Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

Beware of First Impressions

How Custody Evaluations Can Go Wrong

Posted Aug 05, 2015

Alienation cases often get worse through the involvement of the courts, not better. In the end, targeted parents not only lose their children but they often lose large sums of money, precious time, and their faith in the justice system. One of the reasons for this is the reluctance of judges to do anything about alienation, believing that it is either too soon or too late to intervene. They are inclined to give alienating parents many chances to violate court orders before sanctioning them and they are inclined to believe that once a child is alienated, there is nothing to be done, especially if the child is an older teenager.

In addition to these errors in thinking on the part of the judge, there are errors in thinking occurring on the part of the mental health professionals as well. One significant error is the belief that the behavior of the parents in the room during a custody evaluation is highly informative for understanding how each person parents and whether they are generally honest. Clinicians are taught to trust their clinical judgment and to make inferences about the behavior of the person in the room.

Unfortunately, this faith in the diagnostic value of the behavior of parents is misplaced. Here’s why. Alienating parents tend to have personality disorders, especially sociopathy, narcissism, and borderline disorders. Therefore, they are likely to present well. By that I mean that they are – on first blush – charming, relaxed, well-mannered, poised, and comfortable. They exude confidence. In addition, if the children are already moderately or severely alienated, things are going well for the alienator. They have the preference of their children, they have most likely been able to get away with violating court orders, and possibly in persuading other people of the rightness of their position. They have little to fear and can relax and bask in the glow of being the preferred parent. The targeted parent, on the other hand, is likely to appear anxious, angry, agitated, and fearful. They are in the midst of losing their children, their time, and their money. They have possibly been humiliated by their children, misunderstood by friends and family, and have been frustrated by the system’s failure to intervene on behalf of their relationship with their children.

When these two people enter the custody evaluator’s office, one will appear to be relaxed, happy, and confident. The other will appear agitated, upset, and anxious to impress upon the evaluator that alienation has occurred.

The contrast alone is likely to create an impression within the evaluator about who is the better parent. This first impression can heavily influence the evaluator’s entire report. For this reason, the targeted parent who is beginning a evaluation should be prepared to manage the impression s/he makes quite carefully in order to have a level playing field. This problem could also be remedied by custody evaluators making a concerted effort to be aware of first impression, to collect sufficient collateral contact information, and to test competing hypotheses about the behavior of the parents and the degree of alienation in the children. In the meantime, targeted parents beware: first impressions matter.