Custody Evaluators' Beliefs about Domestic Abuse Allegations, 2009-2010 [United States] (ICPSR 30962)

Principal Investigator(s): Saunders, Daniel, University of Michigan; Faller, Kathleen, University of Michigan; Tolman, Richard, University of Michigan

Summary:

This study sought to further understanding of the beliefs of child custody evaluators and related professionals regarding allegations of domestic abuse made by parents during the divorce process. Researchers administered a survey of beliefs, practices, background, and training experiences to custody evaluators. For comparison purposes, judges, legal aid attorneys, private attorneys, and domestic violence program workers were also surveyed. Additionally, researchers used in-depth qualitative interviews of domestic abuse survivors to help interpret quantitative findings, to understand the complexities of their experiences, and to generate hypotheses for future research. The study had two major parts. Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset) was a survey of professionals, who had experience with custody cases (child custody evaluators, judges, attorneys, and domestic violence program workers). The dataset includes 1,246 cases and 162 variables. Part 2 (Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews) involved qualitative, semi-structured interviews with domestic abuse survivors who experienced negative outcomes in family court. Part 2 contains interviews with 24 with domestic abuse survivors.

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Dataset(s)

DS0:  Study-Level Files
Documentation:
DS1:  Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset
Documentation:
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No downloadable data files available.
DS2:  Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews
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No downloadable data files available.

Study Description

Citation

Saunders, Daniel, Kathleen Faller, and Richard Tolman. Custody Evaluators' Beliefs about Domestic Abuse Allegations, 2009-2010 [United States]. ICPSR30962-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2015-09-30. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR30962.v1

Persistent URL: https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR30962.v1

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Funding

This study was funded by:

  • United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice (2007-WG-BX-0013)

Scope of Study

Subject Terms:    abuse, abuse allegations, case management, child custody, courts, divorce, domestic violence

Geographic Coverage:    United States

Time Period:   

  • 2009-05--2010-03 (Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset))

Date of Collection:   

  • 2009-05--2010-03 (Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset))

Unit of Observation:    Individuals

Universe:   

Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset): Custody evaluators, judges, legal aid and private attorneys, and domestic violence program workers in the United States in 2009-2010.

Part 2 (Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews): Survivors from domestic violence programs, supervised visitation/exchange centers, and legal aid programs in four states.

Data Type(s):    survey data

Methodology

Study Purpose:   

The purpose of this study was to better understand the beliefs of child custody evaluators and related professionals regarding allegations of domestic abuse made by parents during the divorce process. The study had several major goals:

  1. to investigate the extent to which child custody evaluators and other professionals who make court recommendations believe that false allegations of domestic violence are common
  2. to explore the relationship between these beliefs and (a) training on domestic violence and (b) decisions about custody, supervised visitation, and mediation
  3. to examine whether beliefs about false allegations of domestic violence are related to beliefs that false allegations of child abuse are common, that abuse of parents should not be a criterion in custody/visitation decisions, and that parents often alienate their children from the other parent
  4. to examine the relationships between beliefs about false allegations and core beliefs in patriarchal norms, social dominance, and basic justice in the world

The study also sought to conduct in-depth interviews with domestic abuse survivors who experienced negative custody-visitation outcomes to help interpret the quantitative findings, uncover new areas of concern and learn of recommendations the survivors had for changing the custody determination process.

Study Design:   

Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset)

The original plan for the study involved the participation of custody evaluators, family court judges, and domestic violence advocates in the United States. Researchers added a sample of legal aid attorneys because of their frequent involvement in battered women's custody cases. Private attorneys were also added for comparison purposes. There were 1,246 professionals who responded to either a web-based or mailed survey, and 1,187 had enough responses to be included in analyses. Multiple procedures were used for recruiting the different professional groups.

Custody evaluators

For the custody evaluators, the researchers used both e-mail and mailed invitations. Researchers sent 4,017 e-mail invitations in 35 separate waves from May 31, 2009 through March 29, 2010, and 1,665 invitation letters to people for whom they did not have e-mail addresses. Researchers sent an initial letter with a link to the web survey, followed by a copy of the survey in the mail 7-10 days later and then a postcard reminder 10 days later.

Judges, Legal Aid and Private Attorneys, and Domestic violence program workers

Judges, legal aid and private attorneys, and domestic violence program workers were recruited via email generated from multiple organizational lists. No reminder emails were sent and no letters or surveys were sent through the mail to judges, attorneys, or domestic violence workers.

Part 2 (Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews)

In-person, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 24 domestic abuse survivor-mothers in order to improve understanding of some of the negative outcomes from family court decisions. Survivors were recruited from domestic violence programs, supervised visitation/exchange centers, and legal aid programs in communities in four states. Interviews took between 45 and 120 minutes to complete, and most were approximately 90 minutes.

Sample:   

Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset)

Multiple procedures were used to recruit the different professional groups, and these differed somewhat across the groups. The original plan involved the participation of 445 custody evaluators, 70 family court judges and 70 domestic violence advocates in the united States. A sample of legal aid attorneys was added because of their frequent involvement in battered women's custody cases. Private attorneys were also added for comparison purposes.

Custody evaluators

Researchers relied on indirect methods for generating lists for invitations, as follows:

  1. locating members of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) who were psychologists, since they are likely to conduct custody evaluations
  2. carrying out web searches for evaluators
  3. using a list previously compiled by another researcher conducting a similar survey based primarily on web searches, with telephone confirmation that the people conducted evaluations
  4. making e-mail and telephone contact with the directors of court-based custody evaluation units

Researchers used both e-mail and mailed invitations. Researchers sent 4,017 e-mail invitations in 35 separate waves from May 31, 2009 through March 29, 2010. Researchers sent 1,665 invitation letters to people for whom they did not have e-mail addresses.

Judges

Several lists and organizational listservs were used for recruiting judges.

  1. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) sent an e-mail invitation to its 15-member Family Violence Committee with a request to forward the invitation to their colleagues
  2. The NCJFCJ Family Violence Department sent an e-mail invitation to 522 judges who had received training through their National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence
  3. Web searches for evaluators produced 98 judges, some of whom responded to researcher e-mails by saying they did not have family law cases
  4. Members of AFCC received requests
  5. State judicial education program directors in Texas, Georgia, and Michigan sent e-mails
  6. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) posted an invitation for several months on its home web page
  7. The Juvenile and Family Law Department of NCJFCJ sent an e-mail invitation to 1,443 of its members

Legal aid and private attorneys

Researchers developed invitation lists from web searches and the membership list of AFCC and sent 895 invitation e-mails from these lists. In addition, the state training coordinators for legal aid attorneys in Ohio and Michigan sent an e-mail invitation to legal aid attorneys on their listservs. Finally, NCADV posted an invitation on its website for several months. Twelve private attorneys and one legal aid attorney responded to the NCADV invitation. A total of 366 attorneys responded to all of the invitations.

Domestic violence program workers

Most of the domestic violence program workers were recruited from an invitation posted on the website of NCADV from December 2009 until May 2010 and through a notice in the monthly NCADV e-mail newsletter sent to approximately 11,000 individuals. These domestic violence workers included advocates, counselors, crisis workers, and other front-line workers; attorneys who worked at domestic violence programs; the directors of local programs; and state coalition directors and resource coordinators.

Part 2 (Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews)

Survivors were recruited from domestic violence programs, supervised visitation/exchange centers, and legal aid programs in four states. These communities were selected partly because of their relatively high rates of non-custodial survivor-mothers in caseloads at visitation/exchange centers. In one state, one domestic violence program made one successful referral. In a second state, two supervised visitation programs and three domestic violence programs successfully referred 14 women. In a third state, one supervised visitation program and three legal aid programs referred eight women; and in the fourth state, one supervised visitation program and one domestic violence program referred two women who were eligible. One interview was not used in the analysis because the recording device malfunctioned in the middle of the interview and the interviewer also relied heavily on an interpreter. Other women were referred but were ineligible for the study because they had not experienced negative outcomes from custody evaluations or procedures.

Time Method:    Cross-sectional

Weight:   

Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset)

Not applicable

Part 2 (Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews)

Not applicable

Mode of Data Collection:    face-to-face interview, mail questionnaire, web-based survey

Description of Variables:   

Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset)

Measures of Independent Variables

Opinions about family violence, custody, and visitation

The items in this section focused primarily on four types of beliefs that

  1. alleged domestic violence survivors and offenders make false allegations of abuse
  2. survivors and offenders alienate children from the other parent
  3. exposure of children to domestic violence is not relevant to custody decisions
  4. the reluctance or resistance of battered women to co-parenting will hurt the children

Five subscales were formed based on the results of principal component factor analysis

  1. Domestic Violence (DV) Survivors Make False DV Allegations
  2. DV Survivors Alienate Child
  3. DV Offenders Make False DV and Child Abuse Allegations
  4. DV Survivors' Resistance to Co-Parenting Hurts Child
  5. DV Not Relevant in Custody-Visitation Decisions

The following measures were administered only to the custody evaluators because they were the group of primary interest in the study, with the main hypotheses applying to them.

  1. Belief in hierarchies/non-equality: Social Dominance Orientation (SDO)
  2. Modern Sexism Scale (MSS)
  3. Belief in a Just World (BJW) Scale

Background and practice measures

A series of questions asked about the approximate number of custody evaluations completed or cases involved with in their entire careers and in the past year. Evaluators were asked in what setting they practiced, whether private practice, court, public mental health clinic, psychiatric hospital, or other setting. All professionals were asked in what state they practice the most, their gender, age, educational level, and type of advanced degree, if any.

Screening and Assessing for DV

Evaluators were asked three questions about screening and assessment and all respondents were asked the approximate number of times they used various sources to acquire knowledge about domestic violence, including workshops, lectures, consultation, articles, books, and other sources.

Areas of knowledge acquired

Respondents were asked to check whether or not they had acquired knowledge in seven areas

  1. prevalence of domestic violence
  2. causes of domestic violence
  3. types of perpetrators
  4. post-separation violence
  5. screening for domestic violence
  6. assessing dangerousness in domestic violence cases
  7. children's exposure to domestic violence

Knowledge of victims

Researchers used a simple checklist for respondents to indicate that they had personally known a victim/survivor of domestic violence.

Measures of Dependent (Outcome) Variables

Outcome was measured in two ways: with reports of practitioners' histories of making recommendations for custody and visitation and with their responses to a case vignette.

Weighting of Dependent Variables

Some evaluators commented that it was difficult to make estimates in the Practice History section, and therefore "can't estimate" was given as an option and treated as a missing value. To reduce the number of variables for analysis and to increase variance, a single weighted scale of custody outcomes was created. Weights were assigned to the options, with 7 assigned to sole legal and physical custody given to the perpetrator and -7 to sole legal and physical custody given to the victim. Evaluators were then asked to estimate the percentage of times they recommended different forms of visitation: with no supervision, with supervision by a friend or relative, and with supervision by a professional or paraprofessional. Weights were assigned to the visitation options to create a scale of "least safe supervision": 3 was given if "no supervision of visits" was chosen, -2 was given to visits supervised by friends and relatives, and -3 was given to visits supervised by professionals or paraprofessionals.

The five items on custody arrangements in the vignette responses were formed into a weighted scale. To create a scale of "father custody," sole legal and physical custody to the father was presumed to be the most negative outcome for the father and assigned a weight of 5; sole legal and physical custody to the mother was presumed to be the most positive outcome for the mother and assigned a weight of -5. Intermediate weights were: 2 for joint legal custody with primary physical custody to the mother, 3 for joint legal and physical custody, and 4 for joint legal custody with primary physical custody to the father. The weights were multiplied by the likelihood score for each item.

The same weights used for the practice history responses were used with vignette responses: 3 was given to no supervision of visits, -2 to visits supervised by friends and relatives, and -3 to visits supervised by professionals or paraprofessionals.

Practice history

Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of their child custody cases that involved allegations of domestic violence and the percentage of these cases they estimated involved false allegations by each parent. They were also asked to estimate the percentage of cases with violence by each parent or both. Evaluators were then asked how often they supported the allegations of domestic violence and, when they found support, to what extent did domestic violence "typically impact your evaluation or recommendations".

The main outcome measures in this section were items regarding custody arrangements and visitation. Respondents were asked to "estimate the percentage of times that you recommend, or would have in that position, the following custody arrangements." Seven options followed, composed of various combinations of legal and physical custody to each parent. The options were:

  1. Sole legal and physical custody with victim of domestic violence
  2. Sole legal and physical custody with perpetrator of domestic violence
  3. Joint legal custody and primary physical custody with victim
  4. Joint legal custody and primary physical custody with perpetrator
  5. Sole legal custody with victim and joint physical custody
  6. Sole legal custody with perpetrator and joint physical custody
  7. Joint legal and physical custody

Vignette responses: Beliefs about parental behavior, future harm, and best interest of the child

Researchers used a case vignette to which survey respondents reported the likelihood that each parent would harm the child and that the best interests of the child would be served by various custody and visitation arrangements. Researchers first asked evaluators, but not other professionals, an open-ended question--"What initial hypotheses would you want to explore in this case?"--and asked for up to three responses. For the evaluators and other professionals, researchers also asked an open-ended question--"What information included or not included in this vignette would potentially be the most important for a child custody evaluator to use in conducting an evaluation in this case?"--and also asked for up to three responses. These questions were followed by 15 questions with the likelihood, from 0 percent to 100 percent, that: either parent would cause psychological harm to the child in the future, the mother was exaggerating, the father was minimizing, mediation would be beneficial, and various custody and visitation arrangements would be in the best interest of the child. The custody arrangements included five combinations of legal and physical custody. There were three options for visitation: no supervision, supervision by a friend or relative, and supervision by a professional or paraprofessional.

Part 2 (Qualitative Transcripts of Survivors' Interviews)

Respondents answered questions related to background information, safety of children, the custody and visitation decision process, the custody evaluation process, abuse toward survivor, custody and visitation outcome, recommendations for policies, procedures, and laws, and demographics.

Response Rates:   

Part 1 (Custody Evaluator Beliefs Dataset)

Researchers were not able to calculate response rates because they did not know how many people opened the emails which were sent. There were 1,246 professionals who responded to either a webbased or mailed survey and 1,187 had enough responses to be included in analyses. Of those with usable surveys, there were 465 evaluators, 200 judges, 131 legal aid attorneys, 119 private attorneys, and 193 domestic abuse survivor program workers. There were also 4 attorney educators, 12 attorneys who could not be classified, 28 of various "other" professions (e.g., law enforcement, probation, therapist, mediator, rehabilitation counselor, abuser intervention worker), and 34 with missing information on professional role.

Presence of Common Scales:   

Belief in hierarchies/non-equality: Social Dominance Orientation (SDO)

Modern Sexism Scale (MSS)

Belief in a Just World (BJW) Scale

Extent of Processing:   ICPSR data undergo a confidentiality review and are altered when necessary to limit the risk of disclosure. ICPSR also routinely creates ready-to-go data files along with setups in the major statistical software formats as well as standard codebooks to accompany the data. In addition to these procedures, ICPSR performed the following processing steps for this data collection:

  • Created variable labels and/or value labels.
  • Standardized missing values.
  • Checked for undocumented or out-of-range codes.

Version(s)

Original ICPSR Release:   2015-09-30

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