April 25, 2010

Calif.: Custody evaluators facing lost immunity

Among forensic psychologists, child custody evaluators face the highest rate of licensure board complaints. The courts request their help in the most acrimonious parenting disputes, and it is easy to get caught in the crossfire. Even though 99 percent of all board complaints are ultimately dismissed, defending oneself is stressful, time-consuming, and expensive.

Over the past 20 years, aggrieved parents have deluged psychology licensure boards with frivolous, manipulative and mean-spirited complaints. Fearing that the onslaught would discourage professionals from agreeing to assist courts in high-conflict parenting cases, legislatures in many U.S. states have increased statutory protections. In the past decade, Florida and West Virginia passed immunity statutes for court-appointed evaluators. Colorado went even further, barring licensing board complaints over child custody evaluations, requiring that complainants instead take their claims back to the original trial court.

But legislation being proposed in California would turn in the opposite direction, dismantling quasi-judicial immunity protections for evaluators and other neutral professionals who assist the courts in parenting disputes. The current version of the proposed Assembly Bill 2475, heading to the state Assembly's Judiciary Committee on May 4, would add the following section (43.94) to California’s Civil Code:

"The doctrine of judicial immunity or quasi judicial immunity shall not apply to exonerate any private third party appointed by the court in an advisory capacity based on his or her professional expertise, who provides a report or findings to the Court in a proceeding under the Family Code, with the intention that the Court act in one way or another based on such report or findings, from liability for acts performed within the scope of his or her appointment in violation of laws, rules of court, or professional standards. This section shall apply to private individuals such as special masters, minor's counsel, investigators, therapists, evaluators, receivers, bankruptcy trustees, experts, factfinders, and other persons specifically appointed by the courts in an advisory capacity based on their professional training or expertise."
I was initially suspicious that perhaps the "Men's Rights Movement" had a hand, as this increasingly powerful international lobby is making a concerted effort to reform child custody laws to favor men, and especially men accused of abusing their partners and children. Men's rights advocates claim that a feminist-run court system systematically violates men's civil rights, that a large proportion of abuse allegations are false, and that men "are victims of an unrecognized epidemic of violence at the hands of abusive wives," as reported in an expose in Slate. On the legal front, Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting (RADAR) claims credit for blocking four federal domestic-violence bills, among them an international expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, according to the Slate report. Extrajudicially, movement members go so far as to applaud acts of violence perceived as retaliation against the feminist status quo.

But Assemblyman James Beall, the sponsor of AB 2475, does not appear allied with this regressive movement. Rather, he bills himself as a progressive Democrat who fights for the rights of children, families, the poor, and the disabled. Previously, he sponsored legislation (AB 612) to ban the use of Parental Alienation Syndrome -- a favorite of the father's rights movement -- from family courts.

NOTE: After I wrote this post, I did a bit more research on AB 612, and realized it was even more extreme than his new proposal. It would have allowed parents to sue any expert witness who relied upon "an unproven, unscientific theory." This would have included not only Parental Alienation Syndrome, its ostensible target, but a gamut of other evidence. After all, not much in any field of science is completely proven and uncontested. Luckily, that bill was defeated, perhaps explaining this new attempt.
-- May 8, 2010

As it turns out, AB 2475 is supported by opponents of the men's rights movement, including an organization called the Protective Parents Association. This group lobbies on behalf of mothers who say the courts impede their efforts to protect their children by giving joint or sole custody to abusive fathers. "[T]he court responds to women attempting to protect their children from an abusive father with a knee-jerk reaction, assigning gender-biased labels to women to minimize or ignore the abuse in a reckless disregard of the safety of the child," writes association director Karen Anderson. By gender-biased labels, she is referring, no doubt, to Parental Alienation Syndrome.

So, AB 2475 may turn out to be a case of failure to anticipate unintended consequences. As readers know, politicians often propose a law in a knee-jerk response to a high-profile event, tweaking existing mechanisms without adequate anticipation of potential future deployments. Ironically, the bill could open the floodgates for attacks on neutral evaluators by the very same angry men with money who most often invoke the pseudoscientific construct of Parental Alienation Syndrome in custody cases.

When I telephoned Assemblyman Beall's office today to get more background, a staff member was cagey about the bill's impetus and minimized its intended scope, saying it was meant to only apply to mediators and not to child custody evaluators. Clearly, the current language belies this claim. So far I have been unable to turn up any specific case or cases that prompted this bill. Rather, it may be a misguided effort to stop evaluators from using the construct of Parental Alienation Syndrome against mothers in custody cases.

By way of background, various types of immunity for professionals involved in the legal system have a long history. Judicial immunity (immunity for judges) was implemented on public policy grounds in England all the way back in the 17th century. Similarly, witness immunity enjoys a long history, based on the principle of encouraging people to testify honestly and without fear of reprisal. Prosecutors performing their job duties are protected by qualified immunity, while psychologists and teachers enjoy statutory immunity when the law requires them to report child abuse.

Under the construct of quasi-judicial immunity, courts across the United States have repeatedly held that court-appointed experts must have some protection from intimidation in order to feel confident and free to make neutral and independent findings. As Karl Kirkland and colleagues point out in an enlightening review, this bolsters both the integrity of the judicial process and public welfare more generally.

This does not mean evaluators can say or do whatever they want. Immunity is never absolute, nor should it be. But forensic evaluators actually face enhanced scrutiny and risk as compared with other clinicians due to the adversarial nature of legal cases. As Greenberg and colleagues point out in another excellent review (reference at bottom), errors that might go unnoticed or be addressed constructively in therapy are much more likely to be exposed through the adversary process; the opinions of forensic experts must stand up to intense scrutiny and vigorous cross-examination.

But it seems an error to allow parties whose goal is often to subvert the legal process (for example by getting an evaluator removed from a case) to drive honest, hard-working, and experienced professionals away from child custody work through unfounded harassment. Consider the data. California logged the most licensing board complaints over child custody evaluations of any U.S. state during the 1990s. Yet according to Kirkland et al's review, of all of those 1,660 complaints, only a single one -- that's right, ONE -- led to a formal finding against the psychologist.

I will try to stay on top of this issue as it develops, and keep readers posted. Please feel free to post a comment if you learn of any updates, or if you know more about the impetus for this legislation.

For a good expose of the men's rights movement, see the Slate article by Kathyrn Jones, Men's Rights Groups Have Become Frighteningly Effective: They’re changing custody rights and domestic violence laws. In researching the issue of immunity for expert witnesses, I also consulted the following excellent sources (none, unfortunately, accessible online):
Photo: "The Dads Who Fought Back" (2006 video)