II: Basics of Counseling Practice in Family Law


Interviewing Basics




It’s time to begin interviewing the parents and children. There are some basic guidelines to follow, but remember: These are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. You will change and supplement these guidelines to better match them to your skill set and traits. You won’t find out exactly what works for you until you have completed several evaluations. Even then, you will modify your usual way of interviewing for some cases. If you use standardized assessments, schedule time for the parent to take the assessments before the interview. Choose any assessments carefully: Be sure they will give you information that helps you reach your conclusions. But be aware that no assessment will tell you which parent is the better parent, although it may give you a probable diagnosis. Nonetheless, a diagnosis generally will not be sufficient grounds to restrict contact between the parent and child; as a result, the parent remains the parent and will probably maintain some contact with the child. Also, you will find that generally assessments end up taking time and money while giving little in return.


At minimum, you will interview both of the parents once, separately, for about 2 hours apiece. Try to schedule the parents’ appointments prior to sessions with the child. You will also conduct a session with each of the parents separately with their child, lasting approximately 30 to 45 minutes. Additionally, you will have a session with the child alone, for a duration depending on the child’s age and ability to communicate with you. Generally, this session also will be about 30 to 45 minutes. In addition, you will get in touch with appropriate collateral contacts. Ultimately you will write recommendations for the court regarding custody and visitation arrangements to serve the best interest of the child.


The session with each parent is where the evaluator begins to understand the issues of the case. It is during these interviews when each parent gets to tell the evaluator what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what he or she thinks would work best for the child with regard to custody and visitation. This time is when you begin to understand the case in terms of parenting skills, communication skills, emotional involvement, flexibility, caregiving, and potential ability to coparent. The session with the parent has six basic phases.

Phase 1

First, introduce the evaluation process and explain what it is and is not. The parent must understand the boundaries on confidentiality, as well as what you are going to do and how you go about writing your recommendations to the court. At this time, you will discuss payment and how the money the parent is paying will be used. You will also discuss any additional costs, including for court testimony and travel. Often the parent wants to get started right away, so you might discuss money at the end of the session, when the parent is paying your fee and you are writing your receipt.

Most parents are nervous when they come to your office. They know that your recommendations are important to the court and thus can be very persuasive with the judge. They are anxious because they don’t know what to expect from you or the conversation they are about to have. At this point, your counseling skills are especially important. Make each parent feel comfortable enough to talk with you freely and honestly. He or she must know that you are hearing him or her—really listening. Each parent needs to believe that you understand his or her feelings and torment about the breakup of the family, as well as his or her fears about his or her changing role in the child’s life. Use your counseling skills to communicate to each parent that you understand where he or she is coming from. Establish a working relationship with each parent so that he or she will feel free to talk with you about his or her life, the difficulties he or she is experiencing, and his or her fears and frustrations surrounding the legal system and the breakup of the family.

Phase 2

The second phase of the interview is talking about the parent’s past with the other parent. A good way to start the conversation is to ask the parent when the two married, how they met, what attracted them, and what they expected from the relationship. Discover the parent’s role in the family. Was it as moneymaker? As decision maker? As the supporter? As the emotional one? Talk about how the relationship was at the beginning and how it began to change, then ultimately fail. Discuss the breakup and how the parents decided to deal with their child. Did they agree to a visitation schedule at the breakup, or did they do nothing to maintain contact between both parents and the child? Who stayed in the family home? Who controlled the money after the breakup? How was the child supported after the breakup? Were there other people involved before or directly after the breakup? What other people seem to be “stirring the pot” now? Find out the degree to which each parent tried to keep the child’s life constant. Did the parent move often? Did the parent ask the child to change schools or become part of a new family?

With these questions, you are trying to find out the depth of the emotional attachment between the parents and how much remains between them. You are looking for who each parent thought of first before and after the breakup. Did he or she think of his or her own personal happiness and comfort, or of the child’s? You want to know if a particular parent is a drama queen, overly unemotional and rational, or carrying emotions that are hindering his or her ability to take care not only of himself or herself but also the child. You want to understand how each parent communicated with the other parent before the breakup and directly after the breakup, and how each parent is doing so now. The level of communication between the parents is telling about how well they can control themselves and what their possible motives are. Is it revenge they seek? Power over the other? To “win” at any cost? Remember that the parents aren’t going to outright tell you if they want their counterpart to drop off the face of the earth—but they often do want exactly that. Therefore, you want to begin estimating the emotional stability of each parent, particularly as it relates to his or her relationship with the other parent and the child.

Don’t just ask one scripted question after another. Instead, have a conversation with each parent, asking questions when you need to, making supportive statements, and listening carefully. Each parent will tell you what you need to know if you approach him or her correctly. Listen with your counseling ear, and you will hear the incongruencies, inconsistencies, and emotions inside the parent. Remember to make notes during the conversation. Record the timeline of the family from its beginning to its breakup. Also write down each parent’s version of his or her relationship with the other parent and how it evolved into the relationship as it stands today. These notes will remind you of the parent’s particular perspective and how his or her story differs from the other parent’s.

Understanding the past is important, but don’t let past events dictate your professional judgments. What happened in the past is important, but even more important is what is happening now. Look for patterns to see whether past behaviors are being recycled into current behaviors. More likely, what happened in the past is not happening now to the same degree. For example, right after the breakup, perhaps the father went out drinking and partying with many women, really living it up as a bachelor. Maybe he maintained contact with the child but didn’t behave as he had when the family was intact. As time passed, he realized that all the drinking and partying was taking a toll on his health, his life, and his relationship with his child and former wife. Now he still goes to the bar and has a few drinks, and he dates a variety of women, but his degree of enthusiasm for the bachelor lifestyle has diminished. During the interview, the former wife may want to talk mostly about how he was—not how he is now. It is your job to move the interview forward to understand the father’s parenting now and into the future. However, you will interview parents who cannot move beyond what happened in the past. These parents cannot let go of perceived wrongs and instead live their lives in the past, not in the present looking forward to the future. These parents would certainly benefit from regular counseling, and your recommendations should reflect that.

Equally disturbing is the parent who can’t understand what the past teaches. These parents can tell you what happened in the past, but they don’t learn from it. A woman’s former husband was an alcoholic and was prone to domestic violence; her current boyfriend is a drug addict and has been arrested for assault. Not only does this parent fail to understand the poor choices she makes when it comes to relationships, but she also cannot or will not understand how these choices are harmful to the child. Again, your recommendations should include counseling services to help this parent.

To recap, listen to the past, but don’t let the past rule your decisions. Compare how things were and how they are now. Are the parents parenting better now than in the past? Are the parents more concerned about their own personal happiness now than they were in the past? Has the glow worn off being the wronged parent and has the drudgery of being a single parent set in? Is there more resentment or less toward the other parent? Is the communication between the parents more effective now than before, or has it broken down over time? These are the things you are listening for during the interview. Thank goodness you have the listening skills of a counselor to assist you.

Phase 3

The third phase is understanding, in detail, what the parent’s life is like now. Ask whether he or she is working and, if so, what his or her work schedule is by time and day. Ask whether the other parent is working and determine that parent’s work schedule. Ask about child care, including the child’s schedule. If the child is in school, ask where, in what grade, and under whose care after school. Next, you need to know about the parent’s living situation. Ask where he or she lives, whether he or she rents or owns, and the size of the house. Find out what other people are living with the parent. Find out the number of bedrooms and who sleeps where. The parent who has the child the majority of the time must have the appropriate space for the child or at least a plan for making appropriate space. For example, if the parent is living in a one-bedroom apartment and the child has no room of his or her own, this might be a problem. If the parent plans to get a bigger apartment but is currently unemployed, this also poses a problem. If the parent is living with another person who also has children and there isn’t enough room for all the children and the adults, that’s another potential problem. If the child has to sleep on a couch because the parent lives with his or her own parents, this could be yet another problem. Everyone needs space and privacy and somewhere he or she can put his or her belongings, a place to feel safe and at home. If the parent cannot provide this type of environment for the child, then this is a concern. It will probably not be the deciding factor, but it is certainly a factor. Remember: You are painting a picture of this parent’s life and how the child fits into it. The living situation does not have to be perfect, but it has to be adequate to meet both the parent’s needs and the child’s.

Ask the parent to tell you about what he or she does in his or her life when not working. What are his or her interests and activities? What does he or she do with the child for fun? If he or she does nothing for fun with his or her child but play video games, or if he or she works out every evening in the gym while the child waits at home, that could be a problem. You are looking to see how involved the parent is in the child’s life and to what extent the parent’s activities supersede his or her time with the child. Is the parent’s setup about his or her personal happiness, or does it include the child’s happiness as well? If the parent has the child on weekends but goes out with friends regularly on those weekends, leaving the child with a child care provider, that tells you something about the parent and whose needs he or she is putting first. Likewise, if the parent tells you that during visitation time he or she doesn’t allow the child to participate in extracurricular activities such as baseball games to avoid giving up any time with the child, that is also telling. A good parent understands that a child also has a life, with responsibilities within that life. A parent’s job is to facilitate the child’s success at fulfilling those responsibilities. Keeping the child away from a game because the parent doesn’t want to give up time with the child is inappropriate. Also, ask whether Child Protective Services has ever been to the parent’s home, and if so why. Ask about police visits as well. Ask whether the parent has ever been arrested, including when the arrest occurred and how it was resolved. Ask these questions of the stepparent as well if there is one. Finally, evaluate how determined this parent is to stay the course, no matter how hard, to be a significant part of the child’s life. You will meet with parents whose goal is lowering their child support payments rather than being an active and consistent part of their child’s life.

Phase 4

The fourth phase of the interview is talking specifically about each child. The court is only interested in children under the age of 18, but if there are children in the family older than 18, talk about them also. They are part of the family even if they aren’t involved in this court proceeding. Ask the parent how old each child is; what grade he or she is in, and what school he or she attends. These seem like simple questions, but it is telling if the parent can’t answer them. Ask the parent how the child does in school, what he or she enjoys most about school, and what he or she enjoys least. Discover whether the child has friends, both at school and out of school. Talk about any behavioral problems both in school and out of school. Find out what the child likes to do outside school. Inquire about the child’s involvement in any extracurricular activities. If the child is young, ask about the child’s developmental milestones, including potty training, bed-wetting, cosleeping, self-dressing, and personal hygiene chores, as well as prevalence of nightmares, nature of eating habits and bedtime rituals, and other such development-related matters. You are looking for red flags that may indicate that the child is suffering from the continuing conflict: the inconsistencies in life or other factors that are affecting the child’s developmental progress. Discuss with the parent whether he or she has noticed any change in behaviors since the breakup of the family. Talk about the child’s behaviors at the exchanges for visitation. Understand the nature of the transition the child goes through when changing from one home to another. Finally, ask the parent what he or she is most proud of about his or her child and what worries him or her the most about the child. Find out how much the parent knows about the child, and how in touch he or she is with the child. Find out how involved the parent is with the child, and discover what difficulties the child is currently experiencing.

Have the parent talk about the child in such a way as to help you understand the child’s role in the family; this helps you get to know the child and how he or she might be struggling to cope with his or her family’s breakup.

In a family with more than one child, after you have discussed each child separately, have the parent describe the family dynamics before and after the breakup. Have the parent discuss the role each child had in the original family and his or her new role in both of the two new families. Find out which of the children has taken on the adult role, which has checked out of the family’s problems, which child is struggling with his or her emotions, and which is simply repressing his or her feelings. Ask how the children get along together. Find out which of the children is protecting which parent and which child holds the most anger toward which parent.

Most important, find out from both parents’ perspectives how the children have changed since the breakup of their family. Every child changes as a result of a divorce. Some changes are easy to identify, but others are less so. As any child counselor knows, children don’t significantly change their behavior without some reason. You need to know what changes have manifested, including when they began, how they have affected both the child’s life and each parent’s life, and to what each parent attributes these changes. It is telling whether the parent can answer these questions thoughtfully.

Phase 5

The fifth phase of the interview is discussing what the parent thinks would work best for the child when it comes to custody and visitation. You have listened to the parent tell you what is wrong with the other parent and why he or she believes the other parent should have limited time with the child. Now the parent gets the chance to tell you what he or she thinks would in fact work best with regard to custody and visitation. If he or she tells you that he or she wants to have the child during the school year with the other parent having alternate weekend visitation, that might make sense. If he or she goes on to tell you that the other parent can have weeks of uninterrupted summer visitation, that doesn’t make sense. Didn’t this parent just tell you that the other parent is incapable of taking care of the child? Now he or she has given the other parent more clock hours each day with the child then he or she has given himself or herself. These are the kinds of incongruencies that need to be addressed in the evaluation.