What will America’s psychologists do for cash?

“American Psychological Association Bolstered C.I.A. Torture Program, Report Says” is a New York Times story on PhD psychologists and what they are willing to do when hired as consultants.

The “Litigation” chapter of Real World Divorce has a section on psychologists paid to come into the courtroom when Parent A sues Parent B, seeking custody of children and the tax-free child support cash that will accompany the kids:

Lawyers and judges whom we interviewed were skeptical regarding the value of court-appointed psychologists. Here was a typical litigator’s perspective: “They have no reliable research. They have no long-term research. There is no proof that psychology and psychiatric professionals are any better predictors of parenting than lay judges. [divorce psychology/custody/GAL work] is a wildly expensive industry that has grown up based mostly on hocus pocus. ‘Best interest of the child’ is a legal term, not a psychological term yet we are turning to psychologists to tell the court what is best for a child.” Psychologists who got paid to testify in court spoke confidently of their ability to deliver value. Psychologists who were not being paid to do this work spoke scornfully of their colleagues who were. Linda Nielsen, professor at Wake Forest: “”Anyone who tells you that they’ve checked their biases at the door is an idiot. Evaluators have their own prejudices.” Joyanna Silberg, who has written extensively on child abuse: “Psychologists have sold their souls. I will not do custody evaluations. It is ridiculous to look into which parent is feeding sugared cereals. I will not pretend that I have divine power.” What about commonly used psychological tests? “I was head of testing for a hospital. I have no interest in using tests developed to treat very ill people to help somebody get custody.” But how can she resists the fees? “Courts give a lot more attention to money than to children. I have no interest in the money-making industry of lawyers and parents fighting with each other over money.” But isn’t it nominally over what’s best for the children? “The economics underlying child support incentivizes so many horrible things that are done to children,” responded Dr. Silberg. “It is insane that our law gives parents a financial incentive to fight over custody.” (Silbert practices in Maryland, a state where child support revenue is potentially unlimited.)

Whatever the value of psychologists in the courtroom, the price tends to be high. Andrea Estes, a reporter with the Boston Globe, found that GALs in Massachusetts regularly ran up $50,000 bills and that judges tended to appoint friends as GALs despite a system in place in which, absent agreement between the parties, GALs were supposed to be appointed sequentially from a list. Who pays these bills? As with legal fees, a higher-income defendant will typically pay the majority of these costs.

What keeps the GAL/custody evaluation system going? Attorneys told us that custody recommendations make judges’ lives easier. By rubber-stamping the recommendation of a GAL or psychologist, whose own investigation was not subject to any of the rules of evidence or cross-examination, a judge can dispose of custody cases quickly and in an appeal-proof manner.

Attorneys, judges, and psychologists all agree that psychologists are big in the world of divorce. But how big is divorce in the world of psychology? A Massachusetts couple seeking a therapist for their child sought recommendations early in 2015. Of 11 child specialists contacted or recommended, at least 9 were earning money from testifying in divorce lawsuits or serving as Guardians ad Litem. (Research method: type therapist’s name into Google along with with the word “divorce” or “forensic” and wait for legal pleadings or advertisements for expert services to come back.)


5 thoughts on “What will America’s psychologists do for cash?

  1. There are many psychologists who refuse to do any court related work, whether child custody evaluations or court-ordered counseling. They see it as contrary to the reasons they entered the profession.

  2. Here is another thing psychologists will do for cash: sell extended time on the SAT/ACT. Someone I know well makes a very nice living from this racket. She tests kids to see if they qualify for extended time (a battery of psychoeducational tests followed by a report and recommendations costs several thousand $ – affordable only to the fairly well off) and whaddaya know, every single time each kid that she has tested can be recommended for extended time for one reason or another.

    In the past, the SAT used to mark your report with an asterisk if it had been given under extended time conditions. Then some kid who literally had no arms sued the College Board and in the settlement they agreed that there would be no indication given to the colleges if extend time was given to the disabled. This includes “learning disabled”. The entire validity of the SAT scores depends in large part upon the timed conditions – if you give any student additional time, they will usually do better. So wealthy parents are now gaming the system to buy their kids more time. Meanwhile, middle class kids out in Iowa have no idea that it is even possible to do this and even if they asked their parents for several thousand $ to buy extended time, there’s no way in hell they are going to shell out thousands of $ to buy their kids a few extra points on the SAT even if they could afford to do so, which they can’t.

    It’s now reaching the point where she is being asked to do this for kids entering professional schools (including med school) so soon you will have the honor of being treated by a learning disabled or dyslexic doctor. Better hope she won’t transpose your dosage amounts.

  3. The definitive book on the misuse of psychology in the courtroom is CMU Robyn Dawes book “House of Cards”.
    His conclusions: the science is thin but all we have, but the practice has nothing to do with the science. Also, don’t ever agree to take a psych test in the context of a legal dispute.

  4. Don’t take a psych test for the court? Who has a choice?

    I have had to take about 20 psych tests for the family court, including a Rohschack inkblot test.

  5. “Courts give a lot more attention to money than to children” – Ah yes, king Solomon had a very cheap method of finding out who should have custody. In fact, speaking from some experience, in many cases it seems to be similar to Solomon’s quandary: those fighting the hardest for custody do not necessarily have the purest motives. The problem is that child custody itself is a wrangle over finances in most cases.

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