• Psychologist helps solve custody cases
  • September 14, 2011
  • Law Firm: John H. Ruby Associates - Louisville Office
  • Embroiled in a court battle in which she temporarily lost custody of her three children, Jennifer Dingle felt unfairly targeted by Kentucky social-service officials.

    She feared that allegations of child abuse they were investigating would permanently cause her to lose the custody she shared with her former spouse. “I thought the nightmare was never going to end,” said Dingle, 41, of Elizabethtown.

    Enter Kelli Marvin, a University of Louisville psychologist who was asked by the judge in the case to conduct a “forensic mental-health assessment” of the entire family to help determine  what was best for the children, then ages 10, 12 and 13.

    The outcome? After Marvin’s review, a Hardin County family court judge found that no abuse or neglect had occurred and restored the custody arrangement Dingle and her ex-husband shared.

    “My case is solved,” Dingle said. “My children are so happy.”

    Her ex-husband, Jerome Dingle, an Army first sergeant now serving at Fort Benning, Ga., said he believes the report was fair.

    “Overall, I thought it was a great assessment of my family and what everyone was going through,” he said.

    Marvin, 45, developed her skills as a forensic examiner — someone trained to determine the facts of a situation — during seven years in Manhattan (N.Y) Family Court, which keeps a team of professionals, including doctors and psychologists, on staff to help judges sort through cases and make decisions.

    Generally, she said, her job is to evaluate a parent’s mental health and determine whether he or she is capable of responsibly caring for a child. Marvin’s role — she’s the only forensic examiner for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services — is to provide factual information to the judge based on clinical standards she has learned.

    Skills in demand

    Last year, Marvin said, she conducted about 100 assessments, and she is increasingly in demand by Kentucky family court judges for her skill in sorting out the contentious details of such cases and offering what she describes as a science-based guide for making decisions.

    Marvin largely works on cases in the counties surrounding Jefferson County — including Bullitt, Oldham and Shelby. She charges a modest  fee — which she said is possible because even though she is an assistant professor of pediatrics at U of L’s medical school, the university allows her to dedicate time to the work. The fee is paid by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in cases in which a judge approves her work.

    “She is a fabulous resource for the really difficult cases,” Oldham Family Court Judge Tim Feeley said. “The problem I have is her availability. All the judges in the area have figured out how valuable she is.”

    Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles said Marvin recently completed a detailed evaluation that helped him decide whether to restrict a parent’s access to the children after one died from unexplained injuries.

    “It gave me enough to make what I felt was a comfortable decision that the kids were at risk,” Bowles said.

    Marvin, who came to Kentucky in 2007 and was hired last year to create a forensic mental-health program at U of L’s medical school, said she “would love to have a full staff of psychologists to handle cases” that she says sorely need such assessments.

    Instead, Marvin works solo. She takes on as many cases as she can but advises clients — in most cases, family court judges — that it may be months before she issues a report. And that means parties in a case, such as children separated from parents, must wait for an outcome.

    “I have a six- to nine-month waiting list to generate a report,” Marvin said. “That’s awful — that pains me that in that period there’s a child in foster care who could have been reunified with a family.”

    Marvin said she would like to expand the services, especially in Jefferson County, where the state has no money to pay for her services this year. For now, she does four free cases a year for Jefferson Family Court but said the need is much greater.

    Marvin said she does extensive research, including a lengthy interview with the parent, a review of his or her medical and educational records, any criminal history and any social service files related to the case. She also may look at work history and housing, as well as administering standardized tests designed to measure psychological function and assess an adult’s potential for child abuse.

    Marvin said the interview with the parent includes certain “interwoven” questions designed to detect lies or evasion.

    “It’s very difficult to fake,” she said.

    During her evaluation, Marvin said, she looks for signs of mental illness or disability, substance abuse or personality problems that could affect a person’s ability to be a good parent. Sometimes her work includes assessing parents whose children have been removed because of abuse or neglect and evaluating whether they can be safely returned.

    “At times, reunification is not going to be possible,” Marvin said. “My role is to say that this parent will not be able to safely parent.”

    Once her research is complete, Marvin assembles a report to the judge detailing her findings and recommendations. Reports are anywhere from 15 to 50 pages.

    “You have to have a very thick skin,” Marvin said. “I’m going to come down on one side or the other, and someone is going to be unhappy.”

    A fair evaluation

    Marvin’s work is confidential, as are most records in family court. But Jennifer Dingle agreed to provide copies of Marvin’s report and other court records to The Courier-Journal because she believed Marvin’s findings were fair — even though the report included some criticisms of her.

    “It’s hard to read these bad things about you,” Dingle said but added: “It was fair — very thorough and objective.”

    For example, Marvin’s report noted that Dingle appeared to have an “excessive and obsessive” view that she was being persecuted by state social-service officials. It found Dingle had little insight into ways that she exercised poor judgment in her clashes with social workers and engaged in actions that actually prolonged the custody battle.

    Dingle acknowledges that some of her comments and actions during the custody case may have seemed excessive — especially when officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services got involved, investigating suspected abuse or neglect.

    But Marvin’s report found Dingle to be “intellectually intact” and considered a good mother by teachers, coaches and others who encountered her with the children. Marvin found the children to be bright, well-adjusted and very unhappy about being separated from their mother during the dispute, finding that they are “deeply bonded to and very much aligned” with Dingle.

    Marvin recommended reuniting the children with their mother in her Feb. 3 report, and Hardin Family Court Judge M. Brent Hall issued an order May 13 to that effect. Initially, Dingle shared custody but was awarded primary custody after her former husband — who had been at Fort Knox — was transferred to Georgia.

    Jennifer Dingle’s lawyer, Bob Bishop, credits Marvin’s report with resolving the dispute, which lasted more than a year.

    “I would welcome her input on other cases,” he said.