The purpose of the study was to investigate the impact of the beliefs and investigative practices of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers who had been appointed by a court to evaluate families in disputed custody cases when there were allegations of domestic violence. Objectives were to examine the relationship between the evaluators' beliefs and practices and their recommendations for custody and visitation, and to examine how the evaluators' recommendations influenced case outcomes, including settlement agreements and court orders following trial.
The research team conducted a Case Review study (Part 1) and administered an Evaluator Survey to corresponding case evaluators (Part 2) between August 2007 and December 2009. The case review study was implemented through four private non-profit legal services agencies in New York City that provide free legal representation to domestic violence victims in civil proceedings including custody and visitation litigation. Staff at each agency reviewed computerized case lists and asked attorneys to identify cases that included custody evaluations. A total of 69 cases involving custody or visitation issues that were litigated and resolved between 1997 and 2007 were identified for inclusion in the study. The custody and visitation cases were either part of a divorce proceeding in Supreme Court or resulted from petitions by one or both parents in Family Court. Court orders appointing the evaluators, custody evaluations, and settlement agreements or final orders were pulled from the attorney case files, copied, and redacted to remove all identifying information about the parties and other private individuals.
Paralegals entered into a database the basic, non-interpretive legal and demographic information in the case file, such as the type of court in which the case was heard, arrests and criminal court actions, and family court proceedings and outcomes. They also provided an account of the abuse based on these records and the attorney's notes. From these descriptions, cases were given a domestic violence severity rating in each of four domains: physical abuse; threats; psychological, social, and financial abuse; and stalking.
As part of the Case Review study (Part 1), a Coding Scale for Custody Evaluations with Domestic Violence (DV) Allegations was developed for rating the characteristics of the custody evaluations and the court outcomes. The coding scale consisted of 252 mostly dichotomous variables, including primary summary variables: Investigative Thoroughness, Demonstrated DV Knowledge, Current Safety Risk, Safety of Evaluator's Recommended Parenting Plan, and Safety of Court Parenting Plan Safe. Using redacted copies of the order for the evaluation (order appointing the evaluator), the custody evaluation report to the court, and the final order or settlement, and consulting data extracted from the case files, 1 of 4 raters coded each of the 69 cases in the sample with the Evaluation Coding Scale.
The research team administered the Evaluator Survey (Part 2) to custody evaluators who had completed evaluation reports for the cases in the case-review study. The Evaluator Survey was developed to obtain more quantitatively oriented information from the evaluators about their experience, beliefs, and goals in cases involving DV allegations. A total of 14 evaluators who had been interviewed by phone subsequently completed and returned the Evaluator Survey.
The Case Review study (Part 1) consists of a sample of 69 court cases involving custody or visitation issues that were litigated and resolved between 1997 and 2007. The court cases were selected from four private non-profit legal service agencies that either exclusively represent domestic violence victims or prioritize domestic violence cases within New York City: the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, the New York Legal Assistance Group, South Brooklyn Legal Services, and the Legal Aid Society (LAS). The custody and visitation cases were either part of a divorce proceeding in Supreme Court or resulted from petitions by one or both parents in Family Court.
The Evaluator Survey sample (Part 2) consisted of 40 evaluators who had completed evaluation reports for the 69 cases in the case study review. Of the 40 evaluators in the sample, 16 responded to recruitment efforts by the research team, and 15 were interviewed over the phone. Of the 15 evaluators interviewed by phone, 14 completed and returned the Evaluator Survey.
All civil proceedings involving domestic violence victims represented by the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, the New York Legal Assistance Group, South Brooklyn Legal Services, and the Legal Aid Society (LAS) of New York between 1997 and 2007 (Part 1). All custody evaluators who had been appointed by the court to conduct evaluations for the cases in the case review sample (Part 2).
court case (Part 1)
individual (Part 2)
The New York Legal Assistance Group, attorney case files, 1997-2007. (Part 1)
The Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, attorney case files, 1997-2007. (Part 1)
South Brooklyn Legal Services, attorney case files, 1997-2007. (Part 1)
The Legal Aid Society (LAS) of New York, attorney case files, 1997-2007. (Part 1)
The Evaluator Survey developed by the Research Team (Part 2)
administrative records data
The Case Review Data (Part 1) contain a total of 252 variables including type of agency, borough, type of court, judge and evaluator credentials, type of legal representation, severity of abuse involved in each case, family medical records, and family psychological records. The dataset also contains 221 mostly dichotomous (yes/no) variables including court orders, allegations and substantiations of various forms of abuse, psychological and medical history of parents, evaluation recommendations for parents, investigation orders for parents, parental custody, assessments and investigatory procedures of the evaluator, risk factors for violence evaluation, evaluator suggestions and recommendations, and evaluation outcomes. Summary score variables were also developed including Investigative Thoroughness, Demonstrated DV Knowledge, Current Safety Risk, Safety of Evaluator's Recommended Parenting Plan, Safety of Court Parenting Plan Safe, and Severity of Domestic Violence.
The Evaluator Survey Data (Part 2) contain a total of 44 variables derived from the evaluator survey and include their background and experience, number of evaluations completed for the family and supreme courts with and without allegations of domestic violence, the location of each custody evaluation, and further recommendations and tests for the parents and children involved in each case. Within the dataset several variables also employ a Likert-type scale to rate the beliefs of evaluators with respect to the value and advisability of pursuing particular rehabilitation options for domestic violence perpetrators, as well as the importance of different goals evaluators customarily set for themselves when conducting custody evaluations, and to list the psychological tests they have used when conducting evaluations involving possible domestic violence.
Not applicable (Part 1). Of the initial sample of 40 evaluator surveys, 14 evaluators completed the questionnaire, yielding a 35 percent response rate (Part 2).
As part of the Case Review study (Part 1), the research team developed a Coding Scale for Custody with Domestic Violence (DV) Allegations. Summary scores were created for five primary variables: Investigative Thoroughness, Demonstrated DV Knowledge, Current Safety Risk, Safety of Evaluator's Recommended Parenting Plan, and Safety of Court Parenting Plan Safe. The Evaluator Survey (Part 2) contains several Likert-type scales.