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Who’s Left to Work With High Conflict Separated Parents?

May 9, 2016

So many of my colleagues are divesting themselves of working with high conflict separated parents. They are doing so quietly and subtly. They are providing other less intense counseling services and taking on fewer and fewer of the contentious cases. Here’s why and how things have changed since the 1990’s:

1990 – 1995: Parents would come voluntarily for counseling to sort out the care of their children between them upon separation. If lawyers were involved, they would then attend on the lawyer’s say-so and work with the mental health professional on a friendly basis. The parents would achieve an agreement, adjust to changing circumstances and carry on.

1995 – 2000: Parents were still coming for help voluntarily or on their lawyer’s advice, but the parents sent by their lawyers were increasingly unable to reach their own settlements. On a verbal agreement, they would take the suggestions of the mental health professional and then carry on. More and more this was referred to as mediation.

2000 – 2005: Parents were less apt to see a mental health professional and more apt to see a family lawyer to sort out their parenting differences. Those who sought the services of a mental health professional on the advice of a lawyer were more entrenched in their positions. Assessment services grew, as did arbitration and parenting coordination.

2005 – 2010: Services that used to be delivered on a verbal request or minimal service agreement now require extensive contracts that include dispute resolution clauses for when the client takes issue with the service provider. Issues addressed by the service providers are often more complex and include more allegations of abuse and wrong doing. Parental alienation is increasing as a stated concern.

When a parent is dissatisfied with the outcome of the service, they complain about the provider and evoke the dispute resolution clause. The likelihood of clients adjusting post-separation and carrying on is diminishing. We begin to see a greater number of people returning to re-open their dispute and parenting coordination as a solution develops in earnest.

2010 – 2015: The top 3% of challenging cases occupy some 95% of court time as well as other support services. There is an increase of reports to child protection agencies arising in the midst of contested custody/access disputes. Increasingly the service providers (lawyers, mental health professionals, parenting coordinators) are targeted by dissatisfied clients directly and are being complained about and sued personally.

2016: There is a general consensus among professionals in the field that decisions imposed upon separated parents are no longer providing long term solutions to parenting conflicts as in the past, but rather setting the stage for actually perpetuating conflict.

Throughout the years alternate peacemaking strategies such as collaborative law and mediation have increased in popularity as service providers willing to accept referrals of parents in intractable disputes decline. Litigators themselves are increasing suffering greater and greater mental health issues and are increasingly surfacing with issues of drug and alcohol use. Many litigators who remain litigating are seen to inflame matters between separated parents, yet are caught in the conundrum of earning a living and are fearful of opting out. Those who take the leap to peacemaking tend to feel relief and some do experience a decline in earnings, while others, after retooling their practice, find they are able to retain earnings.

Lawyers looking for service providers willing to work with court involved separated parents are needing to look further for well-experienced mental health professionals.

Mental health professionals with no particular knowledge or training in working with high conflict separated parents are increasingly being asked to counsel children affected by the parental conflict. They are then finding themselves pulled into the legal vortex and then they themselves are stressed, feeling pulled to take sides in the parental dispute. They too are now trying to divest themselves of these cases for fear of being sued or complained about.

The landscape in which we seek to support separated parents whose conflict is considered high, is indeed changing and becoming far more contentious. I, like so many others in response to the challenges imposed have restricted my practice to peacemaking services.

Ontario is in a process of looking at family law reform, as has occurred in many other jurisdictions. While Mandatory Information Programs have been in effect in Ontario for a few years now as in many other jurisdictions, we await other family law reforms. We wonder if strategies such as mediation will become mandatory for persons entering the family court system.

In the meantime, it appears that experienced assessors, parenting coordinators and family arbitrators may be a shrinking group.

Hopefully as more and more people voluntarily opt for peacemaking strategies, we can see a turnaround in the number of apparent high conflict situations. Hopefully my colleagues will still be around for at least the peacemaking services. This is a challenging area of practice. Who will be there to help if court is the route taken?

Food for thought? I would love to read your comments. Please post them below and please share this blog with the links provided.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

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