The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review
PATTERNS OF HIGH CONFLICT IN DIVORCE (Continued)
Several clinicians have developed typologies of inter-parental conflict. Most of these are designed to enhance clinical understanding of post-divorce conflict and are not meant to be a tool for identifying or streaming of high conflict couples. These types of studies, which result in lists of psychological patterns or relationship constructs identified as typical in divorcing families, give clinicians advanced warning signs of hard to serve clients.
Kressel et al. (1980) compared a small sample group of divorcing couples using mediation (n=9) and others using traditional litigation (n=5) to develop a typology of divorcing families. The study identified four patterns that affected outcomes in mediation and led to decisions to litigate. These are:
- the enmeshed pattern, based on high levels of conflict and high ambivalence about the decision to divorce;
- the autistic pattern, with little overt conflict between the parents and a tendency for them to avoid each other and also avoid difficult and painful issues;
- the direct-conflict pattern, with high levels of overt conflict, but not as high as the
"enmeshed"couples, and a tendency towards open and direct communication; and
- the disengaged conflict pattern, with low levels of ambivalence about the end of the marriage (these couples had already been able to resolve issues of ending closeness and intimacy).
The study concludes that couples who are most ambivalent about the end of the relationship are most likely to become involved in high levels of overt conflict over issues of settlement, including support, custody and access.
Using a larger sample group of 80 disputing families, Johnston et al. (1985) investigated a typology of difficult divorce situations that were vulnerable to intense and prolonged periods of inter-parental hostility and conflict. They concluded that certain external and interactive elements contribute to the likelihood of high conflict family situations.
The external elements included:
- unholy alliances and coalitions, by which disputes can be solidified and stabilized by the supports of friends and professionals, such as lawyers and counsellors;
- extended kin involvement and tribal warfare, when old disagreements from the beginning of the marital relationship become part of later disputes over the children;
- coalitions with helping professionals, counsellors and lawyers, by hearing only one side of the story, fuel the argument by suggesting that the
"victim"take aggressive and uncompromising stances; and
- the involvement of the legal system, i.e. the adversarial system with custody seen as a prize.
The interactive elements include:
- the legacy of a destructive marital relationship when parents use the same destructive patterns of provocation and retaliation from the marriage in their dispute over custody and visitation matters;
- traumatic or ambivalent separations, i.e. transferring negative views from the marriage to the new reality of the separation and making assumptions about one’s ability to provide child-care based on the marital interactions;
- negative reconstruction of spousal identity, i.e. redefining the spouse in completely negative terms to compensate for the hurt or the decision to separate; and
- idealized images and shattered dreams, in which anger and despair over the marriage results in a super-idealized view of the marriage and its memories.
Intra-psychic elements include:
- separation-engendered conflicts, such as conflict as a defence against a narcissistic insult (the custody conflict as a way to salvage injured self-esteem); conflict as a defence against loss (the custody seen as a way to ward off loneliness); conflict as a need to ward off helplessness (as a way to compensate for the loss of control over the decision to separate); and conflict as a defence against guilt (custody seen as proof that the parents did not fail in the marriage);
- personality disturbances and character disorders, i.e. cases when the motivation for the dispute seems more from inherent personality traits of the parents and their conceptions of themselves than from the experience of the separation or the need for the child;
- the parent’s need for the child, when the children take on a magnified importance for the parent and become a primary source of support and meaning for the parent.
Taking into account more recent knowledge about domestic violence and the incidence of spousal violence in custody and access disputes (discussed in the next section), Johnston and Campbell (1993) proposed a typology for violence in families disputing custody. Their five types of violence are:
- ongoing or episodic male battering;
- female initiated violence;
- male controlling interactive violence;
- separation and divorce violence; and
- psychotic and paranoid reactions.
This list is designed to help clinicians differentiate between various types of divorce related violence and is a tool in assessing the severity of violence when considering access issues. This type of differentiation has resulted in significant debate among professionals, with some arguing that such distinctions undermine current initiatives to take all forms of domestic violence equally seriously. These critics argue that any form of violence is reason for limited or supervised access, and should preclude any involvement of the violent parent in future decision-making for the child (Dalton, 1999).
Garrity and Baris (1994) developed a typology for identifying post-divorce conflict as an aid in assessing various custody and access arrangements for children. This model identifies elements of varying degrees of conflict, and recommends custody and access arrangements for each level based on the child’s age and emotional development. The degrees of conflict and characteristics of each are:
- minimal conflict:
- cooperative parenting; ability to separate children’s needs from own needs; can validate importance of other parent; conflict is resolved between the adults using only occasional expressions of anger; and negative emotions quickly brought under control;
- mild conflict:
- occasionally berates other parent in front of the child; occasional verbal quarrelling in front of the child; questioning child about personal matters in life of other parent; and occasional attempts to form a coalition with child against other parent;
- moderate conflict:
- verbal abuse with no threat or history of physical violence; loud quarrelling; denigration of the other parent; threats of litigation; and ongoing attempts to form a coalition with child against other parent around isolated issues;
- moderately severe conflict:
- child is not directly endangered, but parents are endangering each other; threatening violence; slamming doors, throwing things; verbally threatening harm or kidnapping; attempts to form a permanent or standing coalition with child against other parent (alienation syndrome); and child is experiencing emotional endangerment;
- severe conflict:
- endangerment by physical or sexual abuse; drug or alcohol abuse to point of impairment; and severe psychological pathology.
This range of assessed conflict can be used to make recommendations concerning primary residence, access and decision-making for different age groups of children.
Eric Hood is a psychiatrist who has been conducting court-ordered family assessments at the Clarke Institute for more than 20 years. He told the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access that he is skeptical of attempts to identify measurable criteria to define high conflict divorces. He sees this as an attempt by the mental health professionals who conduct assessments to appear scientific and more professional when they have to appear in court to defend their reports. Hood stated in a telephone interview that identifying high conflict begins with the assessor wondering why this case cannot be settled? Hood noted three clear signals that indicate settlement problems:
- several changes in legal counsel, which may indicate that the client cannot take advice;
- the number of times a case has gone to court; and
- the overall time it takes for a case to be settled.
Hood cautions that these should be seen as indicators, not predictors, of high conflict divorce.
Nicholas Bala, professor of Law at Queens University and another witness before the Special Joint Committee, is also wary of establishing fixed criteria for high conflict divorces. He worries that fixed criteria can have a labeling effect that limits alternatives for problem resolution. Bala stated in a telephone interview that a range of interventions is required for the entire divorced population. These include:
- counselling and therapeutic resources available for the parents and the children (since divorce is primarily an emotional issue);
- educational programs to teach parents and members of extended families about the hazards of divorce and conflict for children;
- a case management system whereby one judge assumes judicial control for a case from start to finish;
- parenting assessments to determine the best interests of the child and each parent’s ability to meet those needs; and
- supervised access and exchange programs for situations where there is a history of violence.
Bala believes that the definition of high conflict is not as critical as the process that tracks and steers the divorce process and provides a range of services for all divorcing families.
Robbie Behr and Charlene Lafleur-Graham of the Family Law Support Services in Saskatchewan see parenting assessments as a channel for differentiating high conflict divorces from other less contentious situations and steering them to specialized services. The indicators of high conflict situations include:
- police contact for violence and access enforcement;
- a history of violence, which needs to be assessed as either episodic or ongoing; and
- referral to professionals for problem solving.
In a telephone interview, Behr and Lafleur-Graham stated that divorcing families require a range of services based on individual need, including:
- individual and group counselling and therapy;
- children’s mental health services;
- child welfare protection services;
- supervised access and exchange;
- parenting education programs, available to all but mandatory for high conflict families; and
- mediation available for low conflict situations.
The Saskatchewan Family Law Support Services program uses the Garrity and Baris scheme to explain their recommendations about parenting plans to judges.
Rachel Birnbaum and Lorraine Martin of the Ontario Office of the Children’s Lawyer consider most of the cases referred to their agency as high conflict situations. They have been attempting to use the Garrity and Baris scale to differentiate between high, medium, and low conflict situations and steer families to the appropriate level of service. In addition to the elements identified by Garrity and Baris, Martin has developed a list of other factors to be included in these assessments. These are:
- traumatic separation, i.e. how the marital separation occurred and the resulting narcissistic wounding of one of the partners;
- a history of violence;
- the existence of affidavits with harmful content against the character of the other parent;
- evidence of conflict maintenance behaviour patterns;
- much lawyer chatter over inconsequential matters;
- inability to say anything good about the other partner;
- one parent enmeshed with the child; and
- one parent reporting being duped or tricked into the marriage and thus without good memories.
Martin and Birnbaum’s main focus in this assessment-steering process is the question: what resources would allow the parent-child relationship to continue? The assessments, which are interventions in themselves, result in the families being streamed into four types of service responses, based on the premise that, in most cases, it would be beneficial for the child to have the relationship with both parents continue. Martin and Birnbaum’s four types of service responses are:
- parent education, i.e. skill teaching programs that have significant useful effects as early interventions with low conflict families, rather than merely information programs, which have limited intervention effect;
- counselling and therapy which, as follow-up studies show, is frequently recommended for early intervention with low and medium conflict cases but is also rarely attended;
- mediation, seen as a useful intervention with medium conflict families, even though Martin and Birnbaum maintain that specific research is needed to look at long-term outcomes;
- public interest advocacy on behalf of the child, used with high conflict families when the child’s well-being is tracked.
Rhonda Freeman is the director of Families in Transition, a Toronto-based program for separated, divorced and remarried families. From her clinical work, she has developed a profile of both minimal and high conflict families.
Minimal conflict families report:
- a resolution of personal issues;
- respect for the other parent;
- no risk of violence;
- improvement in child functioning after an initial period of adjustment;
- both parents committed to a parenting plan;
- both parents respect the other parent’s value to the child;
- parents can separate their own needs from those of the child;
- tolerance for differences; and
- flexibility to cooperate by parents.
High conflict families show:
- an inadequate separation of marital and parental roles;
- unresolved personal issues;
- high risk and a history of violence;
- distrust of the other person as a parent;
- risk of parental alienation;
- distorted perspectives and a revisionist history of the family;
- major narcissistic injury;
- significant hazards to the child;
- frequent transfers;
- new partners;
- practical child-care;
- substance abuse;
- psychiatric disturbance;
- power/control abuses;
- high stresses, helplessness;
- increased child welfare allegations and the introduction of suspicions;
- poor communication;
- polarized positions; and
- rigidity and lack of cooperation.
Although there is no research connecting high conflict with various intervention outcomes, Families in Transition links low and medium conflict families with therapy and educational programs, and connects high conflict families with mediation services.
Lena Jones has a Masters degree in Psychology and has been conducting parenting assessments on a fee-for-service basis in Ottawa for 29 years. Although she does not use a formal written framework for defining levels of conflict, she has a mental framework to identify the severity of conflict in the families she assesses.
For her, high conflict situations may have the following elements:
- involvement of mental health, addictions and child welfare agencies;
- criminal behaviour by one or both parents;
- abusive, violent behaviour;
- kidnapping of the child;
- stalking by one parent; and
- out of control behaviour.
Medium conflict situations tend to have the following elements:
- chronic disputes over custody, access and support;
- poor control by one or both parents;
- conflict without violence;
- involvement of lawyers for even minor issues;
- poor problem-solving abilities;
- fights and arguments in front of the child;
- a tendency for one parent to blame the other;
- a tendency for one or both parents to take everything personally;
- inability to see what the child needs;
- boundary violations and manipulations;
- recruitment of relatives into the dispute; and
- frequent telephone calls to the other parent.
Jones’ moderate conflict situations have the following elements:
- parents work together but with only limited success;
- occasional use of outside professionals;
- verbal abuse and disrespectful behaviour towards the other parent;
- manipulation of the child, and possible parental alienation;
- deliberate sabotage of parenting agreement;
- rigidity and poor flexibility about minor details of the parenting plan;
- possessiveness concerning the children; and
- devaluing the other parent’s importance to the child.
Low conflict situations include the majority of divorcing families and most are successful with only occasional flare-ups.
Jones uses this framework in developing parenting plans as follows:
For high conflict families:
- no mediation;
- question whether there should be any access at all;
- access is limited and often supervised; and
- some situations may require supervision by a trained therapist.
For medium or moderate conflict families:
- a parenting plan that is precise and detailed;
- use of parallel parenting with little contact between parents; and
- little discretion in the details of the plan.
For low conflict families:
- suitable for mediation;
- use of cooperative parenting plan; and
- use of guidelines rather than details.
Jones believes that medium and moderate conflict families would benefit from the type of parenting coordinator suggested by Garrity and Baris, and believes this service should be attached to the courts to provide easy and immediate access for families struggling with a particular decision.
Janet Claridge is an MSW in Ottawa with approximately 20 years experience working with children and families. For the last nine years, she has conducted assessments for the Ontario Office of the Children’s Lawyer. She believes the majority of families who come for assessments are already in a high conflict situation. These families have perhaps tried less confrontational methods of making arrangements for custody and access, such as mediation, without success. Claridge stated in a telephone interview that high conflict families show certain characteristics, including:
- conflict that exists over long periods of time;
- parents who remain enmeshed and show little independence or autonomy from each other;
- extreme distrust between parents;
- strong feelings of threat from the other parent;
- frequent use of accusations about abuse and neglect;
- use of physical threats or intimidation; and
- no willingness to compromise and a strong sense of a need to win.
Claridge does not use any strict format in assessing the degree of conflict, but she does make certain recommendations for parenting plans based on this factor. For her, parenting plans for high conflict families require:
- a great amount of detail with little or no flexibility in the arrangements;
- a need for parents to be instructed on how to respond to the child and the other parent in a variety of situations;
- minimal contact or communication between parents;
- regular routines;
- a primary parent for decision-making, although this may still allow an equally shared residence; and
- limited joint involvement in community activities or with professionals.
Parenting plans for low conflict families often include:
- provision for joint custody around decision-making;
- flexibility around schedules;
- more communication and cooperation between parents;
- less direction and detail in arrangements; and
- the involvement of both parents in meeting professionals and attending community activities.
Claridge says high conflict families benefit from the availability of community resources, including:
- supervised access and exchange programs;
- anger management programs;
- counselling and therapeutic services;
- child welfare services; and
- services, such as the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, to ensure that the child’s voice is heard.
Claridge states that parenting education programs often do not work for high conflict families because one parent uses the information to fuel their dispute with the other parent.
Susan Woolam is an MSW working with children and families in Ottawa since 1986. She has been conducting family assessments for the Ontario Office of the Children’s Lawyer since 1997. She sees that parents caught in high conflict situations have certain characteristics, including:
- limited ability to understand relationship issues;
- a tendency to be reactive rather than reflective in their thinking;
- a generalized anger towards life and not specific to the marital separation;
- bitter feelings towards the other parent;
- poor communication skills;
- a tendency towards enmeshment rather than autonomy; and
- a tendency towards inflexible beliefs about the other parent.
According to Woolam, the high conflict situations have certain characteristics:
- the argument may be about almost anything, especially subjects that are beyond litigation (such as anything having to do with the meals at the other parent’s home);
- violence, actual or threatened;
- constant use of police and restraining orders with no or minimal cause;
- an inability to transfer the child without verbal fights or unrealistic restrictions on people in the other parent’s life or extended family;
- false allegations about abuse, alcohol or drug use, or criminal activity; and
- constant disputes about unmeasurable or unprovable items.
In a telephone interview, Woolam stated that parenting plans for high conflict families need:
- a great amount of detail concerning scheduling;
- strict boundaries between parents; and
- minimum changes to decision-making or residence.
Low conflict families are able to manage joint custody arrangements and more flexible schedules. High conflict families are often referred to support and counselling programs for the children, anger management programs for overly controlling or abusive parents, and personal counselling and therapy for the individual parents. Woolam is an advocate of divorce education programs, but she also acknowledges that some parents in high conflict situations use the information from these programs to fuel their dispute with the other parent.
Sally Bleecker is a clinical social worker who has worked as a family therapist in Ottawa since 1977. She has conducted custody/access assessments on a fee-for-service basis since 1990.
Bleecker agrees that there is a pre-selection of high conflict families who come for custody/access assessments: only those families who are in conflict situations use this kind of service.
According to Bleecker, high conflict families show the following individual, relationship and structural characteristics:
- a high degree of rigid thinking;
- a tendency towards either/or thinking;
- a history of prior mental health problems;
- a sense of being wronged in the marriage;
- a sense of personal threat;
- a conflict that stems from a highly competitive marital relationship;
- a win/lose mentality;
- a history of violence;
- a tendency to see the children as territory;
- a sense of perceived inequality and injustice;
- a sense of powerlessness in the relationship;
- a social audience of friends and family who support the custody dispute; and
- an external source, often family, for money to maintain the legal fight.
Bleecker also recognizes a number of indicators that give advanced warning of high conflict situations, including:
- a lengthy history of legal involvement in the dispute;
- a frequent change of lawyers;
- the amount of affidavit material;
- the number of outside agencies involved in reports of child welfare concerns; and
- the duration of the dispute.
Like most other assessors, Bleecker does not use any research or literature references in identifying the level of conflict in the families she sees. She relies on her own observations from a series of meetings with the parents, with the parents and children together, and with the children alone. In these interviews, she determines which are the high conflict situations by noting the following characteristics in the responses she receives:
- a history of access denial;
- threats to relocate or change jurisdictions;
- total denigration of the other parent;
- a complete devaluation of the child’s need for the other parent; and
- a pattern of rigid parenting roles that goes back to the marital relationship and limits the involvement of the other parent.
In medium conflict situations, Bleecker feels that the issues are most related to daily routines and somewhat mundane matters, and that there are only minor battles for control over activities.
These interviews enable Bleecker to recommend different parenting plans for high and medium conflict families. High conflict parenting plans must include:
- minimal or no contact between parents;
- detailed firm schedules that require no negotiation between parents; and
- limited access for one parent.
Parenting plans for medium conflict families require:
- use of clear schedules;
- specific details for exchanges of children, using neutral places such as schools and day-care centres;
- use of a "communication book";
- autonomy for each parent’s time with the children, so there is no expectation of overlap between the routines at each home; and
- recommendations for therapy and counselling.
Bleecker considers joint custody an arrangement for lower levels of conflict, and even in those situations, she believes there must be a clear delineation of the child’s developmental needs for both parents to respect and understand.
High conflict families often require referral to community resources, and Bleecker often refers to:
- therapy and support groups for children and parents;
- supervised access and exchange programs;
- services, such as the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, for ongoing monitoring of the situation; and
- the use of supportive grandparents when they are available.
Arthur Leonoff is a clinical psychologist who has been in practice since 1973 and has conducted custody/access assessments for 20 years. In his view, the main challenge in doing assessments is being able to see beyond the present level of upset and conflict, and predict parenting ability
"once the dust settles."
In a telephone interview, Leonoff stated that conflict is not the issue in assessments; it is the observable symptom of what parents are able or unable to do together for their children. He does see some distinction between higher and lower levels of conflict:
- a high level of conflict means that parents can do little together and, therefore, assessments should ask little in the way of cooperative parenting;
- a lower level of conflict means that parents can do more together and, therefore, they can be asked to do more in the way of cooperative parenting.
When Leonoff is looking at a couple’s capacity to parent cooperatively, he looks for certain characteristics in them, namely:
- a history of being able to resolve at least some things for the children;
- their ability to distinguish between themselves as parents and as partners;
- their capacity to separate their own needs from the needs of the child; and
- the extent to which they can manage the conflict, whatever its level.
Leonoff says that his recommendations for parenting plans do not evolve directly from the assessor’s evidence: they must encompass what is already evident in the history of the relationship and the parenting of the children. He considers two factors important in developing parenting plans:
- if the conflict matters less than the couple’s ability to parent together, then there can be shared care and control; and
- if one parent negates and dismisses the other parent’s input and value, then there needs to be a protection of access rights.
Leonoff refers to a number of community resources in his parenting plans, including addictions services, parenting courses and services for ongoing counselling.
In Leonoff’s opinion, supervised access programs only provide a short-term solution
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