Psychological Evaluation 101: Court Ordered Assessments

Lately I have gotten a number of referrals for a type of evaluation that I do not offer, so I thought I would talk a bit about what makes these types of evaluations unique to help readers identify the right provider. Today I will share with you what it means to receive an assessment that is court ordered, recommended, or otherwise needed for a legal reason.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

A psychological evaluation might be court ordered for a number of reasons:

  1. The judge might need to determine whether someone is competent to stand trial. This means that the defendant is able to understand the charges against them and can participate in their defense, and this is most commonly requested in criminal cases. Often, the psychologist will complete a combination of cognitive and personality assessments to determine the person’s level of functioning to make this determination.
  2. A lawyer might argue that their client is not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning they were not in their right mind at the time that they committed a crime. This defense is extremely rare but can be used in criminal cases.
  3. When parents are going to court to determine custody, the judge might require that they undergo a custody evaluation, which includes having each parent’s mental status evaluated to determine what custody and visitation schedule is in the child or children’s best interest. This decision is not typically based on whether a parent is diagnosed with a specific mental health condition but on overall functioning. (And, of course, I could go on and on about how it is problematic to equate mental illness with competency as a parent – plenty of people with diagnosable mental health conditions make wonderful parents!)
  4. Similar to the custody evaluation discussed above, Child Protection might request that a parent be evaluated in order to regain custody or visitation of their children after the child has been removed from the home due to abuse or neglect. This differs from a custody evaluation because it involves specific allegations of harm against the child.

Regardless of the reason for a court evaluation, you want to work with a provider who has experience and competency with forensic work, someone who knows what information the court needs and how to provide that specific answer.

If you have not been ordered to complete an evaluation but your lawyer has suggested you seek out an assessment pre-emptively, the provider still needs these qualifications in order to complete the assessment.

Although a judge could order a non-forensically-trained professional to release a report that they completed or have that professional testify, the results will generally not be helpful. For example, I occasionally get called into court for custody hearings because I work with children, but because I am not trained in custody evaluations, I cannot make a recommendation about custody to the court. If asked, I have to say, “It is not within my role or scope of practice to make a specific custody recommendation.”

Similarly, if someone pre-emptively requests an evaluation with me and then a judge orders me to release that report to determine competency, I would have to say that I do not have the expertise to make that recommendation. So, that client would be out the time and expense of the assessment and will still not have information about whether or not they are competent to stand trial.

It is vital, if you are seeking an assessment to be used in a court case, that the evaluator be trained in this type of evaluation and able to make the specific type of recommendation you need. (You cannot pay a psychologist to say that you should get custody of your child – they will make the recommendation based on their clinical judgment – but you need someone who can make that type of recommendation.)

When setting up this type of evaluation, be up front with the provider about what you need and why you need it. If they cannot make the kind of determination necessary, they should be able to provide information about someone who does offer that kind of assessment.

Court is stressful, and it’s scary to hear that you’re being ordered to get an evaluation. Finding a provider who can do the appropriate evaluation and give the type of recommendation needed is the first step in a difficult process, and ensuring that the provider is competent in the kind of evaluation you need can smooth out the process significantly.

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. Her clinical interests are varied and include child and adolescent therapy, TF-CBT, rural psychology, telemental health, sexual and domestic violence, psychological assessment, and mental illness prevention. Dr. Marschall presently works in the Child and Adolescent Therapy Clinic at Sioux Falls Psychological Services in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she provides individual and family therapy and psychological assessment to children, adolescents, and college students. She also facilitates an art therapy group for adolescents and college students with anxiety and depression. Dr. Amy Marschall is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Telemental Health.

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