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Psychological Evaluations of Child Abuse

Once an allegation of child abuse has been made, it must be investigated to determine whether there is a basis for the allegation. Psychologists are frequently asked to evaluate children and adults to assess whether a pattern of abuse is evident, to identify personal, family and outside stressors that are contributing to the abuse pattern, or creating a high risk situation for abuse to occur, and to develop treatment recommendations to eliminate the abuse that is identified. Recommendations may include removing a child from parental care, removing a parent or other adult from the household, supervised visitation, discontinuation of visitation, changing parental custody, treatment for the child or the abuser or both, and a plan for family reunification.

Psychologists may complete child abuse investigations for state agencies, for private agencies or as a private practitioner contracted by the state, for a parent making allegations against another adult or parent, for a parent being accused of child abuse, for the court as part of a custody or visitation risk assessment, or as part of treatment of a child or adult. However, psychologists cannot determine if a person is lying (neither can anyone else), and evidence of possible abuse does not mean there is abuse. Divorced or separated parents may make false accusations, and troubled children may make an accusation and later retract it. Psychologists are obligated to clarify the limits of prediction based on clinical judgment and psychological testing, and should not present their opinion as fact. 

Child abuse investigations usually involve clinical interviews with all involved parties, and collecting information from all appropriate sources. Psychological tests may be employed to assess mental functioning, identify possible psychological disorders or problems, or identify abuse risk factors. Frequently, the findings are presented in court, and the court determines whether there is sufficient data to determine if abuse took place, and who did it.

While many child abuse investigations remain in Family Court, more serious allegations of abuse may result in criminal charges being brought against the alleged perpetrator.  In Criminal Court, the standard of proof is much greater, as the acts must be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt."  Psychologists may be asked to complete evaluations of alleged perpetrators, or of children who have been abused,  in order to identify the factors that do, or do not, point to abuse.  Psychologists may also be asked to explain, evaluate or critique reports and evaluations completed by other psychologists, to assess whether the higher standards of criminal court were used to determine the conclusions, and to comment on whether the assessment procedures were reliable, or whether the tests used do in fact predict what they are said to predict.  Psychologists may be asked to testify regarding the limitations of psychological assessment as well.

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