A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Child Custody

I’m grateful to my friend and colleaige John Crouch in Virginia for the heads up on this one – word that Johnson County, MO (near Kansas City) is experimenting with a “problem solving court” for dealing with adversarial custody cases. Here’s an article about it in the Kansas City Star.

The idea of the court’s approach – also sometimes called “therapeutic jurisprudence” – is to intervene early with feuding parents and get them the counseling, classes, and/or treatment they need, so the parents won’t allow their conflict to erupt at the expense of the kids.

This from the Star article:

Johnson County District Judge Allen Slater said research shows that children can do very well when their divorcing parents cooperate in raising them. But children stuck in high-conflict divorces are suffering, Slater said.

“They see the two parents they love calling the police, screaming at one another, deliberately trying to sabotage the other,” he said. “The children love mom and dad regardless of their shortcomings. So when you tell a kid that the person you love is a bad person, kids feel they must be bad because they love this bad person. It’s just a terrible posture to put a kid in that kind of battle.”

Johnson City has concentrated all divorce cases in the courts of three judges (instead of spreading them among nine judges as they had before). When one of those three courts sees any indication this may be a high-conflict case, it refers the couple to Gary Kretchmer, a court staff person, who counsels with the couple and decides if they need more intensive counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, classes, or other services. If a parent balks at participating in a particular service, the court can limit his or her visitaiton until the service is complete.

The National Center for State Courts apparently is acting as a clearinghouse for information about the implementation of, management of, and results from these innovative courts.

Lee’s Thoughts: Clearly there are some divorcing parents who place their children in a terrible position by injecting them into the conflict between the parents, and clearly, these “problem solving courts” offer a fresh way of intervening to help avoid or lessen that misery. For this, bravo.

Whenever I hear of well-meaning professionals intervening in the lives of divorcing couples and forcing them to do anything together, however, I become concerned about the way violent, brutish spouses can use this kind of process to continue their abuse.

Abusive men and women are extraordinarily adept at using and manipulating third parties and bringing them in on their side. They exploit the fact that habitual victims often are afraid of speaking freely to others. This sometimes makes victims seem to an untrained or insensitive professional to be sullen or uncooperative and makes the person who beat them up a few days ago seem open, reasonable, and thoughtful by contrast.

I respect the National Center for State Courts, and I’m certain it will stress this risk as it provides information. I just hope the court staff understand it and watch out for it.