Post-Separation Visitation Disputes: Differential Interventions




Visitation is a highly contentious issue in separation and divorce. When it is brought before the court for resolution, mental health professionals are engaged to provide "evidence" for a recommendation. The process by which evidence is obtained during the evaluation is referred to as the "custody and access assessment." There is little evidence regarding the efficacy of this process. Subsequently, little is known about the outcomes for children and families involved in this process.

The purpose of this study was to explore and examine the process and outcomes of different types of interventions in visitation disputes before the court using inclusion/exclusion criteria. High conflict families who continue to litigate over their children and have poor communication skills are often not suited to mediation services or the traditional custody/access assessment. These families require an intervention that offers more direct input in exploring their problem-solving abilities to help them refocus on their children rather than their past differences. An approach which offers to reduce court intervention and delays for children, which focusses less on past history of the parties and more on future problem-solving, would make more practical and theoretical sense.

Findings indicate that overall there were no group differences in settlement rates, satisfaction mean scores, level of communication, and children's adjustment following their parents' separation between the focussed (solution-oriented) intervention and the traditional child custody/access intervention. Parents did report that the focussed evaluation intervention was able to help reframe the conflict between the parents towards more problem-solving between them. The results of the analysis suggest that helping high conflict parents develop skills for exchanging child-related information and less conflictual patterns of communication is important.

It is interesting to note the moderate correlation between maternal and paternal ratings of the child's overall behaviour at Time 2. More than 80 percent of mothers had custody of the child, and yet fathers were generally attuned to their child's behaviour. This suggests that both parents may have already been more focussed on their child, notwithstanding their individual differences. More importantly, it suggests that father's are an equally important and necessary informant about their children. This might explain the increase in the number of days of access per month of father to child as recommended by the social worker.

Despite some limitations to the study (small sample size, services provided in a publicly funded office), the results appear to suggest potential for further research with the focussed evaluation intervention using the inclusion/exclusion criteria.

From a resource point of view, the inclusion/exclusion criteria facilitated the identification of children and families who might benefit from a shorter and solution-oriented approach in a timely and cost effective manner. This has significant policy implications for future directions with respect to advocating on behalf of children's interests. Being able to capture a larger client pool with a range of services allows for more active intervention by the Children's Lawyer and a stronger child-focussed approach to family law, as suggested by the recent Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access report For the Sake of the Children (1998).

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