Children’s Drawings: Should they be included in a forensic psychological evaluation?

October 14, 2015

We are not sure of the actual origin of the picture below. This picture has made its way through many a professional presentation on evaluating children. Let’s assume the following picture was drawn by a 6-year-old girl. This girl was hypothetically asked to draw a picture of her mother as part of a forensic evaluation in a contested child custody case.

The child custody evaluator interprets the test, and factors that interpretation into their final assessment of the family. Was that the right thing to do? Should children’s drawings be included in forensic evaluations? Before continuing with this article take a look at the picture and make your own interpretation of what this 6-year old girl is trying to communicate to the examiner.

Child's Misunderstood Drawing

Using drawings made by children as a psychological test has been a hotly contested issue in the child custody literature. In recent years, with the advent of a more scientific approach to the custody evaluation process, drawings have been shown to lack the criteria that would make them admissible under the Daubert standard. Children’s drawings, be they Human Figure Drawings, House-Tree-Person, Kinetic Family Drawings, or others lack scientific validity and reliability.

A psychological test’s scientific validity has to do with the ability of the instrument to predict or classify behavior. Reliability, in scientific terms, has to do with the consistency of the results if the individual is retested with the same or similar instrument. Drawings, as a psychological test, lack standardization, have no reliable norms and have no standard error rates.

So why are children’s drawings even used?

They can be helpful in a therapeutic setting for hypotheses generation where you have the luxury of time to explore various possible interpretations of the pictures. In a therapeutic setting, you can see the child over many sessions and explore with them the various ideas that are generated in the therapist’s thinking about possible meanings of the drawings. The so-called interpretations are really the therapist’s ideas about what the drawing may or may not indicate. The drawings are not clear, to a psychological certainty, in terms of what they mean for the particular person taking the “test.” In a forensic setting, the examiner must use tests that meet the Daubert standard and can indicate, to a psychological certainty, what is going on for the examinee. There is no time to explore various hypotheses over many months.

Should you see “tests”- such as drawings being used in your child custody evaluations – the astute attorney should zero in on the failure of those tests in terms of reliability and validity. The examiner needs to be questioned about why they used non-forensic instruments in a forensic evaluation and most importantly, how did they factor in their interpretation of the drawings into the evaluation. The bottom line is drawings should never be part of a forensic evaluation as a psychological test.

Now it is time for you to compare your interpretation of the drawing from above with this hypothetical note from the child’s mother:

Dear Examiner,

The picture is NOT me pole dancing on stage. I work at Home Depot and had commented to my daughter how much money we made in the recent snowstorm. The drawing is of me selling a shovel.


The Mom

We assume all of you attorneys and judges “interpreted” the picture correctly…

Posted Under: Divorce and Family, Parenting

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