Helping Families and Courts in High Conflict Divorce Cases: Familiar Practices and New Ideas

By Sparta, Steven N. Phd, Abpp | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Helping Families and Courts in High Conflict Divorce Cases: Familiar Practices and New Ideas


Sparta, Steven N. Phd, Abpp, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


INTRODUCTION TO SPECIAL ISSUE

One of the most challenging areas of mental health and legal practice concerns high conflict divorce cases. Over the last several decades, there has been increasing attention to what professionals do and whether it can be improved. In many high conflict divorce cases, it is not an exaggeration to say that deep personal suffering is frequently encountered among children and their parents. Solutions often seem nonexistent. The continuing efforts to improve practices are partly reflected by an increasing number of professional practice guidelines, specialty journals/articles, new or revised statutes, and the creation of specific rules of court pertaining to mediation, psychotherapy or psychological evaluation for child custody. Indeed, the topic selected for the first joint conference of the American Bar Association and American Psychological Association in 1979 concerned children, divorce and custody. The author recalls the eager interest among the lawyers, judges and mental health practitioners having an opportunity to analyze and improve the many problems inherent in the field. This special issue continues the search for best practice. With fresh perspective and the benefit of past experience, the articles of this special issue examine some of the more important aspects of where we have been and where should we be going. The special vulnerability of families in these situations deserves our best efforts.

The three excellent articles which follow ask important questions, some general, such as whether the very term "custody" is advisable, or specific, whether in some cases psychological testing is not needed. All of the authors help us critically examine what we do and whether a better alternative should be considered. Also, researchers should be guided by what questions warrant future empirical testing.

Words have particular meanings, and professionals working with high-conflict divorce families particularly appreciate that certain words can generate powerful emotional feelings or expectations about various proposed alternatives. Dr. Mary Connell provides a thoughtful historical perspective about how courts have awarded custody and that certain terms used in different jurisdictions can serve to facilitate constructive solutions or compound existing problems. One of the greatest sources of distress among children and parents is the separation anxiety created by a sense of helplessness and fear that continued contact between parent and child is in jeopardy. In developmental terms, undermining a child's sense of security in terms of continued psychological attachment can represent one of the greatest risk factors for future mental health. It is important that we make every effort to reduce parental anxieties and increase reassurance within children, and Dr. Connell's article helps us navigate the underlying concepts used within the court and their potential effect on litigants. Courts are attempting to be more family friendly, recognizing the changes in American family life and the evolving legislation responding to diverse needs. Dr. Connell's excellent article helps us define the proper questions we should be asking to solve family court problems, so that we don't waste limited resources on practices with limited promise.

In attempts to help families, what services can mental health practitioners provide, and what are the strengths and weaknesses for such services for different types of problems? Dr. Robin Deutsch describes the roles of collaborative law, parent education, mediator, divorce consultant, psychological evaluator, psychotherapist for focused issues or reunification, and parent coordinator. These interventions are examined in terms of their potential contributions. Some of these approaches have overlapping functions; some are more distinct in their purpose or methods. Lawyers and mental health professionals can better serve families by understanding the available range of options, matching the most appropriate practices with family need. …

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