Parenting Plan and Timesharing Evaluations (PPTE) (formerly referred to as Child Custody Evaluations)
It is important to prepare your clients for PPTEs, especially if there is either known or suspected Parental Alienation going-on in the case. These evaluations are complex and can be stressful for your clients. Litigants having been ordered to participate in a PPTE are normally anxious, fearful, confused, sometimes angry and frequently defensive. Considering the stakes are high in these evaluations it is easy to understand their emotions.
Although we all understand that their reactions are normal it may lead a litigant to present themselves in a manner that is less positive than what they otherwise would. Their emotional and mental state can easily interfere with their functioning. So, their thinking, concentration, understanding, etc. may not be optimal. They may alter how they express their emotions, or control their impulsiveness, exercise their judgment and problem solve. The end result is that sometimes these reactions, a function of the evaluation itself, can cause a person to appear significantly different, more dysfunctional, from what and who they typically are; hence preparing your clients for these evaluations is extremely important.
When it comes to a rejected parent in a Parental Alienation case they are typically not assertive; they tend to be more withdrawn, perhaps depressed over their child’s rejection, maybe even guilty and even paranoid.
Consider for a moment one parent is trying to exorcise them from their child’s life and might even be accusing them of physical and or sexual abuse. In other words, someone is indeed out to get them. When someone is indeed out to get you it’s not paranoia. The rejected parents, with their personality characteristics in combination with typical reactions to an assessment can appear to be even more dysfunctional. Preparation for these clients becomes of paramount importance.
How does one appropriately and ethically prepare clients? Who is the most appropriate person to that that? Frequently it’s the attorney or paralegal that prepares their clients. Sometimes the attorney’s client is referred to a forensic mental health professional (FMHP). There is some disagreement as to the appropriateness for a FMHP to prepare litigants for evaluations.
The idea is that such preparation may change the litigant’s behavior just for the evaluation resulting in their not presenting their “true” behavior. In addition, what if their “true” behavior is not in the child’s best interest, but the preparation altered the litigant’s behavior in some way that “fooled” the evaluator, presenting a “false positive” impression. FMHP consultations to prepare a litigant for an evaluation will be somewhat limited because of these concerns. FMHPs cannot prepare a litigant in a way that he or she would be presented to the evaluator that is actually contrary to who they really are, their parenting style, and what they really believe about parenting. If a FMHP did such a thing they would be disguising the litigant for who they really are and maybe successful in fooling the evaluator. But in the long run there may a risk to what is truly in the child’s best interest.
Attorneys and their paralegals can conduct the preparation and they have more latitude as to what they can do than FMHPs when it comes to preparing their clients. The difference between the attorney and FMHP is that the attorney has a fiduciary relationship with his or her client while FMHPs have the child’s best interest as their focal point regardless of whether they testify or not. Clearly, a consulting FMHP preparing a client for an evaluation should not be a testifying expert because that would constitute a dual role.
On the other hand, there are others who advocate for litigant preparation in that such consultation can result in very powerful parental education which can ultimately decrease conflict between parents and benefit the child.
There is a difference between coaching for test taking, forensic interviewing, etc. and client education. Coaching to “fool” an evaluator would be inappropriate and unethical while educating a litigant as to parenting skills is appropriate.An important distinction here is needed, however. This discussion only applies to a FMHP hired for consultation and not a court appointed evaluator. Evaluators are just that, evaluators not educators. It would not be appropriate for an evaluator to “educate” a litigant undergoing an evaluation. That would involve taking on two roles and is forbidden by professional guidelines and ethical standards.
The consulting FMHP can describe the components of an evaluation and what an evaluator is trying to accomplish. Also, FMHPs can help the litigant understand what to expect from the evaluator during the evaluation process, what the evaluator’s duties are and what is not appropriate. The FMHP can help the litigant have realistic expectations as to what family courts can and cannot do in such cases. The FMHP can help the litigant calm down and maintain control of their emotions, fears, anxiety, etc. so they can be calmer and focused. FMHPs should not prepare or help prepare scripts for the litigant, nor tell them how to answer test questions, such tactics are not only unethical but typically backfire anyway.
In parental alienation cases, rejected parents need to be encouraged to continue and maintain contact with their children. Too frequently rejected parents shy away from contact thinking that they are doing the “right” thing by not upsetting their children and not making waves. Actually they are not only demonstrating that they don’t care for their children, a lie frequently promulgated by the alienating parent, but many evaluators will get the same interpretation and validate the alienating parent’s lie. Rejected parents also need to assert themselves with their attorneys in that they need to get their case before the Court early as possible.