By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
It is easy to ratchet up the conflict between separated parents: Send them
to litigious lawyers who will tell each respective parent they can win his or
her position. Then for added measure, have each lawyer advise their respective
parent to obtain as much information as possible that will reflect poorly on
the other while at the same time documenting as much positive information about
oneself. Put all this information into writing and conclude with a statement
indicating how all the aforementioned supports his or her own position otherwise
known as, “the children are better off with me and the other parent should
be stripped of parental rights”. In short order you will have two very
disgruntled parents who hate each other with children stuck in the middle, looking
shell-shocked from the parental conflict.
To make matters worse, rather than seeing the above dynamic as the source of
increased conflict, have the lawyers step back in favor of each parent documenting
the other’s moves and behaviors so that they can be negatively interpreted
and held against them. In little time, the parental conflict will have taken
on a life of its own to which an assessor can then be introduced. Whichever
lawyer is most dissatisfied with the outcome of the assessment can then initiate
an attack on the assessor to undermine the assessor’s credibility with
the courts. So rather than ever settling, the nature, depth and breadth of the
attack can escalate, keeping a resolution at bay seemingly forever. The children
get to languish indefinitely, often deteriorating themselves, socially academically
and behaviorally. But that can always be blamed on the other parent!
Alternately, conflict between separated parents can be managed in favor of
achieving a negotiated settlement. Rather than a litigious disposition where
the lawyers encourage undermining the integrity and position of the other parent,
they can work towards identifying issues and developing solutions to maintain
or improve relationships and parental functioning. In the long run, they can
help their respective client appreciate how two well-intentioned and healthy
parents can better provide for the long-term interests and needs of their children.
They needn’t shy away from contentious issues, but address them not with
the intention of limiting parental involvement or authority, but with the intention
of improving parental well-being and hence care and well-being of the children.
As the lawyers reach impasses, they can bring in a social worker or other support,
not with a view to determining illness, but with the view of facilitating education
on matters related to the well-being of children between separated parents.
If mental health issues are apparent, referral to treatment facilities or agencies
can be facilitated. The social worker can also meet with the children to ascertain
their concerns and facilitate their adjustment to the parental separation. Throughout,
the social worker can also help parents make much needed adjustments to their
new circumstance. In the end, children can feel supported by both parents who
may be apt to act more reasonably and supportive of each other and hence minimize
concern or anxiety on the part of the children. They in turn will be better
able to concentrate and manage their tasks, such as school.
While presented above as one way or the other, it is clear that some custody
and access disputes intensify over time whereas others settle more easily.
The eye on the prize is the well-being of the children. While some parents’
behavior or bona fide problems are of concern, many can be dealt with in ways
that can lead to healthier conclusions. Parents are advised to be cautious that
the legal process isn’t the toxic event intensifying problems. Choose
your lawyer wisely and choose how it goes.