High conflict family law cases involve custody and visitation issues long after divorce. "[M]isplaced and escalating personal and spousal conflicts of divorcing couples"* fuel these cases.
High conflict cases can be extremely frustrating for professionals because the conflict is chronic, susceptible to flare-ups, and often irrational. In managing these cases courts have experimented with different approaches, including mediation, arbitration, parenting classes, parenting coordinators, and supervised visitation, in addition to or in lieu of litigation.
The following outline comments on the effectiveness of various methods.
Litigation is unsatisfactory for high conflict cases because men feel misunderstood and unfairly treated by courts. Women feel vulnerable and afraid to speak up. The parties probably harbor unrealistic expectations about what a court can do, and therefore the legal process fails to deliver finality, closure or satisfaction. Some lawyers theorize that parties actually derive emotional satisfaction in maintaining an on-going dispute instead of ending it because acrimony is preferable to allowing their relationship to end.
Mediation also fails for these couples because "they have highly divergent perceptions of their children’s needs and a pervasive distrust of each other’s capacity to provide a secure environment."*
Sometimes therapy can be helpful. "[B]ased upon an understanding of the developmental needs of the individual child, therapists can help parents focus on meeting the needs of their children, separate from their own psychological agendas. This approach has generally been referred to as "therapeutic mediation" and has been most highly developed as a method called ‘impasse-directed mediation’ "*
Parenting Education Classes
Divorcing parents of minor children are required to attend parenting education classes. The quality of these classes varies tremendously, because of the individual instructors’ ability, and the time differences dedicated to each developmental stage of childhood. Classes include parents with children of all ages. Classes start with infancy, and often run out of time before they reach adolescence because attendees tend to take up time expounding on their own issues. Parents of teen-agers have commented about the lack of time and attention to their issues.
This is a relatively new approach, involving a mental health professional who acts as out-of-court decision-makers, appointed by the court or chosen by the parties. There are no published studies in the effectiveness of parenting coordinators, although judges and lawyers are relieved of dealing with the daily calls and emergencies, at least temporarily.
If there are allegations of domestic violence and/or child abuse, supervised visitation may be appropriate, unless all parental contact is denied by a court. "Currently, there are more than 70 such programs nationwide, brought together by a fledgling organization called the Supervised Visitation Network. There have been no formal evaluations of these programs to date."*
Supervisors are professionals paid to watch over a parent and child during scheduled visitation, often at a visitation center. Usually the parent exercising supervised visitation pays on an hourly basis. The cost and availability of supervisors make this a limited option, and parents and children often complain about the constraints supervised visitation places on their relationship.
Goals for Good Parenting after Divorce
By whatever means, the goals for parents after divorce are to:
- Minimize the potential for ongoing parental conflict and domestic violence.
- Place children with a parent who is "relatively free"* of emotional problems and substance abuse.
- Promote a good parent-child relationship, the best predictor of good outcomes in children.
- Recognize that "high-conflict divorced parents have a relatively poor prognosis for developing cooperative coparenting arrangements…"
- Craft a clear and detailed visitation plan that minimizes shared "decision making and direct communication" between warring parents.*