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Roundtable Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Developing Empirically-Validated Assessment Procedures for Child Custody Evaluators. Marvin W. Acklin, PhD, ABAP, ABPP Honolulu, Hawaii .

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Marvin w acklin phd abap abpp honolulu hawaii l.jpg

Roundtable Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Developing Empirically-Validated Assessment Procedures for Child Custody Evaluators

Marvin W. Acklin, PhD, ABAP, ABPP

Honolulu, Hawaii


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Child custody evaluations (CCE) have been criticized because of dependency on the vague and complex BICS (Emery, Otto, & O’Donohue, 2005; Krauss & Sales, 2000). These authorities feel that psychologists have little to offer in Family Court due to the undeveloped state of child custody behavioral science and the lack of empirically-validated tools.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Tippins and Wittmann (2005) caution against the continued use of custody evaluations that may be lacking in professional knowledge base and are conducted despite a lack of consensus on a uniform methodological approach.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • When practice loses its root in science CCE opinions and recommendations tend toward decisions that are more socio-moral and personal than clinical (Tippins & Wittmann, 2005).


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • O’Donohue and Bradley (1999) wonder if given the current state of science in this field, it is even reasonable to draw any empirically based conclusions with some semblance of scientific certainty.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • In contrast to other psycho-legal constructs (competency to stand trial, NGRI, etc.), the BICS poses significant challenges: it is complex and multidimensional.

  • Standard clinical instruments (MMPI-2, Rorschach, etc.) have been criticized as inadequate for CE work because of their non-relevance to the ultimate issue.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Although the behavioral science foundation of the BICS is weak and poses complex challenges to the best practice assessment psychologist wishing to make research-based recommendations, it is the prevailing legal standard for child custody decision-making in all US jurisdictions.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • This roundtable presents a conceptual model of the CE process, based on basic psychological research that lends itself to the use of empirically-validated instrumentation.

  • It represents efforts to develop empirically validated procedures and findings in CE investigations.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Objectives

  • Developing a conceptual framework that is amenable to empirical validation and organizing the CE process.

  • Make preliminary proposals for the use of easily accessible and user friendly, empirically-validated assessment tools that are consistent with the AFCC Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluations.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Jameson, B.J., Ehrenberg, M.F., and Hunter, M.A. (1997). Psychologists’ Rating of the Best Interest of the Child Custody and Access Criterion: A Family Systems Assessment Model, Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 28, 3, 253-262, used structural, developmental, and functional perspectives from family systems theory in developing an assessment framework around which to organize the BIC evaluative criteria.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Eighty-eight qualified psychologists completed an exploratory survey, the Best Interests of the Child Questionnaire (BICQ), by rating the importance of 60 specific criteria in three areas of assessment relevant to custody and access evaluations: (a) structural (relational assessment), (b) developmental (needs-of-the-child assessment), and (c) functional (abilities-of-the-parents assessment). The value of the BIC assessment model, developed through this study, is explored as a framework for advancing practice in custody and access assessment.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • The model considered psychological factors affecting the best interests of the child, including parenting capacity of the prospective custodians in conjunction with the psychological and developmental needs of the child.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Their purpose was to develop an a priori assessment model that would organize specific criteria relevant to the BICS into three main areas of assessment.

  • Reviewing both the legal guidelines stipulating BICS and the psychological literature pertaining to the effects of divorce and of custody arrangements on child development they identified 60 specific items relevant to the BICS.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Using these three perspectives, the 60 criteria garnered from empirical research and various legal statutes were sorted a priori into one of three areas of assessment.

  • Using factor analysis, they constructed three domains, or first-order factors, reflecting the higher order BICS construct.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Structural- Relational Assessment: a) Parent–Parent and b) Parent–Child relationships

  • Developmental-Needs-of-the-Child Assessment: Developmental needs of the child

  • Functional-Abilities-of-the-Parents Assessment: Assessing the functional abilities of each parent to meet the child's needs


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Structural--Relational Assessment

  • Parent-Parent (assessment of parental relationship)

    • Capacity for Shared Parenting

    • Conflict/Cooperation/Communication


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Ehrenberg, M.F., Hunter, M.A., & Elterman, M.E. (1996). Shared parenting agreements after marital separation: The roles of empathy and Narcissism. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 64, 4, 808-818.

  • The ability of the parents to manage conflict is the single most robust factor for child adjustment post-divorce


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Structural--Relational Assessment

Parent-Child (assessment of parent-child relationship)

  • History & Quality of Relationship

  • Parental Commitment to Child

  • History of parent-child involvement


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Developmental--Needs of Child Assessment:

  • the psychosocial, academic functioning, and developmental needs of each child including wishes of each child where appropriate


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Developmental--Needs of Child Assessment:

  • Medical-physical assessment of child’s development and status

  • Developmental assessment of child’s psychosocial adaptation

  • Academic assessment using collateral input

  • Cross-informant assessment (CBCL, TRF)

  • Standard cognitive and achievement measures


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Functional--Abilities of the Parent Assessment

Assessment of the functional ability of each parent to meet these needs, including an evaluation of the interaction between each adult and child

  • Emotional Stability

  • Parental History

  • Parenting Skills & Knowledge

  • History of Caregiving


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Tools for Each Assessment Domain (Parent-Parent relationship and Parent Abilities domains)

Cross-informant assessment using the

  • Achenbach Adult Self Report and

    Adult Behavior Checklist (SUM D)

  • Personality Adjective Checklist

  • Dyadic Adjustment Scale

  • Dwire Acklin Relationship Compatibility Scale

  • Self-Other Parenting Assessment Scale

  • Strong focus on how the parents view each other


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

  • Self-Other Parenting Assessment Scale--Knowledge and Conduct regarding Safety, Nutrition, Medical/Health, Discipline, Education, Social, Recreational, and Emotional Wellbeing

  • Personal attributes: Moral, Self Control, Level of Hostility, Friendly Parent, and Co-parent Communication.

  • Global Factors assessed are Global Knowledge, Global Behavior, and Global Competence.


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Tools for Assessment of Child Needs

Standard clinical measures:

Cognitive, personality assessment, projective techniques (Rorschach and drawings, for KFD); Achenbach Scales (CBCL); collateral input (Achenbach TRF); review of school progress reports; behavioral observation (interview, parent-child interactions)


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Levels of Empirical Support and CE Inferences

  • Tippins & Wittmann--Stratification and level of inferences in custody evaluations


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Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

Level I—What the clinician observes: Basic level of observation and information reporting; fact intensive/investigative focus

Examples:

  • Behavioral observations

  • parent-child interactional factors

  • facts related to home location, features

  • descriptions of parent’s daily schedule; involvement in child care activities

  • simple psychological test findings (mother’s IQ is average)

  • Conclusion: Level I facts is at the lowest level of inference; no higher level abstractions of inferences. Factual observations reported without inferences


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    Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

    Level II—What the clinician concludes about the psychology of a parent, child or family, based on Level I findings.

    Examples:

    • Father has a substance abuse problem

    • Father’s parenting style appears to be disorganized

    • The child appears to be securely attached to his mother

    • Mother appears to be depressed and her level of supervision and monitoring weak

    • Conclusion: Level II facts are based on a higher level of inference using Level I facts without reference to best interest/custody constructs.


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    Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

    Level III—Level III findings are what the psychologist concludes about the implications of Level III conclusion for custody-specific variables. Inferences drawn about custody-relevant constructs.

    Examples:

    • Mother’s attitude appears to pose some risks to the child’s unconflicted relation to father

    • Father’s parenting capacity falls within normal limits

    • The child appears to have educational needs that require careful parental supervision (e.g., daily completion of homework assignments)

  • Conclusion: At this point the psychologist is still not making overt comments about what should happen in the family but the inferences begin to have clear connections to the ultimate issues before the court.


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    Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

    Level IV—the psychologist’s conclusions about the custody-related “shoulds” in the case. Directly addresses the ultimate issue. Recommendations regarding ultimate “best interest” issue.

    Examples:

    • It is recommended that the child should live with his mother as his primary custodian

    • Father should be permitted to relocate with the child to his home town

  • Conclusion: These comments represent the highest level of inference and are considered controversial for several reasons: lack of empirical foundation, incursion into domain of judicial discretion, representing value judgments on the evaluator’s part.


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    Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

    References

    • Association for Family and Conciliation Courts. Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation.

    • Dwire, J., & Acklin, M.W. (manuscript in submission). Cross-informant assessment of relationship compatibility.

    • Ehrenberg, M.F., Hunter, M.A., & Elterman, M.E. (1996). Shared parenting agreements after marital separation: The roles of empathy and Narcissism. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 64, 4, 808-818.

    • Emery, R.E., Otto, R. K., & W. T. (2005). A critical assessment of child custody evaluations. Psychological Science, 6, 1, 1- 29.


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    Operationalizing the Best Interest of the Child Standard (BICS): Empirically-Validated Assessment Tools for Child Custody Evaluators

    • Jameson, B.J., Ehrenberg, M.F., and Hunter, M.A. (1997). Psychologists’ Rating of the Best Interest of the Child Custody and Access Criterion: A Family Systems Assessment Model, Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 28, 3, 253-262.

    • Krauss, D.A., & Sales, B.D. (2000). Legal standards, expertise, and experts in the resolution of contested child custody cases. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 6(4), 843-879.

    • Senno, N., Acklin, M.W. (research in progress). Cross-informant assessment of parental capacity in child custody evaluations.

    • Tippins, T.M., & Wittman, J.P. (2005) Empirical and ethical problems with custody recommendations: A call for clinical humility and judicial vigilance. Family Court Review, 43(2), 193-222.


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