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Is There a Doctor in the Court? Focus on Parental High Conflict
Jaime Rene Roman, J.D., LLM
Psychiatric Services 2013; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.002622012
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The author is a judge in the Superior Court of California, Department 120, 3341 Power Inn Rd., Sacramento, CA 95826 (e-mail: romanj@saccourt.ca.gov).

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

Abstract

The author, a California Superior Court judge who is currently assigned to family law court, describes certain cases of marital dissolution as “parental civil wars” in which a high level of conflict between parents has deleterious effects on children. He calls on clinicians and social services systems to improve interventions to address high-conflict marital dissolutions and develop collaborations with courts to avoid lifelong negative consequences for the children involved in these cases.

Abstract Teaser
Figures in this Article

I am a family law judge. I am not a psychotherapist.

I was formerly a mental health court judge. I recall when Steadman and coauthors wrote a column for this journal about mental health courts (1) and a flurry of studies followed that ultimately hailed the collaborative success of such courts (24).

I write to urge another focus for collaboration. My family court assignment has provided me with insights that are at best troubling and at worst tragic.

After a verdict in criminal court, I would impose a range of sentences that included life in prison. My knowledge of a defendant was limited to the evidence presented during trial and, if he or she was found guilty, additional information provided in a probation report. It is not surprising that a number of the defendants had histories that included juvenile court adjudications.

I now know from my current assignment in family law that the dissolution of a marital relationship is not without an effect on children. Many of the adult defendants that I have sentenced—and will sentence— never had a chance because they were children of parents so intractable that the children became both victims and property of parental civil wars. These children come from homes that span the economic life of our society and that reflect our social tolerance for familial alternatives. But what these children all have in common is the experience of persistent parental discord, which often endures for years.

Not being a psychotherapist, I do not pretend to understand the various etiologies of the parental civil wars. And although many commentators promote collaborative dissolution (5), that modality works admirably only with parties ready, willing, and, more important, financially able to hire an attorney, a mental health coach, and a financial accountant for each party. In two years in family court, I have seen only three such dissolutions. I am witness to many more failures at collaboration.

In family law as it relates to custody, I have heard many terms applied by one spouse to the other—terms such as “parental alienation syndrome,” “bipolar,” “obsessive-compulsive,” and “narcissistic.” But lacking credentials as a diagnostician, I refrain from diagnostic impressions. Yet it is all too apparent that some parents have issues that have deleterious effects on their children and on others.

More than two-thirds of my family law cases are unrepresented by lawyers, which means that matters involving custody, visitation, and parental exchange parameters are typically decided in 15-minute increments. But these decisions have lifelong consequences. In family law cases over which I’ve presided, no fewer than six children have attempted suicide. One child, age 14, is an alcoholic. A number of children have run away from their homes. The children in these cases have experienced academic failures, episodes of drug experimentation, and pregnancies. I have received letters from some children, and when we have been able to meet, children have expressed a common sentiment: “I just wish my parents would stop fighting.” One child graphically stated, “I feel like a chew toy between two pit bulls.” He was ten, and one who attempted suicide.

In my current assignment to family court, I have come to appreciate the significant relationship that exists between the legal and behavioral communities. The behavioral-clinical community confronts the harm perpetrated on children by parental high conflict. But it would appear that behavioral academicians, long aware of the problem (6,7), need to devote more research to developing modalities that can more effectively reduce the number of high-conflict situations and, concomitantly, the long-term effects on children.

It appears that the problem of parental high conflict has been identified. However, more viable treatment modalities seem to elude behavioral academicians, particularly when a parent requires significant psychotherapeutic intervention. The behavioral-clinical community may debate whether parental alienation is a syndrome or a disorder, but what the children in these cases are experiencing is real.

I am reaching out to the behavioral community or, more properly, to the social services community, because I am ill equipped. But so are these parents. These parents are ordinarily fine people, but the process of relational dissolution has an effect. These people represent the broad spectrum of our society. However, they clearly lack insight into the import of their behaviors. Not being a behavioralist, I do not know whether diagnostic criteria exist for many of these adults. I also know little about the limitations imposed on the behavioral community that restrict clinicians’ effectiveness. I do not know the reasons for the failure of social service systems to meet the needs of such parents. I do not even know whether some parents are beyond the reach of any therapeutic interventions.

Regardless, I am deeply grieved by a system that continues to fail its children, their futures, and our society’s future. When children’s normal environment is of one of high conflict, what prospect does that hold for them and for their future significant others, their children, and our society? Can our two professions collaboratively do better?

The author reports no competing interests.

Steadman  HJ;  Davidson  S;  Brown  C:  Mental health courts: their promise and unanswered questions.  Psychiatric Services 52:457–458, 2001
[CrossRef] | [PubMed]
 
Petrila  J;  Redlich  A:  Mental illness and the courts: some reflections on judges as innovators.  Court Review 43(4):14–22, 2007
 
Roman  DE: Examining Offender Recidivism and Severity of Offenses in a Mental Health Court. Doctoral dissertation. Prescott, Ariz, Northcentral University, Department of Psychology, 2011
 
Sarteschi  C: Assessing the Effectiveness of Mental Health Courts: A Meta-Analysis of Clinical and Recidivism Outcomes. Doctoral dissertation. Pittsburgh, Pa, University of Pittsburgh, Department of Sociology, 2009
 
Tesler  P;  Thompson  P: Collaborative Divorce.  New York,  Regan Books, 2006
 
Ayoub  C;  Deutsch  R;  Andronicki  M:  Emotional distress in children of high-conflict divorce: the impact of marital conflict and violence. Family Court Review 37:297  –315, 1999
[CrossRef]
 
Johnston  J:  The future of children: high conflict divorce.  Children and Divorce 4:165–181, 1994
 
References Container
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References

Steadman  HJ;  Davidson  S;  Brown  C:  Mental health courts: their promise and unanswered questions.  Psychiatric Services 52:457–458, 2001
[CrossRef] | [PubMed]
 
Petrila  J;  Redlich  A:  Mental illness and the courts: some reflections on judges as innovators.  Court Review 43(4):14–22, 2007
 
Roman  DE: Examining Offender Recidivism and Severity of Offenses in a Mental Health Court. Doctoral dissertation. Prescott, Ariz, Northcentral University, Department of Psychology, 2011
 
Sarteschi  C: Assessing the Effectiveness of Mental Health Courts: A Meta-Analysis of Clinical and Recidivism Outcomes. Doctoral dissertation. Pittsburgh, Pa, University of Pittsburgh, Department of Sociology, 2009
 
Tesler  P;  Thompson  P: Collaborative Divorce.  New York,  Regan Books, 2006
 
Ayoub  C;  Deutsch  R;  Andronicki  M:  Emotional distress in children of high-conflict divorce: the impact of marital conflict and violence. Family Court Review 37:297  –315, 1999
[CrossRef]
 
Johnston  J:  The future of children: high conflict divorce.  Children and Divorce 4:165–181, 1994
 
References Container
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