Custody Evaluations
What is a Bonding Assessment?

A: In situations where child protection agencies, attorneys, or courts need feedback in deciding whether to work toward a return of custody – versus exploring options such as guardianship, change of placement, continued foster placement, or adoption – psychologists often complete what is termed a “bonding evaluation.” A bonding evaluation is a specialized type of assessment whose goal is to determine the nature and quality of the child’s attachments to birth and/or foster parents, often to address the question of who occupies the position of greatest centrality in a child’s emotional life. This is roughly equivalent to determining which adult(s) serve as the “psychological parent” to the child. While mostly conducted in the context of child welfare cases, bonding evaluations are also used in divorce and custody cases, particularly if there are questions about the bond and relationship between a young child and a parent.

While each evaluator may conduct a bonding assessment in different ways, there are common themes. Typically the evaluator pays close attention to certain characteristics between the parent and the child such as:

• The frequency and nature of touching between parent and child as an index of comfort level;
• Comfort seeking and guidance seeking behavior by the child;
• The capacity of the parent to engage the child effectively and to respond to the child’s expressed needs in an appropriate manner;
• Whether the parent and child make eye contact and smile at each other;
• Whether the child displays signs of upset if a separation occurs during the session;
• How the parent responds to the child’s signals of hunger, thirst, want of comfort, or need to use the bathroom;
• Whether the child is willing to explore the environment while the parent is in the same room.

Attachment theory plays a prominent part in parent-child assessments. It is generally accepted that children who are securely attached to a caregiver usually appear relaxed, happy, and enthusiastic while interacting with that person. Stereotyped reactions such as a forced laugh and severely limited range of responses during a session are much more likely to be present in conflicted relationships. With young children in particular, it is especially important to examine the caregiver’s ability to recognize and respond to the non-verbal cues put forth by the child [e.g., eye contact, smiling, reaching, crawling toward, etc.]. While some will make the argument that the adults in a bonding assessment will be on their best behavior and thus able to fool the examiner, this runs counter to attachment theory. Attachment cannot be faked and an evaluation of this nature is usually able to distinguish between behavior in the child that has been reinforced over time as opposed to the child’s short-term reactions to the immediate responses of the parent. Children know when someone is genuinely available to respond to their basic attachment needs.

One of the more important elements of the bonding assessment is the review of history. It is well-founded that history is often the best predictor of future behavior.

Another important element of a child’s history is the involvement of the birth or primary parent with the child. Even in the case of a child who has been placed with a foster parent at birth, a strong attachment is possible if the birth parent visits consistently and meets the child's needs in a variety of contexts. In such cases, consistent contact with the parent enables a young child to internalize an image of the adult as a caring and helpful figure. It is easier for a parent to assume a position of centrality in a child’s internal world in the event of a return of custody than it is for a parent who was previously in a peripheral position in the child’s inner mental life.

With respect to the term “bonding,” it is helpful to conceptualize this as a reciprocal attachment, which both parties want and expect to continue. Bonding can be specifically defined in four concrete and evidentiary ways, any one of which is sufficient to indicate its presence:

1. Time and place
2. The behavior of a child
3. Reciprocal attachment
4. Family identification

Humans bond by sharing important events in daily life such as eating, sleeping and playing with each other. Time spent together is one factual way to measure bonding. In a parent/child setting, bonding is likely after three months. Research indicates that this is the length of time that normal human beings take to adjust to new and/or difficult situations. Bonding is probable after six months. Most children will adjust and attach well within this period. Many courts and states acknowledge this fact when selecting adoptive homes. The Indiana Child Welfare Manual, for example, recommends that preference for adoption be given to foster parents who have had the child in their home for six months or more.

Bonding is almost certain after one year. One year is a long time in the life of a child. For this reason, the Adoption and Safe Families Act has attempted to set a limit on the time a child can be kept in temporary care.

Many state child welfare agencies have definitions of bonding that consider how the relationship is viewed by the rest of the community. This can include: a) the child identifies as a member of the family and the family considers the child to be a family member; b) the child is perceived to be a member of the family and is treated as such by the community such as school, friends, church, neighbors or extended family members; and c) the child has developed reliance upon and trust in the family while in their care.

Children form significant attachments to adults who meet their physical and emotional needs regardless of any biological connection. This bonding outweighs biological kinship, not because the biological parents may not have certain “rights,” but because these rights are superseded by the consequences that can result from moving a bonded child.

Bonded relationships are critical in child development. When a bonded relationship is threatened or severed, trauma can result. Interrupted bonding can take a huge toll on human health and well-being. The younger the child and the deeper the bond, the more devastating can be the impact, unless matters are handled in a sensitive and child-focused manner.

Fortunately, courts are recognizing the importance of bonding and attachment when considering placement decisions. The courts have used terms like “continuity of care” and “risk of transition” when describing the importance of attachment and keeping children in bonded relationships. The Washington Appellate Court, for example, wrote:

"...Evidence relevant to an adoptive placement decision may include, but is not limited to, the psychological and emotional bonds between the dependent child and its biological parents, its siblings, and its foster family; the potential harm the child may suffer if severed from contact with these persons as a result of placement decisions; the nature of the child’s attachment to the person or persons constituting the proposed placement; and the effect of an abrupt and substantial change in the child’s environment. An important objective is to maintain continuity in the child’s relationship with a parental figure and to avoid numerous changes in custody, if this is possible, without harm to the child. Where possible, the initial placement shall be viewed as the only placement for the child."

Finally, the Model Statute for Termination of Parental Rights, developed by the Neglected Children Committee of the National Council of Juvenile Court Judges notes that “Children have their own built-in time sense based on the urgency of their instinctual and emotional needs.” The Statute notes that what seems like a short wait for an adult can be an intolerable separation to a young child. Protection of children’s attachment to foster caregivers is mentioned in the Introduction, which asserts that repeated uprooting of children in placement who have become attached to serve their parents is “seriously detrimental to their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.” The Model Statute mandates that courts take into account “Whether said child has become integrated into the foster family to the extent that his familial identity is with that family.” The Statute instructs courts to note “the love, affection and other emotional ties existing between the child and the parent and his ties with the integrating family,” as well as “the capacity and disposition of a parent from whom he was removed as compared with that of the integrating family to give the child love, affection and guidance, and continuing the education of the child.”

How Does this fit with Attachment?

A: Genetics influence all aspects of human development, with the exception of attachment. Instead, attachment is a process that is based on experience. Parents and other care providers absolutely shape the attachment of children.

Children can be attached to parents, but not the reverse. Attachment is equated with safety. When a child is scared, anxious, or needy, he or she will put forth a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate their level of stress or need. When the parent intuits what the child needs and responds accordingly, the child's stress goes down and he/she feels safe. If the parent does not respond, or if her response is inconsistent or erratic, the child can develop an unhealthy attachment style. If we were to say that the parent is attached to the child, it means the parent derives a sense of safety with the child. Clearly, this is not normal within the parent-child relationship. We want the child to experience this, but not the reverse.

What About Intervention?

A: Increasingly, we are recognizing that it is not what happens to us in life that matters so much, but rather, how we make sense out of it. This is true for adults (which is why it is sometimes easier to cope with trauma that is an "act of God" versus one that occurs at the hand of men), as well as for children. With young kids, however, they need our help in understanding how and why things happen.

Children with disorganized types of attachment did not receive this level of validation during times of stress. In many instances, they were actually afraid of--or afraid for--the parent, and at no point did they receive acknowledgement, support, or what attachment therapists refer to as 'repair.' Think about your own adult relationships. Usually, the issue isn't so much about what caused stress or conflict between two people. More important, are they able to 'repair' the 'break?' This is at the heart of empathy and it is one of the things young children who find themselves in chaotic or stressful situations lack.

Often, it is not possible to prevent a child from finding himself in a stressful situation. This can result when the child is in foster care; has to visit with an 'unfamiliar' parent; or must visit with a parent who does not offer attunement, empathy, and playfulness. While we may not be able to intervene and stop these events, we must do what we can to offer the child the 'repair' he needs in order to cope with the stress. Otherwise, the child can't regulate their emotions and they may tantrum, regress, or act out following visits.

Is this a Service You Provide?

A: Yes. If the child is three years or younger, I do what is called a Bonding Assessment. If the child is four or older, I do what is called an Interactional Assessment. With the Bonding Assessment, particular attention is paid to the parent's ability to perceive and respond to the child's attachment cues [i.e., smiling, reaching, crying, and other 'signaling' behaviors]. With an Interactional Assessment, observation, interview, and testing is often integrated into the process.

I screen the cases I accept very carefully and all services are performed in New Mexico.

If you are looking for someone outside of New Mexico who conducts these, I don't have many resources to refer you to. Your best bet is to check with your local child protection agency, as they may have referral sources.

What is Done with the Data?

A: It depends. Sometimes the Court needs this information to make placement or custody decisions. This is common in instances of adoption, foster care, termination of parental rights, divorce, and guardianship arrangements.

At other times, the information and data is used to help strengthen aspects of the parent-child bond or relationship. For example, I will sometimes videotape the sessions and then review them with the parent, without the child present. I point out areas of parental strength and weakness and help the parent to better identify the child's non-verbal attachment cues.

Several programs have been developed that use this approach in educating at-risk parents about bonding and attachment. At-risk refers to parents who have dynamics or circumstances in life that often contribute to disrupted attachment in their children [e.g., teenage mothers, depressed parents, substance abusing parents, domestic violence, parents who feel ambivalent about having kids, etc.]. Findings from research with these parents point out that this level of support and intervention is highly effective at strengthening the parent-child bond.

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