The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review


Three types of interventions for divorced families are frequently reported on in the literature: counselling and therapy; mediation; and parental education programs. Some authorities, such as Birnbaum and Martin of the Ontario Office of the Children’s Lawyer and Behr and Lafleur-Graham of the Saskatchewan Family Law Support Services, also consider parenting assessments in their list of possible interventions.

Counselling and therapeutic initiatives are not new and are the most traditional community-based services that divorcing families use. Mediation and education programs, both relatively new, are seen as resources that can divert divorcing families out of court litigation to other forms of conflict resolution. Assessments fall into a grey area where legal and therapeutic services mesh, and are often seen as the gateway to other legal and therapeutic solutions to family disputes.

Counselling and therapeutic programs for divorcing families

When families separate and divorce, a common first step for many parents and children is to seek counselling or therapy. These services are community-based and are provided by a range of mental health professionals, including social workers, psychologists, pastoral counsellors and psychiatrists. Counselling services for divorced families are available through social service agencies, voluntary organizations, church groups and private practitioners. They are available on an individual or group basis. Fees vary from nil for voluntary and church-run programs to a sliding scale based on income for many social service agencies, to full fee when the client pays the therapist directly. Some extended care benefits through employers help defer the costs for private practice fees.

Although many family lawyers ask their clients if they would like to meet with a therapist or counsellor to either consider the possibility of reconciliation or work through their feelings about the separation, counselling and therapy programs are voluntary and, therefore, there is no prior screening of clients coming into these programs.

The majority of therapeutic interventions reported on in the literature have to do with small, relatively untested, programs. These are clinical initiatives developed out of the experience and expertise of therapists and counsellors working with separated and divorced families. Some are developed as pilot projects to be used as a basis for funding applications to government and community funding groups, such as the United Way. Other research projects are simply descriptions of clinical models that demonstrate good rates of effectiveness.

Articles reporting on counselling and therapy models most often focus on clinical issues related to divorce and parental and child adjustment. Such articles, like those described earlier in this report, view divorce as a discrete event in the life of a family and report on its after-effects. Clinical in nature, they also are based on a cause and effect analysis. They start with parents and children going through separation or divorce. The authors usually summarize the effects of divorce, as in the literature on a specific area of functioning, such as children’s adaptation as measured by academic achievement. They then devise a research model in which groups of clients attending a counselling or therapy program are measured before and after in order to show the positive effects of the service being provided. Some of these articles simply report on before and after measures for the participants, while research models use a control group (usually clients still waiting for service) and compare the results for the participants in the clinical program with those for the control group.

Judith Wallerstein (1991) found in her research that the two most important factors for children’s positive adaptation to divorce are the sensitivity and commitment of the parents to the child, and the intactness and morality of the parents. The two factors that contribute most towards negative adaptation are ongoing parental conflict, and the impaired mental health of a parent.

Wallerstein (1991: 452) concludes that mediation is a useful process for helping families avoid the economic and psychological stresses connected to divorce, but that "restorative" programs also are needed to help the child "restore those crucial supportive elements of the family that can be rescued and adapted to fit the exigencies of growing up in the divorced and remarried family."

Wallerstein and her colleagues (1985) tested a number of counselling/therapy programs and concluded that programs which assess and address issues related to the parent’s ability to parent effectively are most useful to children. Further, they concluded that such programs require clinicians with sophisticated skills and experience.

Lee, Picard and Blain (1994) reviewed 15 studies of clinical programs designed for divorcing families. They found that most studies of program effectiveness used the waiting list as the control group, and that group programs for children and adults were slightly more effective than individual programs. They also found that programs aimed at parents were much more effective than programs aimed at children. Finally, they concluded that one of the main difficulties in measuring effectiveness of programs for divorcing families is the lack of any baseline measurements of how families in general are doing with non-divorce related stresses.

Grych and Fincham (1992) examined the connection between commonly noted effects of divorce on children and various clinical interventions. They examined how child-focussed interventions affected factors such as externalizing problems, internalizing problems, interpersonal relations, academic problems, and children’s use of mental health services. This research reviewed the following three clinical programs in the United States.

The Children of Divorce Developmental Facilitation Group is an eight-session program aimed at normalizing the experience of divorce, clarifying and working through upsetting and confusing issues, and developing coping strategies for difficult feelings and family interactions.

The Children of Divorce Adjustment Project is a 12-week group program for children and mothers aimed at normalizing the divorce experience, understanding and working through divorce related feelings, developing coping strategies, and enhancing parent-child communication.

The Children of Divorce Integration Project is a school-based program aimed at helping children understand and cope with divorce related feelings, and enhancing children’s perceptions of themselves and their families.

The Grych-Fincham study concludes that effective parenting is the most important factor in helping children adjust to divorce, and that programs which focus on building skills for parents, such as those used in the study groups, are more effective than programs which develop understanding for parents and children. They also conclude that more research focussed on establishing effective connections between adjustment problems and types of interventions is necessary.

Reporting on the Children of Divorce Adjustment Project, noted above, Pedro-Carroll et al. (1986) conclude that this school-based program was effective as a preventative measure. Using before and after measures, the study demonstrated that children showed fewer anxiety problems, school adjustment problems and more positive ratings of self-esteem and self-confidence after the program had been completed. This study, like many other investigations of clinical programs, based its conclusions on the children’s positive reaction to the program. There was no control group in this study and only short-term follow-up of the participants.

Bornstein, Bornstein and Walters (1988) examined the effects of a group-based therapeutic program for 31 children of divorce. Their study showed no clear differences for those children who attended the program compared to those children still on the waiting list. They concluded that more sensitive measurements may be required for this type of focus group.

Analysis of the research of clinical programs

This small sampling of the research studies of various clinical programs for separated and divorced parents and children demonstrates that they have several design problems.

First, small-scale studies make it difficult to draw conclusions about how various models of intervention might work with larger populations. Most often, these studies focus on the limited number of adaptation factors that program participants report after attending a limited number of program sessions. The studies will show that a specific type of group seems to result in a specific after-effect for participants, but there is no analysis of why this works. Without considering such factors as the style of the group leader, for instance, it is impossible to predict how this program would work with larger groups.

Second, in these studies there is usually no analysis of pre-existing family and social factors. Participants usually come to the programs on a voluntary, first come-first served basis. They are given a set of before and after tests, usually focussed on children’s adaptation and parents’ functioning, and these results are compared to those from the control group, usually families still on the waiting list for service. These studies do not examine how those families are functioning on a larger scale and how the children are functioning compared to other children from non-divorced families.

Third, there is no attempt in these studies to identify the level of conflict in families and determine how these therapeutic programs help children and parents struggling with various levels of conflict. Because comparisons are limited to the control group, for which there is also no indication of level of parental conflict, it is not possible to determine how these families are helped with a therapeutic intervention compared to other families with similar levels of conflict who are involved in other types of programs.

Fourth, there is rarely any follow-up of results, and in the few studies where there is, it is brief. These reports simply do not tell us how these families fare over time and how the benefits of the therapy remain useful.

Finally, these small-scale studies do not factor in the effects of other events in a child’s life, such as having to change schools, moving to other neighbourhoods or cities, missing friends, and experiencing the remarriage of one or both parents. In the research noted in Section 2, these effects are often significant predictors of a child’s adjustment to divorce. These clinical studies assume that the only factor that brings about positive outcomes for parents and children is the therapy offered.

What is needed now is a comprehensive research study that begins with an inventory of pre-existing emotional and structural factors, such as those identified in the studies reviewed in Section 2.

Mediation programs

The Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access heard a great deal of testimony about the possible benefits of divorce mediation in terms of providing an alternative, less expensive, less adversarial forum for dispute resolution. Many witnesses argued that mediation should be a mandatory first step for separating families, and called attention to such programs in Quebec and British Columbia. The Committee also heard concerns about the possible negative effects of mandatory mediation, particularly in families with a history of domestic violence. Some witnesses argued that mandatory mediation would provide an arena in which violent and abusive partners could continue to harass and intimidate their former spouse. The views expressed to the Special Joint Committee reflect the community ideas about mediation.

In the early 1980s, divorce mediation was introduced as a popular alternative to the more traditional court-based method of resolving issues of custody, access and support. This alternative to litigation was seen as less expensive, less adversarial and more effective in helping divorcing parents resolve their issues. The idea of engaging separating parents in a cooperative venture of negotiating a parenting plan for their children became increasingly popular, and several jurisdictions, including Quebec, British Columbia, several U.S. states and countries such as Great Britain and Australia, have introduced mediation as a mandatory step for all divorcing couples.

In spite of its popularity, however, many women’s groups have argued that mediation is not appropriate for families when there is a history of domestic violence. Further, feminist critics have suggested that many women cannot negotiate from a position of equal power in the mediation process.

Although many articles in the literature point out the need for studies to determine the effectiveness of both voluntary and mandatory mediation programs (Irving, 1987), reports of such studies are difficult to find. The reason may be that there are simply too many variables to consider in such a study.

Camplair and Stolberg (1990) attempted a comparative study of 76 couples who were randomly assigned to either mediation or litigation of their divorce issues. All participants were tested for various factors and dynamics before their process was started, and then the results of each process were measured upon completion.

This study outlines the many problems inherent in research on the effectiveness of mediation. First, the initial testing looked at the content of the dispute, the history of appearances in court, co-parenting behaviours and levels of co-operation, overt marital hostility, family adaptive functioning at given moments in time, the couple’s overall adjustment to current life status, and the family’s adaptation to change. This early testing provided a wide and almost unmanageable number of factors to consider before the mediation or litigation even began. It did not take into account the children’s adaptation to divorce or other matters such as remarriage, changing residences, changing schools, etc. After the mediation or litigation was completed, couples were tested in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of the process. This study could not connect any given pre-process factors with specific outcomes, and was inconclusive about whether mediation was more effective than litigation in resolving issues. And, there was no follow-up study of participants.

This study does reveal some of the difficulties in trying to measure the effectiveness of mediation. First, what predetermining factors need to be identified in the participants? Second, what process related factors, such as the mediator’s experience and style and the issues to be resolved, should be included and measured, and how is it possible to form correlations between these factors? Finally, how does one measure success?

Some studies (Emery et al., 1991; Emery et al., 1994; Kelly and Duryee 1992) show that, despite the efforts in mediation to move away from a winner-loser scenario towards a more cooperative view of parenting, one or the other parent still often has a sense of having lost the battle. Whether this sense of losing allows mediated parenting arrangements to remain intact is unclear, but the Emery et al. (1994) study of 54 divorcing men and women concluded that the majority of these parents returned to court for litigation within one year of a mediated settlement.

Pearson and Thoennes (1984) compared outcomes for 668 couples referred to mediation against outcomes for 212 who used litigation to resolve custody issues. Half of the couples referred for mediation refused the service, opting to pursue litigation to resolve their issues. Of the remaining families, 60 percent reached some agreement of their issue, but 40 percent of these reported a breakdown in mediated agreement within one year. This is significantly different from Irving’s (1984) research in Toronto, which concluded that only 10 percent of mediated cases returned later to litigation of the matter.

Pearson and Thoennes (1984) conclude that further research is required on how to work effectively in mediation with high conflict couples and to explore whether the often stated goal of mediation and joint custody is actually a sustainable option for many families.

Analysis of mediation programs

Should we therefore conclude that mediation is ineffective? Perhaps not, but these studies do indicate a need for pre-selection of mediating families. As with the counselling and therapeutic programs, further study is required to investigate how effective mediation is with families struggling with different levels of conflict. Other emotional and structural factors also need to be identified and included in order to get an accurate picture of mediation’s potential. Research that looks at process variables and possible correlation to predetermining factors and mediation content will also suggest ways to make this intervention most effective.

These studies demonstrate how difficult it is to isolate the specific effects of one intervention. The families who participate in these studies do not live in total isolation. They have friends and extended families, they go to church, and they sometimes talk with counsellors and therapists. To determine whether mediation itself is effective, it is necessary to account for these other relationships.

Finally, long-term follow-up with these families is necessary. The studies noted in this project did not follow the families beyond the exit interview or test. We simply do not know how many mediation families return later to mediation, how many give up and begin litigation, and how many find other ways to solve the problem. The discrepancies between Irving’s (1984) study and Pearson and Thoennes (1984) and Emery et al. (1994) show a definite need for further research.