someone else’s child custody evaluation, I had my opinion, and then I wanted opinions from another colleague to balance my opinions and to hear another perspective before moving through the process. So sometimes it’s having somebody review my work. Sometimes it’s having somebody review someone else’s work and give me a different perspective.
Dr.Sharp: I see. That makes sense. Well, let’s talk about the actual process. So we got the training covered briefly at least. And, of course, only do what you’re trained to do or getting supervision.
Dr. Chris: That’s right.
Dr.Sharp: So now, I mean, once you’re waiting into this, maybe we do start at the beginning of the evaluation process. [00:28:00] So where are these referrals coming from first of all?
Dr. Chris: They’re coming from the court. Sometimes they’re coming from attorneys who’ve agreed. I think it’s very rare and probably not helpful to talk about coming from other places. It really should be a court-ordered or a consent-ordered evaluation. The interesting thing for folks listening is to know that if you get a court order that orders you to do a child custody evaluation, there are times where you can go back to the judge and ask that the court order include certain policies that you may have or procedures that you would like to be followed.
In their classic book in the field, The Art and Science of Child Custody, Jonathan Gould and David Martindale have what’s called a statement of understanding. It’s a very long document that goes through their policies and procedures, [00:29:00] and they have each parent sign it before they start. And for everybody at home listening, you can buy that book on Amazon and you can get that statement of understanding in the book, and then you can use that and you can tweak it for your own jurisdiction. And so before you get started, you can ask that the court order refers to your statement, refer to your policies, refer to your procedures.
And then you want to be really clear. There are a few documents that are really helpful and really important to review before you start. And the first one that I think is the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. That’s a document put out by APA. APA put up another one called the Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluation. I think that group AAFC that I’ve mentioned, they put out some model [00:30:00] standards for practice. And then, there is another standard put out by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. And if you take those four documents of ethics and standards, you have a review good basis for what you should be doing and what you should not be doing.
And then you can start your process. You need the court or consent order. You need very clear policies and procedures which I use. The ones suggested by David Martindale and Jonathan Gould. And then the other thing that you need, Jeremy, is you need a really foundational understanding of your jurisdiction and specific case law or specific requirements. Each jurisdiction may have like I said, different standards [00:31:00] for what should be included in looking at the best interest of the child. Our forensics guidelines tell us that we need to have some training in some understanding of the law. We don’t need to understand it quite as well as lawyers do, but we need to be reasonably familiar with it and understand how that informs our process.
Dr.Sharp: Where would one find those examples? How do you get familiar with case law?
Dr. Chris: It’s difficult. There are bench books that are put out that can be helpful. Most of the psychologists don’t have access to that unless we have an attorney who’s sharing that or providing us with that. The best way to do it is really through mentors, through folks in our community who’ve been working in the field. You can develop close [00:32:00] relationships with attorneys.
Here in Asheville, North Carolina along with my little local psychology association, we put on an event every year that we call Sharks and Shrinks. And we have a governor’s mansion up here in Nashville and we rent that out. The sharks are the attorneys in the shrinks are the psychologists. And we talk about updates and changes and ways that we can work closely together. And so we’re not talking about any specific cases, but we’re talking about just the process and working together collaboratively and that’s been really helpful.
Dr.Sharp: That sounds great. Now, maybe that relates to my question from a little bit back, which is, how do you connect with [00:33:00] attorneys or courts to get these referrals in the first place? I mean, from a business standpoint, how are you building these referral sources?
Dr. Chris: I actually believe in it, and we can maybe link to it if I can find it. I think David Martindale has written an article or a chapter about that. Some of the best ways to do it are to write a letter that says, “Dear Mr./Mrs. Attorney, I want you to know that I’m here in town, that I’ve done this training, that this is my background, and that I’m available for these types of evaluations should you need my services?” And so you’re not having a conversation about specific cases, but you’re just letting those attorneys know that you’ve been working in the field or that you have this training.
Dr.Sharp: Sounds very straightforward.
Dr. Chris: [00:34:00] The other thing that I’ve found is that a lot of times therapists will be working with a family that will then mention that they need them to testify or they need a child custody evaluation, will they do it? And so a lot of times therapists can be a good referral source. Our colleagues often hear of the problems long before a child custody evaluation is ordered.
Dr.Sharp: I can see that. So some of those general networking strategies and relationship building with therapists goes a long way too.
Dr. Chris: It does. Yes.
Dr.Sharp: Fantastic. So you’ve got the referral, and you have your guidelines which I love, we’re going to put all those resources in the show notes so folks will be able to find as much as publicly available. What’s the process look like from there? And maybe I’ll throw a little [00:35:00] intermediary question. Are there ever times when you can ignore that court order or say, I can’t do this or this is not…?
Dr. Chris: Yes, I think you absolutely can. You can decline it. You don’t need to take it. You can tell the judge that you are not taking cases that you don’t have the time for, or you can simply say that you don’t feel competent to take on this case. And I think that’s really important too, and we’ll talk about this hopefully if we have time, but it’s really important to acknowledge our limitations.
One of the things that we do in forensic evaluations that we don’t always do in clinical evaluations is acknowledging our limitations. And the more time we spent acknowledging our limitations, the better because as soon as we’re in court and we’re being cross-examined, the cross-examination attorney is going to ask us [00:36:00] to acknowledge our limitations in a variety of ways. And if we can point to where we did that in the document, it goes a lot better. We’re much more successful.
Dr.Sharp: Yeah, I can see that. Let’s bookmark that and hopefully talk about it in the context of the report that you’re writing. So, how does this process start then? You get your referral and then what happens?
Dr. Chris: Like most things in child custody evaluations, this is a little nebulous. My colleague, Sean, likes to call these nebulous. And I think that’s the right word for it. There isn’t a paint-by-numbers that this is how you should do a child custody evaluation. And that can cause psychologists a lot of frustration. It caused me a lot of anxiety when I was getting into this. I thought, okay, well, give me the paint by numbers. I’m good at following instructions. And I’ll just do what David Martindale or one of these other [00:37:00] experts tells me to do. And it’s not quite that clear. It’s based on your jurisdiction, based on the guidance of your mentors, of your workshop presenters, but I’ll tell you what I’ve done and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.
So the first thing I do to start is I have a joint meeting with both parents. I do this so that the process starts in a balanced manner. One of the things that we’re really worried about in forensic work, especially child custody evaluation is the concern that we’re biased or that we got biased data. And if we met with mom for the first three interviews, maybe she got a lot of opportunities to say negative things about dad. And then if we met with dad for the last three [00:38:00] interviews, well, then maybe dad got a lot of opportunities to say something negative about mom. And if we think about bias, that would mean mom had a primacy effect that she got to provide us with information first and then dad got a recency effect. He got to have the last word and say the last thing about mom.
So if we start with meeting with both of them at the same time, then we are starting a new balance process. And I actually tell parents that this is why our meeting with both of you at the same time. Now, not everybody does that. I found that it’s been helpful over the years. And so, I continue to do it.
During that first meeting, we go through just how unique a child custody evaluation is. We talk about the policies and procedures. We reference those documents that I was talking about. And then we plan for [00:39:00] what’s going to happen next.
Next, I’ll have alternating interviews with both parents. I normally book those for kind of like how you and I would book an evaluation with a child or an adult. I book them for a whole morning or whole afternoon. I spend a lot of time interviewing them, trying to learn about their role as a parent, their opinions. Oftentimes, they want to tell me all about the problems of the other parent. That can be important. I’m more focused on their parenting strategies and on their parenting skills in children.
Dr.Sharp: Can I interrupt you for a second?
Dr. Chris: Yeah.
Dr.Sharp: Just to go back. So in that first interview with both parents, are you doing any clinical information gathering, or is it really just like laying out the process?
Dr. Chris: I’m glad you asked. I am. [00:40:00] I normally ask for their position statements. I normally ask for their concerns, and then I ask for them to each provide me with a history of the dispute or the concerns. And it’s interesting. Sometimes that can be a little bit heated. Sometimes one parent will not really talk too much about it and just say, “Well, I’ll tell you later” because they’re a little bit passive or they just don’t want to create conflict because the other party is in the room. So I am doing that. I apologize I didn’t talk about that.
Dr.Sharp: Yeah, I just wanted to clarify. How do you handle it when it gets heated in those rooms? Do you have any fallback strategies to diffuse?
Dr. Chris: Actually, this is interesting. So when you were in a forensic role, we’re really [00:41:00] wanting to observe and learn what each parent is bringing to the dynamics. We’re not in a clinical role where we’re intervening, and that’s really important. So I’m going to pick a side step. So at no time during the child custody evaluation are we providing interventions or mediations? We’re in a forensic role and in a forensic role, the court is our client. The parties aren’t our clients, the mom’s not the client, dad’s not the client, the court is the client.
And so, in that moment when it gets heated, we have to have that big picture understanding that we’re there to observe and we’re there to gather data for the court and for this process. Now, if it gets so deep that there’s a safety concern, then yeah, I’ll [00:42:00] have to intervene. Normally, that’s not the case because most folks can understand that they are in front of a court-ordered evaluator who’s taking notes and that information will go back to the judge.
Dr.Sharp: Yeah, that makes sense.
Dr. Chris: Yeah. So people tend to be on their best behavior. However, bringing up those sensitive topics and their concerns, it’s certainly a challenging situation for anyone. And that’s something that we as evaluators really need to be mindful of that the process of the child custody evaluation could be quite stressful for the people involved. So one of the things that we can do to help with that stress is to be very clear about our policy. Be very clear about our procedures. Repeat what we’re doing multiple times, that [00:43:00] that statement of understanding that Jon Gould and David Martindale included in their book helps with that process. And any time that any of us are experiencing stress, it’s really helpful to have structure and guidance. And so I feel like my part of my role is to provide that. And so I try to have a very structured process for the evaluation.
Dr.Sharp: That’s great.
Dr. Chris: One other part of that structure is that I give people written questionnaires, questionnaires that ask them about their history, ask them about the parental dispute, ask them about their children. And it’s a very efficient way to gather a lot of data. Then I review those written answers before the interviews. It allows me to move more quickly through the interviews and to ask deeper [00:44:00] questions about some of the dynamics than trying to gather the information during the interview because there’s often just a tremendous amount of information to gather.
Dr.Sharp: I can imagine. Yeah. So you said after that initial joint parent interview, then you schedule separate meetings with each parent. Is that right?
Dr. Chris: Yeah. And we’ll talk about how much time is spent during those meetings in a moment. I’ll try to go faster through pieces of my process. So, I’ll schedule interviews with the parents. Most of that is true interviews. I will give them some psychology tests during that time. We can talk about which ones we use and which ones we may not use, then I will schedule a time to observe the parents with each child. And traditionally that was done at their house. A little different now during the [00:45:00] pandemic- we can talk about modifications that, I’ll interview each child.
And at least once there have been some situations where I can think of one really unique teenager where I think I interviewed 4 or 5 times, and each interview was a whole different level of understanding him. So we want to interview at least each child, at least once, but maybe more if there’s more that we need to gather. A big part of this process is reviewing records. And we could talk about what records we might review. Then we interview collateral contacts and we can talk about what collateral contacts we would interview.
And then after all of that’s done, I might interview the parents again, ask some deeper questions about what I’ve learned and get their responses.
Then I put together a [00:46:00] draft of the report. Not everybody does this, but my process is then I meet with the litigants- the parents, and I ask them to review a draft of my report. I was telling you before that in Hawaii, we did all of those reports. Well, in that situation we just turned them into the court that we never told the person about the results.
I want to share one quick story. In one of the cases, this is a gentleman who had been arrested over a hundred times and he wanted to see his kid. And I said, “I think you need to psychological evaluation first.” And so he came to see me. He was very kind. I completed the evaluation, didn’t tell him the results because that wasn’t part of it, submitted it to the court.
A few weeks later, I was going out to my favorite surf spot-Hoohiki and I was paddling out to Pohoiki and there was a group of surfers right [00:47:00] where the waves were breaking. And I was the only Howley or the only white guy out there. So I was giving them a lot of space. I was pretty far apart, but the whole beach is covered with spectators like kids playing and everything. And so I paddle out and I hear, “Hey doc.” I keep paddling, and I’m trying to ignore it. I hear, “Hey doc, Hey doc,” it continues until I feel like everybody on the entire beach is looking at me. I look up, and here’s this gentleman that I had evaluated. He says, “Hey doc, am I crazy or what?”
Dr.Sharp: Oh, my gosh.
Dr. Chris: In the middle of the entire community, he’s asking for that feedback session that I didn’t give him. So now my policy is that I give everybody a feedback session for everybody that I can. I try to let people review a draft of the report, ask me questions, ask me why [00:48:00] wrote something before it gets submitted to the court, and then I submit the report to the court.
Dr.Sharp: Well, we have to know, how did you answer at that moment?
Dr. Chris: I went and got some ways, Jeremy. I don’t think I gave him a clinical answer. I think I just, yeah…
Dr.Sharp: I don’t blame you. That reminds me of the time we were out. We live in a relatively smallish town and there’s a restaurant here that’s known for their margaritas- Mexican food and that sort of thing. I was out to dinner with my wife and we’re walking out and I here this individual shouting, “Oh my God, I’m seeing my psychologist in public.” And the whole thing, I think it’s like in the vestibule of the restaurant, everybody turns and it’s like oh my gosh. Anyway, it happens.
So [00:49:00] there’s a lot there. I love that summary of the process. I’ll ask a question just because of the recency effect here. With the report, are you going over that with both parents? You said litigant and I couldn’t tell if it was both.
Dr. Chris: I apologize. Yeah. I meant with both parents. So sometimes we use those terms interchangeably. Sometimes they’re referred to as clients, parents, litigants. So I’m going over it with both parents. There are times where that’s not advisable for a certain reason and we might submit the report to the court in a document where it’s not advisable. But I really do try when possible to allow clients to review a draft and to ask me questions.
Dr.Sharp: Okay. Well, if I could let me go back through and pick through some of those steps. I’d love to get some more details. The first one that came up was just, are you using any [00:50:00] structured interview through this process or are these proprietary questions that you’ve put together or what?
Dr. Chris: Yeah, so we want to use structured interviews or semi-structured interviews whenever we can. The written questionnaires to the parents are a semi-structured process. With interviewing the children, there are some structured interviews. We want to be really clear that we’re using forensic interview strategies. Michael Lamb has written a lot about that and he offers a lot of good advice on how to interview children. And I can go over some of that if we have time or some of the tips or techniques that I use when I’m interviewing children. And so we want to be as forensically minded as possible which leads to structured or semi-structured processes that can’t always happen but we definitely want to make an [00:51:00] effort in that direction.
Dr.Sharp: Yeah. Just quickly, could you touch on a few tips for talking with kids? I think many will be interested in that.
Dr. Chris: I mentioned them two times, but David Martindale talks about the bookends. Bookends are really important meaning what did the kids do before the interview and what’s the kid going to do after the interview? It can be really important to know before the interview who talked to the kid and what way did they encourage or say. I had a situation recently where a child was told quite a bit about what they should say during the interview which could alter the information that we receive.
Dr.Sharp: Of course. So you’re asking the child explicitly about that?
Dr. Chris: Yes.
Dr. Chris: Yeah. Asking, Hey, so on your way here, what were you up to? Tell me about the drive here? Tell me about what you heard as you were driving? [00:52:00] Those can be pretty good questions. You want to know what has the child been told about what you’re doing there that day? Some children will say, oh, I know that you’re talking to the judge or you’re trying to help mommy and daddy figure out whose house I live in. Other children won’t know that.
The basic rules that I go over with kids are that I’m rather clueless that they’re the expert in their family and that I need to learn from them. I tell them, and I’m very clear on this that there’s no confidentiality. I give examples that I might have to share the information and it’s very important because a lot of times in these situations, kids will be told by a therapist or by their parents that the information they tell us is confidential, which can be an unpleasant surprise when it’s not, then we do practice.
We practice telling the truth. We [00:53:00] practice by telling me if I’m mistaken about something. And I often say silly things to practice that. I ask them to tell me if they don’t understand something and I’ll give some examples, then I’ll ask them to give some examples of stuff I don’t understand. And so we practice correcting one another. The procedures are open-ended inquiries. Tell me about this? Avoiding yes and no questions. Avoiding multiple-choice questions is really leading the child.
The other thing to think about is like, really be mindful of syntax or pronouns. We evaluate kids’ working memory all the time and their memory and stuff. If you just start saying he and she, the kid may not remember who he was or she was. Really using the names of their siblings or their parents to be clear about who you’re referring to. And then at [00:54:00] the end of the interview, thanking the child and being very clear that you appreciate the time the child spent with you. So those are my general rules.
Dr.Sharp: Nice. And how about with the parents? I mean, you said sometimes you are administering actual measures not just interviewing. What measures do you like to use with parents and what are you assessing as well?
Dr. Chris: Good. That’s a great question. So with measures, I’m primarily using the MMPI-2-RF and the PAI. Those are the two primary measures that I use. And with those tests, I’m developing a hypothesis. I’m looking at the results and then asking them follow-up questions. It’s really important in this process to look at how they respond to those measures and then do a critical analysis of the items.
So if they endorsed an item or endorsed a number [00:55:00] of items that raised criteria in one way or another, it’s really important to ask follow-up questions to understand why they endorse that. The best information I get is from those follow-up questions. Sometimes I’ll get 20 minutes of a narrative from one question and it can be really illuminating and helpful. So I’m not as worried about actual clinical scales. I’m more worried about using measures to form hypotheses and then ask the parents about their responses within the context of the custody situation
Dr.Sharp: Do you find a situation where the results are just unremarkable? I mean, like everything’s within the normal range?
Dr. Chris: That’s right. That happens quite a [00:56:00] bit. And in fact, when we look at the norms, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say norms. Norms might be confused or misunderstood. We’re looking at comparison groups. So for like the MMPI-2-RF, when you’re scoring it on Q-global, you can choose a child custody litigant comparison group. Those aren’t norms that are just comparing those scores to a comparison group. And most of those are unremarkable. Most of those are T scores in the 40s and 50s. And I think the entire population is right about there. That happens quite a bit. And then we just document that on the MMPI, so-and-so answered in this fashion and these are their results.
Dr.Sharp: Got you. [00:57:00] That makes sense. How about the report itself? What does that look like?
Dr. Chris: There are a lot of different structures of these reports. People write them in different ways. I find that there are a number of good books in the field that recommend certain structures. The length is quite unique for what we do. It’s not uncommon to see child custody evaluations be 30 or 40 pages. I’ve reviewed evaluations that were 100 or more pages. We’re talking about the size of a dissertation.
And sometimes the time spent writing that evaluation is equivalent to the time spent getting it but sometimes these evaluations can take anywhere from three months to over a [00:58:00] year to conduct. So they’re very lengthy evaluations. And at some point, I want to talk to you a little bit about how much time we spend in each of these areas because I think that’s important as well.
Dr.Sharp: Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s just dive into that now.
Dr. Chris: Okay. Well, there’s some survey data that gives us some information that I feel is important for those listening at home. One of the reasons why evaluations have gotten longer and longer is because psychologists are being asked to review more information, more data, and psychologists are worried about board complaints or cross-examinations in court. So over time, the amount of [00:59:00] different procedures and the amount of time spent doing those different procedures has increased quite a bit.
I’m going to go through this really quick or try to go through it really quick. So this is survey data from two years ago. Matthew and Acronyms, 2018 got this survey data and they found that most psychologists spent about four hours observing the parent and the children, 8.36 hours reviewing materials, 7 hours doing psychological testing, 18 hours writing the report, 10 hours interviewing the parents, 4 hours interviewing the children, 2.75 hours interviewing significant others like therapists or guardians, 4 hours interviewing collateral [01:00:00] contacts, 1.5 hours consulting with attorneys and 4.7 hours testifying in court. So, a total of 65 hours per evaluation which is like nothing else in our field.
Dr.Sharp: Yeah, that’s a gargantuan undertaking.
Dr. Chris: It is.
Dr.Sharp: I have two questions from that- two questions with a sub-question. How do you bill for that and who pays for it and how do you make sure you get paid for all that time? And how do you even structure your schedule to have this as part of your practice?
Dr. Chris: Yeah, those are really good practical questions. So those were averages of time that psychologists said they spent on these [01:01:00] cases. I believe the PREs in Colorado and in other jurisdictions have limitations for how much time is spent.
I know of some practices, one, particularly in Florida, where they say, here’s a flat fee, we’re going to spend this amount of time on your custody evaluation. If we spend more, you will be charged more but this is a flat fee. Their policies are interesting. They say we were review I think 200 pages of documents, but if you need us to review more it costs more.
The interesting thing is that a lot of these evaluations and attorneys will request that you review hundreds of pages of text messages or Facebook posts or different information. I’ve reviewed two evaluations in which they had done a [01:02:00] forensic evaluation of a Mac book or a PC or an Android phone or an iPhone with thousands of pages. “These are all the posts. These are all the journal entries. These are all the comments that someone put into their computer. Please review them.” That’s going to take weeks.
And so what do you do about that? The first thing is in your policies that you ask people to sign before they even start, you’re very clear about how much you charge per hour or for the process, whatever that looks like for you. I include this survey data and these averages to tell families, Hey, this is the national average, this is what you’re looking at. I feel like that’s very informative to families to know how I might spend my time. I inform them that if [01:03:00] they are going and asked me to review text messages and Facebook messages, that the more they organize that the less time I’m going to spend. But if they give me binders and binders of material, it’s going to be costly.
I ask for a certain amount upfront to begin. It’s an amount that I know will be exceeded. And I’m very clear about that. I think many psychologists will say, we start with a retainer, and then you need to carry a $1000 balance on your account to handle future expenses.
Certainly, in some jurisdictions like New York or Los Angeles, those dollar amounts go up quite a bit because psychologists are charging more per hour. And so we want to be very [01:04:00] clear in the documentation that we have clients signed before we get started on how they will be billed when we expect payment. And I think across the board, it’s very important that we ask for payment to be made before we turn in the report to the court. And we’re not turning in a report to the court and then chasing people down for payments afterward. That process just doesn’t work very well.
Interestingly for your listeners at home, one of the main mistakes that young child custody evaluators make is not charging enough and feeling like they’ve charged X number of dollars and now they have to spend all of this time writing the report. And they’re frustrated that it’s taking them more time but they can’t charge the family more. And that’s a bias. That’s frustrating. [01:05:00] That’s something that could impact their thought process while they write that report. And it’s very important that they get consultation and talk to someone about how to work through that process.
It’s complicated because as you just heard 65 hours on average on an evaluation, when you’re getting started in this, it’s very difficult to structure your time efficiently and to communicate that well with the family. One of your questions was how do you do this in your Workday? And I think that it goes back to one of the lessons that you teach, which is you really need a block of time. And for those listening at home, Jeremy’s got two podcasts on that. And it’s super important to think about really blocking time.[01:06:00] Some of the workshop presenters, some of the experts in the field will say to an attorney or attorneys, “Hey, I’m going to block these days to review your 3000 pages of Facebook posts. And it’s going to cost you X amount of money.” And to be very clear that they’re going to block that time and that they anticipated it’ll take that much time. I got to mention, I find it really hard to estimate how much or how quickly I can read Facebook posts. I try to be clear with attorneys about that.
Dr. Sharp: That’s fair.
Dr. Chris: This is where I think that we really need to block time and we really need to have those conversations proactively because a lot of time and effort goes into this.
Now there are times where an attorney will ask [01:07:00] or attorneys will ask you to review the information that the parents can’t pay you to review. And I think that’s an appropriate time to settle in it and say, okay, I’m sorry, parents can’t pay me for this time, but then we would write a note in the report saying so-and-so requested to review this information but couldn’t pay for that.
Dr.Sharp: I see. Well, and I just want to highlight that just in case it’s not absolutely clear that the parents are the ones paying for these evaluations. It’s not somehow being funded by the court or something. I mean, the parents pay for those, right?
Dr. Chris: That’s right. And often the court order will indicate whether the parents are sharing that cost or whether one parent is paying it. I’ve had a couple of really complicated orders where parents pay for percentages and such. That’s fine. I mean, we deal with that. [01:08:00]
Dr.Sharp: Yeah, my gosh, I feel like we could talk for hours about this subject. Our time has absolutely flown by and I feel like I have 50,000 more questions. So I don’t know maybe there’s a part two somewhere in there, but just for now, what else is important for people to know just in terms of basics and getting acquainted with this process before we wrap up?
Dr. Chris: One of the things that I didn’t know that was important to know is that some of… Well, I think one of the things that I think about a lot now that I didn’t think about a lot when I got started was that it is very important to have organizational [01:09:00] skills and procedures because there’s a tremendous amount of information that we’re being asked to look at and asked to evaluate and specialty guideline, I think it’s 10.06 I want to say for forensic psychology, specialty guideline 10.06 says that we recognize that we’re documenting the data in consideration that it’s going to be reviewed by attorneys or by other psychologists in the future.
We really want to put our file together and write our report in a way that takes someone through our thought process, hear all the data points that we look at, and I’m just going to add this, that during custodial evaluations, we’re looking at [01:10:00] lots of different alternative hypotheses and we’re gathering data during our interviews with the parents. We’re gathering data during our interviews with the kids, with collateral contacts, and other therapists, and we’re taking all of those data points in trying to present that information for the court to help the judge make a determination about what’s in the best interest of the child.
It’s very important that we do that methodically and that we have a method that another psychologist or another attorney can follow. And if they can follow our method, we’ve done a good job. They might disagree with our conclusions. We want to have a method that is clear and concise and can be followed by others, [01:11:00] and I believe that is something that we learn through consultation, through working with mentors, and through going to lots of workshops and training.
Dr. Sharp: Well, if there’s any theme from all of this, it sounds like just getting the right training and consultation is so important. And it’s going to be a huge asset throughout this process.
Dr. Chris: That’s right. And it goes back to our ethics that when we’re at a place where we’re beyond our scope, that we seek out that support and we seek out that training. And I think this is a great example of a very complex role that we can have as psychologists in which we need to seek out support.
Dr. Sharp: Certainly. Well, that made me a nice note to end on. If people want to reach out to you, one, are [01:12:00] you open to that? And if so, what’s the best way to do that?
Dr. Chris: The best way to do it is through email. Certainly, folks can find me in your group. I’m on there pretty often. Through email is fine. And yeah, I’m absolutely open to talking, sharing information about the mentors that have really helped me inform my knowledge base. And then I provide support to psychologists all across the country. And that’s really fun. I really like working with psychologists on these complicated cases. And so, it’s been fun giving back and these are complicated cases and it often takes a couple of folks working together to understand them best.
Dr. Sharp: Well said. I’ll just say, thanks one more time. This was jam-packed with [01:13:00] good information so really appreciate it. It was great to talk to you here, Chris.
Dr. Chris: Thanks, Jeremy. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Sharp: Thanks for tuning in to this episode with Dr. Chris Mulchay. Like I said in the beginning, I hope you agree with me. I really walked away with some very concrete steps to take in terms of specializing in this area. I don’t think I’m going to do that, but if I were to do that, I would know exactly how and just have a good working knowledge of what this evaluation process looks like, and some of the hurdles that might come up and things that are challenging. But like I told Chris, I think after we wrapped up recording, I think we could talk about this topic for many more episodes but this is meant to be an overview for anyone interested in getting into this area. And hopefully, you’ll walk away with this with some [01:14:00] good ideas of how to do that.
And again, like I mentioned in the beginning, if you are an advanced practice owner and you really want to level up your practice and connect with others and be held accountable for some of those goals and dreams that you have that maybe you haven’t quite been able to put into place yet on your own, I would invite you to check out the Advanced Practice Mastermind Group. You can join 5 or 6 other psychologists who are doing testing to keep each other accountable, push each other, check in with one another, support one another, and form a little community over the next 5 or 6 months to take all of your practice as to the place that you want them to be. So you can get more information at thetestingpsychologists.com/advanced, and hope to talk to you about jumping into the group.
Okay, y’all, that’s all for now. I will holler at you again, as we say in [01:15:00] the south, I’ll holler at you again on Thursday with another business episode. Until then, take care.
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