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


Developing typologies of inter-parental conflict

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 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:

The interactive elements include:

Intra-psychic elements include:

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:

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:

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:

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:

In a telephone interview, Behr and Lafleur-Graham stated that divorcing families require a range of services based on individual need, including:

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:

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:

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:

High conflict families show:

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:

Medium conflict situations tend to have the following elements:

Jones’ moderate conflict situations have the following elements:

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:

For medium or moderate conflict families:

For low conflict families:

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:

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:

Parenting plans for low conflict families often include:

Claridge says high conflict families benefit from the availability of community resources, including:

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:

According to Woolam, the high conflict situations have certain characteristics:

In a telephone interview, Woolam stated that parenting plans for high conflict families need:

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:

Bleecker also recognizes a number of indicators that give advanced warning of high conflict situations, including:

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:

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:

Parenting plans for medium conflict families require:

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:

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:

When Leonoff is looking at a couple’s capacity to parent cooperatively, he looks for certain characteristics in them, namely:

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:

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