This study analyzes the questions on aspects of child custody, visitation rights, or child endangerment that judges pose to forensic psychologists in family law proceedings. Before conducting a psychological evaluation, the legal question in the referral has to be translated into case-specific, forensically relevant issues. The only overarching principle guiding this process is the “best interests of the child” criterion. Literature indicates that judges often struggle to define what variables should be specified for a psychological evaluation in their referral questions. This study aims to contribute to a better understanding of the information judges would like to ascertain from psychological evaluators in child custody and child protection proceedings—an understanding allowing a clearer determination of whether forensic psychologists as experts can deliver this information. Latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) is used to analyze the referral questions that these judges pose to forensic evaluators in terms of (a) underlying topics (latent dimensions) that can be identified within the referral questions and (b) the probability distributions of legal terms and forensic issues contained in the referral questions. This analysis is based on unclassified text data extracted from German court files. Five topics (latent dimensions) were identified within referral questions resembling cases when the issue was as follows: (a) potential child endangerment in the context of visitation contacts, (b) a possibly limited parenting capacity and its potential effects on child well-being, (c) an impairment of the child has already occurred or could occur, (d) a better option concerning custody and residence, and (e) an unclear topic addressing questions on custody, residence, and visitation in which no specific psychological constructs are involved. In four of the five topics, judges utilize their referral questions to ask for case-group-specific psychological information. In one topic addressing questions on custody, residence, and visitation, judges seem to struggle to define criteria that forensic evaluators should assess. Overall, results help to identify and define more clearly the relevant constructs that forensic experts should examine from the perspective of the courts with the goal of making clearer and more accurate recommendations.
Source: Read More: What Judges Want to Know From Forensic Evaluators in Child Custody and Child Protection Cases: Analyzing Forensic Assignments With Latent Dirichlet Allocation