You have now learned about the basics of working successfully in the family courts. Becoming a custody evaluator, mediator, or case manager is not for the faint of heart. But the challenge makes this work interesting and fulfilling. These jobs require that you use your counseling skills not as a therapist, but rather as an impartial advocate in the court system for a child and his or her best interest. You are often the only person who truly speaks for the child in what is usually the most difficult time in his or her life. As a mediator, case manager, and particularly custody evaluator, you can significantly influence how the child’s future unfolds, as well as the parents’.
Even so, you are not going to make everyone happy; this is often one of the hardest parts for a counselor to accept. The ultimate goal of a therapist is to help his or her clients feel more positive and happy in their lives. But that doesn’t usually happen in family court. Often one party to the case will not feel positive about the conclusions of your work—that’s the nature of the work. Nonetheless, you can do certain things to help both parents and children in this journey through and beyond divorce. Establishing opportunities for parents and children to learn and talk about this journey is one way to lessen the collateral damage.
The court system is always looking for ways to eliminate recycled cases. The courts want as few modifications of a divorce decree as possible. They want parents to work together as effective coparents to raise the healthiest children possible. If the parents learn to coexist with each other in at least a functional way, they can then agree to necessary modifications as the child ages and circumstances change. Ideally, the parents can make the decisions for their child rather than having the court system do it. Many jurisdictions are instituting classes to help parents and children better understand the effects of divorce on their lives both in the present and in the future. As a professional mental health provider, you can help the court establish these classes and other such opportunities.
PARENTING CLASSES FOR DIVORCED PARENTS
One class that is benefiting parents in many jurisdictions occurs simultaneously with a filing for divorce if there are children involved. The class is taught generally in the evening and lasts approximately 3 hours. Generally, there is only one session, and the parents are required to attend it before the judge makes any order to dissolve the family. One class barely scratches the surface of all the parents need to know about the effects of a divorce, but one class is better than none. This class is taught by a professional counselor who is fluent in the realities of the effects of divorce on children. Some places that have access to a university counseling department use graduate students to teach the classes under supervision by a counseling faculty member. This is a great opportunity for the students to practice their communication skills and work in a real situation with real clients.
The class is generally taught in a classroom in the courthouse. Because of potential problems arising from emotional adults attending the class, at least one court marshal is assigned to each class. If a restraining order or no contact order is in effect, the parents are assigned to different classes. Depending on the situation in that particular jurisdiction, there may also be a police standby assigned to the parking lot before the class and at the conclusion of the class to discourage arguments in the parking lot between parents.
The classes cover a variety of topics, all dealing with how children are affected by a divorce in their family. Topics generally include the myths and truths about the effects of a divorce, what a child experiences as his or her parents embark on a divorce, and how the parents can reduce the amount of anguish the child experiences through this process. This class provides the parents with the truth about what they are doing to their child and how they can reduce the collateral damage done to the child now and into the future. This is not an opportunity for parents to air their tales of woe, but rather a chance to teach them how to make the divorce as easy on their child as possible.
Some of the class is also spent discussing what the parents are going through as the divorce proceeding moves along. Discovering that others are feeling the same as they are, having their own rollercoasters of emotions, is helpful for the parents. The children are suffering, but so are the parents. Change is never easy, and change fraught with emotions and concerns is particularly difficult. The class provides the parents with ways to deal with their emotions both when they are alone and when they have to deal with their soon-to-be ex-spouse.
Part of the class focuses on how to become an effective coparent. Coparenting skills need to be practiced and developed over time to reach effectiveness; even so, the class does provide the groundwork necessary for the parents to begin the process. Many parents do not even have a concept of how to coparent, and they need help to become coparenting adults.