Helping Family Courts Better Understand and Serve High Conflict Families

I am a forensic psychologist in private practice in New England. I came to this work, like so many family law professionals, very indirectly and unexpectedly. My path began with interests in architecture and then linguistics, paused to consider how emotion and relationships impact the development of language and thought, and then took a sharp right turn when it struck me as impossible that eight out of every ten children referred to an outpatient psychology clinic had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Looking beyond a child’s high energy and distractibility revealed what should have been obvious from the start: Living in the midst of chaos, confusion and conflict can interfere with any individual’s ability to concentrate, control impulses and achieve in school. Some unknown but significant number of children who are diagnosed with ADHD, enlisted in associated treatments and/or administered stimulant medications are better understood as the victims of family stresses. High conflict divorce. Separation from a parent or sibling. Relocation. Abuse and neglect. In short: the purview of family law.

Once a professional develops an interest in working with high conflict families, the floodgates open. In my experience, this is because many professionals are overwhelmed if not already scarred by the complexity and liabilities associated with working in this field.

Indeed, the evaluation and treatment of court-involved children can be daunting tasks. The professional is challenged to walk a tight rope between warring parties, to collect and interpret histories that are routinely disputed and pock-marked by the landmines that are restraining orders and arrests, allegations of violence and abuse, misunderstood and misused charges of alienation, estrangement and enmeshment. This same tight-rope-walking professional is alternately held aloft or weighted down by amorphous collections of ethical guidelines, standards of practice and jurisdictional mandates (e.g., AACAP, 1998; APA, 2010; AFCC, 2007; Herman, 1997). All this must be juggled while still atop the high wire with a knowledge of fields as diverse as child development, family dynamics, and the ever-growing literatures concerning domestic violence, substance addiction, and a long list of others.

Those who run away from the prospect of evaluating or treating families of this sort are probably wise. If you’re reading this, however, you likely agree that working with these families to help the courts to better understand and serve the needs of children is the most challenging, thought-provoking and important work one can do.

I cope with the complexities and stresses of this work in part by organizing. Systematizing. There is so much that is unpredictable and uncontrollable when one is evaluating a high conflict family system, that it is critical to predict and control all that can be predicted and controlled. Thus, I began to develop standardized questionnaire and interview tools almost twenty years ago, which has now been turned into a publication called Ten Child-Centered Forensic Family Evaluation Tools: An Empirically Annotated User’s Guide. This volume presents ten such tools including the forms on an accompanying CD-ROM.

Each of these resources is intended to provide evaluating family law professionals with one among many perspectives on the matter at hand; the means to draw a map to guide you through the complex family system. They provide grist for the mill and added value to the process.

Dr. Benjamin Garber is a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, internationally acclaimed speaker and prolific writer. He is the author of several books including Keeping Kids Out Of The Middle and Developmental Psychology For Family Law Professionals and scores of popular press and professional publications in all areas of child and family development. He is the winner of the March of Dimes Distinction in Media Excellence award, an acclaimed speaker and professional educator. His website is a valuable resource for parents and professionals alike.