Monday, 5 October 2009

Do family report writers/custody evaluators ignore science?

When I attended the Queensland Family Law Residential recently, basically a bunch of family lawyers, social workers and the like getting together at a conference, one of the most challenging presentations was by Stephen Ralph, a psychologist from Darwin. His presentation, "Family Violence and Children: Considering the Best Interests of Children" challenged the accepted view that family report writers, or custody evaluators as they are known in the US, get it right.

These experts are engaged to make recommendations to the court about what is in the best interests of children.

Mr Ralph, citing research, noted the following:
  • assessments in family reports are mostly reliant on interviews and observations
  • are based on the untested information supplied by the parties
  • seldom include reliable collaborative data
  • are conducted in a narrow window of time, ie a snapshot
  • are often reliant on logic and reason v. expert knowledge
  • in the making of recommendations, the report writers may be ethically and empirically unsound, particularly when the report writers do not acknowledge the limitations in their knowledge and methods

Mr Ralph cited research by well-known researchers Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston who stated in 2005:

Our own observations and reviews of evaluations over several decades lead us
to the same conclusion- that custody evaluators are more likely to make inferences and recommendations from unsubstantiated theory, personal values and experiences, and cultural and personal biases.

This view is reflected in a recent article in Newsweek "Why psychologists reject science", in which the author, Sharon Begley states:

When confronted with evidence that treatments they offer are not supported by
science, clinicians argue that they know better than some study what works. In
surveys, they admit they value personal experience over research evidence...

which, if accurate for family report writers here, is frightening stuff for those who have an "expert" write a report about their family, which may quite profound implications for their family, but who decides to ignore the research in favour of their own biases and opinions.


Anonymous said...

I found this article very useful as a Aboriginal father seeking custody of my jarthums in the Family Court there are no Aboriginal counsellors or report writers

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this article. Apart from the lack of time spent with professionals they like judges and solicitors all come in with their own values, morals, life experience and opinions. There is no exact science to psychology and then for these reports to weigh so heavily in the courts it is really something that needs to be looked at

anonymous said...

I agree. My recent family report had accounts of my behaviour that came from the other party to which I had no chance to respond. It also contained information that I had never said.
These reports are in the best interest of the bank balance.

anonymous said...

I agree with this article. There are no checks in regards to what the report writer says. There was information on mine that I had never spoken about and false accounts of what my views were. Things we spoke about were not in the report and the fact that you felt as though you were being interrogated and that the report writer had already formed an opinion based on the other parties information. Conversations should at least be recorded or a third party present. 30 minutes tells you nothing about a person. It does however make a healthy bank balance at of $1600 for the 30 minutes.