Climbing the mountain: 4. Enduring cases

To do justice to Climbing such a huge mountain as high conflict family separation of all kinds we are taking the the whole thing in sections. After IntroductionBefore court, and In court, we’re up to Part 4 (of 9). As usual, this is work in progress that needs other people in please to improve it by Commenting below.

Part 4 below towers over our mountain range: The more severe and enduring cases. For cases that cannot be prevented from reaching this stage, hopes of shaping collaborative parenting decisions have definitely faded. We can assume there is emotional child abuse going on, even when there is no added alleged or actual domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse to assess and intervene on.

Enduring Cases:

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 10.08.21The more entrenched cases will, by definition, come to the family courts. To help the courts manage, various extra services can be found across the world. In the UK, England has the sensible but criticised CAFCASS service (typically from a social work background). Scotland have Bar Reporters (typically practicing family lawyers) with improvements due shortly. The level of reliable standards of skill and qualification in this court work is a recognised concern in all kinds of high conflict cases – PA and other risk or abuse.

Waiting in the wings of the courts, there are the thinly spread, more specialised experts. In the field of PA in the UK, these are so few, we know both their names. They are called on to be expert witnesses, and maybe to offer continuing work with the families.

  • Aim: Where conflict overrules collaboration despite all efforts to help, severe cases will continue their path through the courts. The old familiar legal rules and due process may be better brought in sooner. In severe cases, that may be preferable to the court prolonging its informal order in an empty hope that collaboration will somehow appear.
  • Aim: There need to be more of the more fully trained, qualified and experienced routine court assessment and support services.
  • Aim: There need to be more of the more fully trained, qualified and experienced expert professional witnesses.
  • Aim: We need to work out who and how this training and qualification of routine and expert workers gets developed. Onerous as it always is, this is usually done by the careful establishment of some kind of professional organisation, structure, functions and standards. There are better examples of this elsewhere than in the UK.
  • Aim: In these harder – potentially enduring – cases, we need skilled aware courts to authorise or mandate and to follow through on the specified specialist work. Aware proactive court authority is needed to grasp and continue a case more firmly to encourage and require reluctant parents to do the mandated work, to want to know why not if they don’t do it, and to be ready with alternative plans and consequences if not.
  • Aim: To do this, courts and workers need to develop more teamed-up effective joint working options with other skilled professionals, with the few experts there are in the UK, or like the development of Parenting Coordinators (in the USA).
  • Aim: Another option would be that those who provide services – services that are characteristically not court-linked so as to be more suitable for the more collaborative cases (e.g. family mediation) – these services should consider branching out to grow and provide some of these court-linked kinds of services for those families who need more mandated authority to make it work. This means developing that active, assessing role and authority including reporting back to court. Those with additional child counselling skills may develop an approach to this family work by meeting the children as a good starting point.
  • Aim: Courts should take steps to feedback to the children any outcome of the court in appropriate terms for the children, rather than leave it entirely to the least neutral person, the resident parent, who is likely to frame what happened in court as the judge confirming and therefore amplifying further their very partial view of the picture.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future, a range of changes and other measures that are now being developed will reduce the number of new enduring cases of high conflict separations. Eventually this should reduce the need for specialist assessment and treatment too. Those cases that would have become enduring cases will be better and more promptly identified and assessed. Effective intervention will stop even those potentially most serious cases quickly.

So it is possible to envisage a time when enduring cases will just not be allowed to endure. Ideally, then, children in those would-have-been enduring cases may be temporarily very stressed and distressed, but intervention and support will prevent the harm and emotional abuse that we know happens now. This future – reasonably if not feasibly – means that PA will just not happen, the term will be a memory only, and emotional abuse will be minimal. Whether domestic violence and other abuses can be so readily eliminated after separation may need further consideration.

In practice, to most people, this rosy future still looks a rather long way off. Numbers of severe and enduring cases are growing, and present systems have to find ways to manage the mountain as well as they can. It is hard to imagine a time when there will be no enduring cases at all, nor a way that will work for all situations. Specialist knowledge, assessment, decision-making and treatment can anyway never be entirely dispensed with or forgotten. If they were, the mountain would presumably grow back again.

To be continued. Next time: 5.. Awareness Raising.

The thinking in these blogs about how to Climb our mountain is far from oracular. Please feedback below to improve and enrich the full Page that is updated as we go.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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