Child Custody Evaluators Are Sometimes Wrong; Work Product Reviews and Rebuttal Witness Testimony Can Help

Several weeks ago, a guy in a pickup truck came flying down the dirt road that leads to my house and as he reached the soft bend in the road, he lost control of his car and plowed directly through my fence. Without slowing down at all, he sped through our front yard and came way too close to hitting my husband and our two precious little boys, who were all playing together outside. It didn’t end with that though, surprisingly, the man decided that he wasn’t going to stop and take responsibility for what he had done. Instead, he chose to try get out of our yard, ultimately plowing through a second section of our fence and speeding away.

When my husband called me to tell me what had just occurred, all I could think about is how some idiot’s impulsivity and thoughtless actions could have literally just destroyed my little family – for no good reason whatsoever. He was just living his life, doing his own thing, and not even thinking about how much damage he could have done to those he encountered. I was so upset at the fact that he couldn’t just man up, have a little integrity, and own his mistake. I thought that was the least he could have done.

The irony was, that I received that call from my husband when I was driving home from Ft. Myers, where I had just finished testifying as a rebuttal witness in a child custody case. Now, even though I am clear on the fact that it’s the right thing to do, I always seem to struggle a bit with guilt right after I testify against a colleague who has produced a bias or procedurally flawed child custody evaluation.

The truth is though, that just like the man who crashed into my yard and almost hit my kids, psychologists actions truly have the potential to alter the lives of the families we encounter. If we are impulsive, make thoughtless decisions, or don’t follow the pre established guidelines laid out for us, we can literally destroy the very families who trusted us to do the right thing.

For those of you still reading, you’ll be happy to know that this story does in fact have a happy ending… A little while after I received the initial call from my husband about the reckless driver in our yard, he called me back with an update. He explained to me that I would never believe it, but the guy who crashed into our fence was actually a 17 year old kid who had just received that truck as a gift from his parents. He went on to say that, apparently, when the kid arrived home, his father saw the damage to his vehicle and immediately stepped up to teach his son a lesson.

The father then demanded that his son accompany him back to our house, and then made him own up to what he had done. As my husband called him out on his reckless behavior, the teen’s father quietly stood by and then assured my husband that his son would be back to rectify the situation. In the weekend that followed, I walked outside to find the father and son working together to fix the damage the teenager caused. The father took the opportunity to teach his son about integrity, the importance of accountability, and the way to rectify situations when you do occasionally mess up. After the wood on the fence was back in place, the two worked for several more hours repainting the entire fence, from top to bottom, inside and out. It is honestly now in far better condition than it was when this initially occurred.

So now, after I have had a chance to absorb what happened and decompress a little, I can clearly see that the son was just embarrassed and scared when he sped off. He had to be reminded the importance of doing the right thing, was open to the idea of being accountable for his actions, and was taught to be mindful of how his choices can change lives.

By having the opportunity to actually see this process occur, in front of my own eyes, I felt like I was able to learn such a valuable lesson that easily carried over to my professional responsibilities. As I took on my next work product review and rebuttal witness testimony case, I was able to feel far less guilt associated with my responsibility to inform the Court when colleagues have produced reports that veer too far out of line to be helpful.

If nothing else, just like this teenager and his father, I now feel at ease knowing that although the experience of being held accountable for mistakes is never fun, it is valuable and a necessary part of growth. It will ultimately make each of us better clinicians and we will be better able to help the families we evaluate and the Courts who trust us to do the right thing.

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