When parents of minors decide to divorce, increasingly they have options for “dispute resolution,” including mediation, collaborative divorce (each parent has legal representation but all agree not to litigate), and eventually settling out of court. The most malignant and expensive end of the spectrum is child custody litigation. As a clinician now specializing in the treatment of parents in litigation, I have made a number of disturbing discoveries which dramatically underscore the urgent need for the court to have access to qualified professional social workers serving in a wide variety of roles. The essential issues of concern for myself, and also for the attorneys and mental health professionals interested in court reform, are the following.
Often the court recommends or mandates social services and “treatment” without knowing the quality of these resources and without any oversight to see if the parent follows through. The lack of any ‘quality control’ for these services and practitioners (who may not even be licensed) has left the field open to unqualified people working ‘for profit,’ thereby excluding or exploiting the poor. (Attorneys use the term “indigent” which in effect excludes the large population of parents that are still very disadvantaged financially.) This is most likely to be true in the case of the mandatory supervised visitation services.
Also, the court gives no consideration to a parent’s potential for compliance (e.g.
substance abuse and anger management programs), and without any thought of
followup to ensure the changes it is seeking. Aside from the lack of training, the
sheer volume of cases for the seriously understaffed family court judges ensures
protracted litigation. Ultimately this is due to the gross neglect, and therefore
lack of funding, on the part of the state legislatures.
3. In custody litigation, often at least one of the parents has a severe personality
disorder in the narcissistic spectrum, some extending into the antisocial and
psychopathic range. Even the forensic evaluators often fail to pick up one parent’s
sadism and pleasure in perpetuating the other parent’s defeat and torture.
They do not use interview techniques or testing protocols designed specifically to
identify pathological lying and psychopathy. Often in these situations the court
surrenders to mandating ‘joint custody’ which in effect allows one parent to
sabotage the other on any and all decisions regarding the children.
on “diagnosis” rather than concentrating on what the findings have to do with
parenting capacities over time, e.g. genuine empathy with the child and
generally sound judgment in matters that affect the child. Also the fact that
diagnosis is not understood by lawyers easily opens the way for manipulation and
misrepresentation of these terms. The classic examples are the concepts of
‘histrionic’,‘borderline’, and “parental alienation syndrome.” Among those with a
good deal of experience with the custody system, it is believed there may also be
a gender bias in this regard. In New York and other states it is not at all rare that
custody is granted a parent despite having a record of neglect and/or abuse.
changes in a child’s needs over time. At least in New York, far more often than
not, attempts to appeal the court’s custody decision are denied.
assigned to represent them legally. The primary reason for this is likely to be the
indiscriminate assumption that inevitably at least one parent has “alienated” the
child against the other parent to such a degree that any wishes or opinions the
child may express are invalid. Among many attorneys and mental health
professionals there is presently some disagreement about the value of the concept
“parental alienation syndrome” (PAS)
In fact there are those in both fields who contend that PAS should be elevated to a
formal diagnosis in DSM-V. (In my view it is fortunate that there is no time
frame for the completion of this volume.) There is an entire spectrum of
angry, retaliatory behavior toward the other parent beginning with occasional
passive-aggressive maneuvers (e.g. intentionally delaying), ‘bad-mouthing’, and
‘little white lying,’ extending to gross forms of lying, manipulation, and deceit
(e.g. requesting the intervention of Child Protective Services or supervised
visitation of the other parent when there are no legitimate grounds to do so). On
the other hand, parents who are aware of the importance of not telling the child
critical things about the other parent, and who have carefully avoided it, have still
been accused of PAS, which has then been cited by the court as grounds to deny
custody to that parent.
8. Many attorneys prohibit their clients, including the children, from seeing a
psychotherapist lest it be exploited by the opposing attorney. The argument of
the latter is that any record of having seen a therapist, even in years past, is
evidence of that parent’s instability. It is particularly unconscionable to deny
traumatized children access to professional help, but it is a common practice.
Again, consideration is only given to traditional, formal legal practice where
psychological understanding has no place.
9. Law Guardians officially have the mandate to represent the child legally, but in
practice many have boundary problems, e.g. they wander into making
recommendations to the court based on their own untrained, personal
ideas and biases under the guise of ‘what is best for the child.’ In many cases the
Law Guardian may have rare, if any, contact with the child even in a protracted
litigation. The legal system has no required credentials and no policy of
scrutiny to hold attorneys accountable.
10. Legal practice tends to think only in terms of ensuring a parent’s right to access to
the child, but there is little to no consideration for the child’s right to access (or
right to limited or no access for his/her protection) to the parent. This is most
blatantly an injustice in the mandate for a parent’s visitation with the child to be
supervised. Supervised visitation is not licensed, regulated, or registered in
any of the states. It is more often treated as a ‘glorified baby-sitting service’
when in fact there is a good deal of manipulation and acting-out by parents who
are not held accountable for what is required of them. This is always at the
expense of the child. In my view the family court system needs to require that
LMSW’s and LCSW’s oversee all of these services, especially “therapeutic
11. Counties and states, and certainly NYS, rarely provide funding for any form of
followup study or ‘research’. In all of the states and counties any statistics are
limited and superficial, so accurate numbers on families in custody litigation are
simply not available. This may be a potential opportunity for social work doctoral
programs, especially those that emphasize interdisciplinary and ‘systemic’
12. There is a very disturbing paucity of qualified attorneys willing to take on pro
bono cases, even if it is toward the end of the litigation when a parent’s resources
have been exhausted. Pro se (self-representation) efforts are often in vain because
they are so difficult and time-consuming and require “skill sets” that many parents
do not have.
13. In a number of states (it is relatively new in NY) there is a new role sometimes
called the Parenting Coordinator assigned after the final custody judgment to
assist parents in intractable conflict to care appropriately for their children. There are
varying views as to whether this role should be granted authority by the court to
arbitrate when necessary. The consensus is that this is a field for only very
experienced social workers and that interested professionals should begin with
formal training in conflict-resolution and mediation. The function of the Parenting
Coordinator would serve as the court’s “safety net” for ongoing protection of the
children. With this in place as a resource for high-conflict families, judges
potentially might feel freer to expedite the handling of their enormous dockets of
Helping families in custody litigation requires training, skills, and experience in the areas of - domestic violence
- child abuse and sexual abuse
- cross-cultural/immigration, racial and gender (including same-sex) issues
- conflict resolution and mediation
- multi-dimensional social services and psychosocial interventions for families in litigation
- intergenerational issues, e.g. the “rights” of grandparents
- research efforts emphasizing followup/longitudial/”outcome studies” which traditionally (e.g., adoption) has always been a priority for social work
- children with special needs
- knowledge of and coordination with community services
- understanding and commitment to helping families of limited means
All of the above are the distinct domain of professional social work with its historical roots in broad-based service-on-the-front-lines, and with its dedication to working toward broad systemic change.
Post Script: I do not in any way discount the exceptional lawyers, judges, forensic evaluators, and many other unsung heroes, whose overall priority is steadfastly the welfare of the children. Efforts at court reform are underway but it will be a long, drawn out struggle throughout the twenty-first century. The profession that is the best “match” to assist the court with the enormous and diverse range of family problems is social work.
This site was last updated 04/22/08