Psychologists as Family Consultants
When parents separate there can sometimes be disagreement about the arrangements for children, such as where they will live, the time they spend with each parent, and where they attend school. Less common, though equally challenging scenarios can emerge if one parent wishes to relocate, if there are allegations of family violence, or disagreement regarding major decisions such as religious affiliation.
If disputes regarding parenting matters cannot be resolved independently or via mediation, parents may apply for orders in the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court of Australia. In some of these cases the Court will ask for an independent expert clinician to evaluate the case and write a report. These experts, around 85 of whom are employed nationally at the courts, are known as Family Consultants. They are a combination of psychologists and social workers with relevant training and experience in social/behavioural sciences and forensic practice.
Family Consultants face unique challenges; they must possess extremely broad technical knowledge in areas such as attachment, family relationships, child growth and development, family violence/risk assessment, mental health, and substance abuse, to name just a few. They require skills in interviewing children of varying ages, some of whom may be resistant, traumatised, or “coached” by a parent. Family Consultants work within extremely tight timeframes, completing reports and assessments in line with predetermined court dates. They are required to attend court to provide oral advice to judges, and at times, they are subject to rigorous cross examination.
Beyond all of these challenges, lies the conceptual shift that psychologists need to make when embedded within a forensic/legal environment – namely that information provided by the parents they assess is untested, and often highly discrepant. It is not uncommon for a Family Consultant to be provided with a detailed, cogent, and highly specific description of a child’s presentation or behaviour by one parent only to have a similarly coherent alternate account provided by the other parent. As MacKay (2014)1 noted, “In these cases the premise of ‘what you see is what you get’ is not a reasonable starting point” (p. 85). In more extreme cases, there may be vastly different accounts from parents relating to a child’s exposure to abuse or family violence. For clinicians who work within a family law setting, things may not always be as they first appear.
Innovation in psychological practice
This context has required innovation in practice, reporting, and formulation on the part of clinicians undertaking evaluations addressing children’s parenting arrangements in accordance with the principle of the child’s best interests:
Flexible interview processes:
Family Consultants need to have quite flexible interview processes which allow for thorough exploration of the varying accounts of parents. They will carefully review affidavit materials filed by each parent and by other sources, including other professionals. They will ensure multiple data gathering methods, such as parent interviews, observations of the parents with the child, discussions with the child, and previous reports. They will also often consult with teachers, extended family members, doctors, and treating psychologists or counsellors to ensure they have the most comprehensive picture of the child in order to (as far as possible) negate the challenge of, sometimes, highly divergent narratives from parents.
Comprehensive written reports:
In their written reports, it is not the role of Family Consultants to comment on any matters of fact that are disputed, which is the province of the Court. Family Consultants outline the perspectives of both parents, interlaced with collateral information from other sources and their own clinical observations. They will attempt to include all relevant information, even if that material differs from their working hypotheses. Importantly, they will also carefully articulate interview data collected from the child/children, and include any behavioural observations or anomalies. This helps ensure that the court has an overview of the nature of any divergence between the parents, as well as the observation and insight of the clinician.
Maintaining an investigative posture:
Unlike reports by clinical or educational psychologists, who often present a definitive final evaluation from which recommendations follow, Family Consultants regularly present their “formulation” in terms of multiple hypotheses. They retain a more investigative posture, reminiscent of pure forensic practice as opposed to a clinical (non-adversarial) setting. Their recommendations may come in the form of “if the court determines X, then an appropriate arrangement for the child may be Y”.
In sum, psychologists working in the area of family law are presented with a range of challenging circumstances, not least of which is that they are often presented with highly discrepant information about a child, their relationships, and their home environment. In family law, things may not always be as they first appear. To overcome this situation, Family Consultants have had to adapt and innovate in their practice, written reports, and their formulations about a given case. Despite the challenges, psychological practice in family law is a compelling area, particularly for those who are naturally inclined towards a more investigative process.
The first author can be contacted at Ben.Jones@familycourt.gov.au
- MacKay, T. (2014). False allegations of child abuse in contest family law cases: The implications for psychological practice. Educational & Child Psychology, 31, 85-96.