Use of the MMPI-2 In Child Custody Evaluations Involving Battered Women: What Does Psychological Research Tell Us?.

Published by American Bar Assoc Family Law Quarterly

by Nancy S. Erickson

American Bar Association Family Law Quarterly Spring, 2005   39 Fam. L.Q. 87

Nancy S. Erickson J.D. Brooklyn Law School, LL.M. Yale Law School, M.A. in Forensic Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The author was a professor of law in New York and Ohio and has written extensively on family law issues, es-pecially custody, domestic violence, and child support. She is currently a senior attorney at Legal Services for New York City, Brooklyn Branch. The views expressed in this article are solely the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of Legal Services for New York City.

I. Introduction

The effects of domestic violence on survivors, who are primarily women, may be severe. Battered women's advocates often note that, in custody cases, the batterer often "looks better" to the court than the victim does because he is confident and calm, whereas she is still suffering the effects of his abuse and therefore may appear hysterical, weepy, angry, or otherwise not "together."

When a custody evaluation is conducted by a psychologist, the revised version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Per-sonality Inventory (MMPI-2) is often used as part of the evaluation process. The MMPI-2, like other traditional psychological tests, was not designed for use in custody evaluations and arguably should not be used for such purpose except "when specific problems or issues that these tests were designed to measure appear salient in the case."

However, if an evaluator chooses to use it, great care should be taken to make sure that it is not misinterpreted. A misinterpretation could result in placing custody of a child with a batterer, which could put the child at severe risk. Additionally, for many parents, especially those who have been primary caretakers, loss of custody of their children is the most frightening thing they can imagine, short of death. Loss of such an important liberty interest should not occur because of flawed information presented to the court by anyone, including one deemed to be an expert.

Abusers typically disavow any wrongdoing and claim the mother is "crazy" or unfit in some other way. The MMPI-2 cannot disprove a batterer's claim of innocence, because there is no known MMPI-2 abuser "profile."  In fact, many MMPI-2 profiles of batterers do not reveal any psychopathology.

Battered women, however, based on the results of the MMPI-2, may appear to be suffering from various psychopathologies, including but not limited to borderline personality disorder, paranoia, histrionic personality disorder, or even schizophrenia. The custody evaluator may conclude that the mother's apparent psychopathology is a personality disorder and therefore characterological (a "trait"). Personality disorders are viewed by many psychologists as highly treatment resistant and therefore curable, if at all, only with very long-term therapy and often psychotropic drugs. The custody evaluator might even conclude that the mother's apparent "psychopathology" caused the physical conflict between the parents.

Clinicians inadvertently maintaining such assumptions may examine a battered woman's profile and conclude, "Oh, no wonder she gets beat up. She's crazy, schizophrenic, borderline, and unstable," and the clinician may fail to investigate alternative conceptualizations for the woman's psychological presentation.

Failure to investigate other possible causes could even lead the custody evaluator to doubt whether the woman was abused at all - perhaps someone so unstable has made false allegations or perhaps she has attacked her partner and he has simply acted in self-defense.
An "alternative conceptualization" is that the woman's psychological presentation is a reaction to the abuse she has suffered (a reactive "state").

If battered women's MMPI elevations are reactive, one would expect that their MMPIs prior to being battered would be relatively "normal," that their MMPIs during the battering relationship would be elevated, and that their MMPI elevations would decrease after the abuse ended. Additionally, it might be expected that the severity of the abuse suffered by the woman or the length of time she was abused might correlate with the MMPI eleva-tions.

This article surveys the available research on battered women's MMPI/MMPI-2 profiles. That research tends to support the hypothesis that a battered woman's MMPI-2 profile often is a result of the abuse she has suffered (a reactive "state") and therefore should not be viewed by child custody evaluators as evidence that she has personality traits indi-cating that she would not be a fit parent.

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