• Should you ask a Mental Health Professional to help you resolve a custody or parenting dispute?
  • September 27, 2013 | Author: Virginia R. Hager
  • Law Firm: Hager & Associates Law Office, P.C. - Wilmington Office
  • Psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and other mental health professionals play a variety of roles in families and in custody cases which end up in court.  You may already be seeing a therapist for help with depression or anxiety related to your separation and divorce; often the therapist can give you helpful suggestions about how to talk with your children about divorce.  Your child may already be seeing a therapist for ADHD or other psychological issues.  If you and your child’s other parent have a disagreement about how to address a particular problem your child is having, or about how to work out a shared custody schedule, a children’s therapist, acting as a neutral person who advocates for the child, can offer guidance. 

    There are many steps which separating parents can take to minimize the adverse impact of divorce or a custody dispute on the children.  Psychologist Robert E. Emery, author of Renegotiating Family Relationships: Divorce, Child Custody, and Mediation, emphasizes that children should be able to love both parents without one parent expressing disapproval or anger about the child’s feelings.  It is imperative that parents treat each other courteously and avoid making any critical comments about the other parent to or within earshot of the child.  Parents should strive to keep their conflict away from the child.  See Dr. Emery’s “The Children’s Bill of Rights in Divorce,” at http://emeryondivorce.com/childrens&under;bill&under;of&under;rights&under;in&under;divorce.php.

    A child therapist can also help a child through the divorce process.  The therapist will typically want to meet with both parents to address issues raised by the child, and to provide cooperative co-parenting education and coaching to parents.   A therapist can also meet jointly with parents who are utilizing mediation or the collaborative divorce process to craft negotiated parenting agreements.

    Psychologists and other mental health professionals are often called to testify in custody trials.  A therapist who has been seeing the child may only offer opinion testimony within the boundaries of his or her role as a therapist, and shouldn’t be asked to offer an opinion on an ultimate legal issue in a case, such as which parent should have primary custody or what visitation schedule would be best for the child.  A forensic expert witness is one retained by a parent or appointed by the court, for example, to perform psychological evaluations of one or both parents or perform a custody evaluation.  Such evaluations are normally very helpful to the judge who has decide custody disputes.   

    Following a custody trial, the Court may include in its order a requirement that the child and parents continue to see the child’s therapist or commence a course of therapy.  Particularly where a child has become estranged or alienated from one of the parents, a therapist with specialized training on working with high-conflict families can provide joint therapeutic treatment and parenting education in an effort to repair the relationship.