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Child Custody and Access Assessments, Impression Management and Secondary Assessments

By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

In voluntary counseling, a person has some degree of insight, is distraught and unsatisfied with their feelings and seeks to make personal changes to limit, cope with or expunge their distress as they themselves may be contributing to it.

However, in the context of child custody and access assessments, it is common that each parent tries to present the best of him or herself and the worst of the other in order to gain an advantage in the dispute. Several strategies may be deployed to limit an untoward view of oneself in the eyes of the assessor, including:

Projection: Placing blame on the other spouse, other persons, other agencies or other circumstances for trouble originating with oneself;

Denial: Saying something didn’t happen or exists, even in the face of compelling information;

Minimization: Presenting a view that the significance of an issue is not as great as what is presented;

Blaming: Placing cause for difficulties solely at the feet of the other particularly in view of the other person’s most obvious problems.

Further, in the context of child custody and access assessment, other secondary assessments may be required to address specific concerns such as alcoholism or addictions. Given the context in these situations, the parent is more apt to use the above noted strategies to hide, minimize or obscure issues that may prove unfavorable to the custody and access assessment. Hence “impression management” underlies their behaviour as they seek to provide the best impression of themselves so as not to undermine their objectives with regard to custody and access.

If service providers offering these secondary assessments for the overall purpose of the child custody and access assessment are not properly trained to understand, appreciate and control for the difference between child custody and access assessments and a voluntary assessment as would be seen for the purpose of counseling, there is a good likelihood that the results will be skewed. There is a likelihood that the self-report of the client will be circumspect compared to when genuinely seeking help for a self-identified problem.

The reason a good child custody and access assessment seeks multiple sources of data is to control for the issue of impression management on the part of the client and thus sift through to detect the story under the story and sort out fact from fiction from half-truths.

Parents and family attorneys are best cautioned to be mindful of who provides secondary assessments and find service providers who are adept at conducting assessments in the context of the client who may find it best to hide or minimize their issues.

Thus the secondary-assessment service provider is best to have two specialties; one pertaining to the issue of investigation and the other pertaining to working with clients who may be engaged substantially in impression management for an ulterior motive. To the experienced child custody and access assessor, these secondary assessments, when provided by persons ill equipped for this context, can be suspect as inaccurate and may reasonably be discounted in their child custody and access assessment process.

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