By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
In the heat of some custody and access disputes, one-sided accounts of the
situation can be convincing. Both parents have their view and are apt to present
the issues more with their own interest at heart.
While the “interest” is supposedly the children, high emotions
may reign and hence very personal and emotionally charged issues get confused
with those of the children. Parents may talk to anyone who will listen, provide
their personal account and gather allies. Lawyers may inflame the situation
by taking as gospel, one-sided accounts either from their client, friends and
family and even other professionals who may have been inducted first by the
client’s one-sided account.
In some of these cases both parents interpret all behavior of the other negatively.
Harmless behavior may be reframed as inappropriate or egregious or outright
abusive. Allegations may intensify with highly charged language taking precedence
over a determination of actual behavior. By-standers can be overcome with the
intensity of a parent’s delivery of information. They line up in a high
stakes tug-of-war, each convinced of the righteousness of their position.
This may be the starting point for the custody and access assessment. Even
the choice of assessor may be hotly debated but finally the assessor does enter
this highly charged, polarized conflict.
The task of the assessor is to step back from the position of either party
as gospel. The assessment process requires a meta-view with the goal of determining
custody and access recommendations. Data is gathered from both sides. The process
includes a review of the legal brief; the file containing the account, court
documents, exhibits and affidavits regarding the dispute. The assessor may find
an “affidavit war”. In an affidavit war, both parents present with
a stable of friends, family or employers each of whom supports the position
of the respective parent while undermining that of the other. The assessor may
rely solely upon the affidavit material or selectively interview some persons.
It is sometimes the case in such assessments that the affidavits seem to cancel
each other out, rendering the content less useful than their indication of the
degree of conflict and positioning they represent. Hence the utility of affidavits
in a custody and access assessment may be as much the indication of how far
afield the dispute has run as the information they purport to provide.
Further, and in such cases, there can be a reliance on the input of various
professionals, none of whom may actually have a well-rounded view of the dispute
and parties. Each parent may trot out their professional to support or undermine
respective issues. Again, the role of the assessor is to take a meta-view even
with regard to the input of other professionals. Of concern is where a third
party professional offers more than behavioral descriptions of their own observations.
The third party professional may stray to offer opinion or inferences on the
case in the absence of having met and assessed both parties. As such, their
opinion may be disqualified as based upon a one-sided account.
Finally and in the midst of a contentious situation, the assessor renders an
opinion and recommendations. In some cases, this provides the basis of a settlement.
In other cases this is just a renewed starting ground for more conflict as one
side takes offence to the opinion and recommendations of the assessor. If that
happens and a settlement is not achieved, then off to court the dispute goes.
In the new round of conflict, the assessor may be included as a target when
the dissatisfied party now looks to undermine the assessor so as to still advance
Matters in such highly charged cases can quickly appear personal. However,
the assessor stands distanced from the fray. If court is required, then that
too shall be part of the process and the assessor remains available to the court’s
scrutiny and tests therein.
Some disputes go all the way. Family in ruins, pity the children. The will
of the Court remains.