The Benefits of Longitudinal Assessments in Parental Alienation Cases

Here’s why longitudinal assessments in high-conflict divorce cases are essential.

LEGAL PRACTICE

As a clinical and forensic psychologist, I am often court-mandated or privately retained to perform psychological/custody assessments in high-conflict divorce cases. My assessments in these cases usually take at least 6 months or more. Why? Because longitudinal assessments are the best way to detect, uncover and describe complex family dynamics. Family dynamics may be largely or entirely omitted in a one-time cross-sectional assessment. Inaccurate or erroneous findings, conclusions and recommendations can be the unfortunate consequence. A child’s welfare and best interests can be lost if the assessment is done too quickly with too little information/data points over time.

I have had many cases where important family dynamics did not initially come to light during individual interviews and psychological testing. The purpose of any psychological/custody assessment is to determine the impact of parental and family influences on a child and to make recommendations based on those findings.1 Anything less than that is a missed opportunity and will be of no use in a legal proceeding.

Uncovering family dynamics is especially difficult in high-conflict divorces which are, by definition, contentious, contradictory, and prone to obfuscation and lies.2 The surest way to see family dynamics clearly is to experience them in real time as part of the assessment process. Essentially, the appraiser becomes an attentive spectator of the interactions and maneuvers of different family members over a long period of time.

Cross-sectional assessments typically take 3 or 4 sessions per adult and 2 or 3 sessions per child. They include interviews, psychological testing, review of collateral information, and review of mental health records. These assessments can be completed in a short time, like 2 months. But, too often, these assessments are not enough to uncover vital family dynamics. They often lack depth and breadth because they are based on limited information gathered over a short period of time.

My longitudinal assessments last a minimum of 6 months and always include filling out a timeline of events and behaviors as they occur in real time.3 Information for the timeline is collected through numerous interviews, phone contacts, emails and text messages. Parents and children can provide valuable data for the timeline. At the end, a complete picture of the family and its dynamics can be described in detail in vivid colors and with texture.

Longitudinal assessments are particularly useful in suspected cases of parental alienation.4 Since alienating or offensive parents never admit their harmful behavior, it behooves the mental health expert to follow the family for several months to see the sequence of events and behaviors as they unfold. take place in real time. A timeline can be drawn that reveals the ebb and flow of harmful family maneuvers and behaviors.3

Longitudinal assessments also make sense when false allegations of abuse are part of the case. In my experience, multiple false allegations during divorce proceedings are a huge red flag for parental alienation.5 If the evaluation process extends over several months, these false allegations can accumulate, clearly showing their role in the alienating process. And “not stated” or “unsubstantiated” reports by child protection agencies can also accumulate during the assessment period.

In court, longitudinal assessments are strong and compelling. They provide many more data points to consider in the overall assessment and description of the family. It is much easier to describe parental alienation in detail if a longitudinal approach has been adopted in the assessment process. Additionally, it lends itself to compelling courtroom testimony.

The American Psychological Association has released a report regarding the important features of a child custody assessment.6 Ethical considerations are always paramount. What is missing in their model is the emphasis on longitudinal rather than cross-sectional evaluation. Perhaps this feature should be added to the American Psychological Association’s Detention Assessment Model.

By definition, longitudinal evaluations take much longer than ad hoc evaluations. But time shouldn’t be the determining factor in mental health assessments in high-conflict detention cases. Getting it right is much more important to the child. Taking as much time as necessary should be the mantra of a very useful assessment.

Treatment recommendations can be more precise and specific when a longitudinal approach is taken in the assessment. Treatment should always flow from the diagnosis, and a comprehensive assessment can set the stage for ongoing interventions that will be both effective and efficient.

In my experience, lawyers and judges make better decisions about custody arrangements when they receive longitudinal information. Judges seem moved by the timelines, documentation and real-time examples.

There is 1 additional advantage to a longitudinal approach. Sometimes the assessment process itself can lead to significant awareness, change, and resolution. The assessment itself can be an intervention. In mild cases of parental alienation, for example, the assessment process may convince the alienating parent to cease the harmful behavior, thereby resolving the current crisis.

One final note: in some divorce cases, where parental alienation is not suspected and there are no false allegations of abuse, a single cross-sectional assessment makes sense. Simpler cases may indeed call for simpler assessments.

In summary, cases of parental alienation require longitudinal assessments in order to detect and describe harmful alienating behavior. These cases can be complicated and confusing at first, but the assessment process can untangle prevalent problematic dynamics in the family. A single cross-sectional assessment may miss powerful and conclusive information about a case.

Dr Blotkyis a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Blotcky can be contacted at [email protected]

References

1. Lee SM, Olesen NW. Assessing Alienation in Child Care and Access Assessments. Family Court Review. 2001;39(3):282-298.

2. Bernet W. Children from high-conflict divorces face many challenges. Psychiatric time. October 30, 2015. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/children-high-conflict-divorce-face-many-challenges

3. Blotcky AD. Time limits are an essential tool in cases of false allegations of abuse and parental alienation. Psychiatric time. May 12, 2022. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/timelines-are-a-critical-tool-in-cases-of-false-allegations-of-abuse-and-parental-alienation

4. Harman JJ, Bernet W, Harman J. Parental alienation: the emergence of a field of study. Current directions in psychological sciences. 2019;28(2):212-217.

5. Blotcky AD. Allegations of Child Abuse: Distinguishing Lies from Truths. Psychiatric time. August 25, 2021. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/child-abuse-allegations-lies-versus-truths

6. Guidelines for Assessing Child Custody in Family Law Proceedings. american psychologist. 2010: 863-867.

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