Post-Separation Visitation Disputes: Differential Interventions




Present research data from the United States indicate that about 20 percent of separated and divorcing families (often referred to as "high conflict" families) turn to the courts to resolve their family disputes (Johnston and Roseby, 1997; Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992). Judges seek assistance from mental health professionals(4) for information about parent-child interactions and relationships in custody and access cases (Ash and Guyer, 1984, Austin and Jaffe, 1990).

Bala and Miklas (1993) have suggested that mental health professionals who carry out child custody and access assessments are often viewed as having a quasi-judicial function in resolving these disputes before the court. Fineman (1991) argues that "social workers are moving from a supplemental role to the role of substitute decision-maker, displacing guardians ad litem and, ultimately, replacing judges as the final arbiters of child custody." (5) Ash and Guyer (1984) and Johnston (1994) have reported that the courts follow the recommendations of a mental health professional for at least 92 percent of the time in North America.

Traditional child custody evaluations have involved the assessment of each parent and their history, the quality of the parent-child dyad, and the child's functioning and perceptions (Birnbaum and Radovanovic, 1999). A report is written to the court recommending a custodial and/or access arrangement that best meets the emotional, physical and financial needs of the children. Traditional child custody evaluations have paralleled the traditional adversarial approach pitting one parent against the other under the legal umbrella of the "best interests test." The courts and evaluators appreciate that the traditional child custody evaluation has been both time consuming and costly for children and families, i.e. financially and emotionally draining (Birnbaum and Radovanovic, 1999).

There continues to be a paucity of research supporting the efficacy of the intervention methods used to make recommendations and what, if any, are the long-term outcomes for children and families involved in these disputes before the court (Gould, 1998; Hysjulien, Wood and Benjamin, 1994; Simons, Grossman and Weiner, 1990; Weissman, 1991). Many of these studies report results from retrospective data with small sample sizes and have no comparison groups (Ash and Guyer, 1984, 1986a, 1986b; Austin and Jaffe, 1990; Birnbaum and Radovanovic, 1999; Jaffe and Cameron, 1984; Leverette et al., 1997; Radovanovic et al., 1994; Simons et al., 1990).

A plethora of textbooks continue to be written by various North American authors from different professional backgrounds on how to conduct child custody and access evaluations (Ackerman, 1995; Bricklin, 1995; Galatzer-Levy and Kraus, 1999; Gould, 1998; Hodges, 1986; Leonoff and Montague, 1996; Melton et al., 1987; Plumb and Lindley, 1990; Schutz et al., 1989; Skafte, 1985; Stahl, 1994, 1999).

Mental health professionals conducting child custody and access evaluations have largely remained unresponsive to the different needs of families (Austin and Jaffe, 1990; Birnbaum and Radovanovic, 1999). This is due in part to the court's need to gather "evidence" rather than adapt to the individual needs of children and families (Birnbaum et al., forthcoming; Gould, 1999).

Much has been written about the negative effects of the adversarial system on families and children. Johnston and Roseby (1997) argue that child custody evaluators are partly responsible for the ongoing acrimony between parents, because the evaluators make recommendations that in the end blame one parent or the other for all the problems. Ash and Guyer (1986b) and Hauser and Straus (1991) found in their follow-up studies that parents who had undergone child custody evaluations were twice as likely to re-litigate issues of custody and access of their children than those who settled on their own.

Given these limitations, the study was established to explore the kinds of differences, if any, that could be found in outcomes using two different types of interventions (solution oriented versus the traditional history gathering methods).

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