Should Children Be Interviewed for Family Reports?

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This is one response from the Expert Interview Series: Dr. Travis Gee. Refer to the table of contents for the whole series of questions posed to Psychologist Dr Travis Gee, on the topic of how Family Reports and the Psychology Industry in Family Law

  1. In producing a family report, the family consultant usually speaks to all significant parties involved in the case including the child/ren. How does such process likely affect the emotional well being of a child? Is it necessary for the child/ren to be included in such process?

family-reports-dr-travis-geeThis is something recently raised by Chief Justice Bryant 1, acknowledging the poor levels of contact between children and their supposed representatives in the court.

Looking specifically at the report writer, sometimes there may be 20 minutes or so contact, much as a psychiatric evaluation may take up to 90 minutes for the parents.

The paucity of what can be done in such a short time naturally leads parents to question how accurate the reports may be. Questions about accuracy necessarily raise questions about the validity of inferences drawn from such interviews.

To your question of how an interview may affect the child, it must be said that it will depend on a range of factors, not least of which is the presence or absence of alienation processes by a parent.

When an alienating parent targets the other parent and encourages false beliefs in the child in order to persuade the report writer (and others including the child) of things that are simply not true, the child’s reality testing processes can be strained.

Inculcation of false memories in children is not particularly difficult,2 and if the child adopts wholesale a fictional version of their relationship with the alienated parent, it can become a toxic subjective reality that may be held on to for life, costing him or her the benefit of a perfectly good parent.

In the words of lawyer Dr. Christopher Barden,“There can be no credible controversy about the power of parents to influence children.” 3

In the words of lawyer Dr. Christopher Barden,“There can be no credible controversy about the power of parents to influence children.”

If the child cannot quite come to believe it, there is room for the child’s reality testing to work, but then the child comes to see the alienating parent for what they are, and again,  a parent/child bond may be destroyed, sooner or later.

That is not to mention the deleterious effects of alienation across a range of areas of life including lower levels of achievement, less attainment of post-secondary education, greater unemployment, lower socio-economic status, attachment issues and consequent relationship issues and poorer self-esteem.4

The direct effect of the interview will also depend on the skill of the interviewer in eliciting information in a non-biased way. In other words, if the interviewer unwittingly plays into the hands of an alienating parent, leading questions may be used that may create or reaffirm objectively false subjective realities in the child (as noted above).

This is one reason that such interviews should always be recorded. Another reason is that a consultant who has an ethical obligation to ensure accurate recording can be held accountable, which will have the effect of ensuring that omission or misunderstanding of parts of the interview on the writer’s part can be corrected, either prior to finalisation of the report, or on cross-examination.

“The presence of an alienating parent needs to be factored in, to temper judgments about the value of that information”

Other effects may emerge from the failure of the consultant to fully inform the child that the results will be available to the Court and so, to the parents.  Parents may reasonably assume that the children were so apprised, and mention in passing conversation something that the child thought was a complete secret held by the consultant.

The feeling of having been ‘lied to’ (even by omission) in such a way may lead not only to disillusionment with the court process but a great sense of anxiety and personal responsibility for whatever deleterious outcomes may arise. This is especially true if the child has in fact repeated falsehoods supplied by an alienating parent, thinking that the target parent would not find out.

The need for children to be involved in the process diminishes as a function of their youth.  Children under about five years of age have more malleable memories that are more subject to re-constructive processes, leading questions, and alienation processes.

Memories are subject change every time they are recalled, and are sensitive to what is happening at the time, and the use of leading questions (even inadvertently) with younger children can produce misinformation that may be given unwarranted probative weight. As children get older, it becomes more reasonable to incorporate their evidence.

However, the most reliable evidence will not be historical factors about the he said/she said of the parents, but about their own internal states – their feelings and desires. Even then, however, the presence of an alienating parent needs to be factored in, to temper judgments about the value of that information.

  1. Children should have more say in family disputes, says top judge. Susie O’Brien, Herald Sun, 30/7/2014.
  2. Loftus, E., and Pickrell, JE (1995) The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals 25 (12) 720-725.
  3. Barden, R. C. (2006) Protecting the fundamental rights of children and families: Parental alienation syndrome and family law reform. In R. Gardner, R. Sauber, &  L. Lorandos. (Eds.), International handbook of parental alienation syndrome  (pp. 419-432). Springfield, IL:  Thomas.
  4. Ben-Ami, N., Baker, A. J. L. The long-term correlates of childhood exposure to parental alienation on adult self-sufficiency and well-being. American Journal of Family Therapy 40.2 (2012): 169-83.

Valerie Cortes

Online Legal Information Author at Family Law Express
Valerie is a Bachelor of Business Bachelor of Laws student at the University of Technology Sydney, majoring in International Business. Upon graduating, she plans to work in areas of family law and international human rights law, as well as an interest in international business law and commercial law. She volunteers as an interpreter for clients at a refugee case services.
Valerie Cortes
Categories: Allegations of Child Abuse, Dr Travis Gee, Emotional Abuse, Evidence from Children, False Allegations, False memories, Parental Alienation
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