|Help clients understand and break the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle
Divorcing-family Intake Checklist
for Effective Treatment Plans
Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council
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This article is one of a series on
professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance
(dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical
and trauma. These articles for
professionals are under construction.
This series assumes you're familiar with:
Before continuing, pause and reflect - why are you reading this article?
What do you
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"intake" means an
intake worker or clinician collecting initial information about a
clinical client's (a) family system and (b) presenting (surface) problems (a) over the phone or
(b) in person, and/or (c) on an intake form filled out by a client adult.
This checklist is designed for typical
clients. "Divorcing" reflects the premise that average family
systems don't fully adjust to their web of divorce losses and changes until many
years after a legal dissolution is granted. Also see (a) this sample intake form
for typical stepfamily clients, (b) this summary
client-profile form, and (c) this multi-page
inventory of stepfamily strengths. These
forms come from my clinical work with over 1,000
typical divorced-family and stepfamily co-parents since 1981.
This article distills basic information that can help...
See how these premises compare to
your experience and beliefs...
co-parents requesting therapy are often (a) unclear on what they
need, and/or (b) focused on resolving surface (presenting) "problems," rather
than these underlying causes. So a
well-designed intake protocol goes beyond just collecting demographic,
historic, and financial data and current presenting problems;
intake questions can be effective interventions, because (a) they raise
and clarity, and
(b) may offer useful
questions apply to all client-family
and others are unique depending on
of client, and what
clinical work they're initiating;
Wounded, divorcing co-parents are
often ambivalent or opposed to including their ex mate/s in defining "our family." Intake dialog can respectfully
suggest that all co-parenting adults and dependent kids form the client's
Expect multiple concurrent presenting
(surface) problems, and use assessment questions and
clarify, identify, and separate them. Note whether client adults and
supporters (a) can clearly differentiate surface from primary needs, and (b)
prioritize and focus on filling one or two primary needs at a time.
basic intake questions are:
What, specifically, do you need (a) in
your family and (b) from therapy?
What have your family adults already tried (to fill
those needs), and what have you gotten? And...
What do you feel is in the way of filling
these core needs - specifically?
I assume you're familiar with "standard"
intake questions, so these are specifically oriented to initial contacts
divorcing biofamily-client contacts.
The purpose of this
checklist is to help you gather enough initial information to learn...
is this, and who
comprises their family system?
them (self, a legal professional, a
mental-health professional, or someone else), and why?
What are their presenting problems?
What are the probable underlying
primary problems, and...
blocks client adults from filling their primary personal and family
Intake Interview Themes
Premise: client "problems" are
unfilled needs - psychological or spiritual discomforts. Clients have
problems because they (a) can't identify, separate, and rank their primary needs,
(b) lack relevant knowledge, and/or (c) they don't know how to
Often the way co-parents are trying to solve their
the first contact with a divorcing-family client …
Ask the initiating client family member/s to define for themselves and bring in:
1) What are your key
adult and biofamily strengths
now? Option: co-parents and relevant older children fill out this
Stepfamily Strengths" inventory.
2) Do both co-parents
agree that divorce is the most practical option for your family now?
3) What, specifically, do you want from
4) What have you co-parents (each) already tried?
With what specific results?
5) What's in the way now (of getting more of what you each want)?
Define your client as the multi-home family (system) including any
living ex mates (co-parents) and their
families;. Note and use any resistances to this framing.
Frame stepfamilies as normal, with
special tasks; (b) Validate feelings of marital /
household confusion and frustration (if present) as normal - specially soon
after cohabiting and re/marriage.
education often suffices, vs. therapy or counseling;
Build trust: "we'll sort, prioritize, and focus if there
are several problems" (which is almost certain).
Assure clients that your goal is
impartiality to all
their stepfamily members, present and absent. Explore whether absent
co-parents might participate, and under what circumstances;
Frame the therapy goals
as (a) empowering the client
co-parents to identify and fix their own problems, and (b) improve their
Outline the five re/divorce
factors above, and relate to the current assessment > intervention process;
As both an
assessment tool and intervention, ask client co-parent/s
present to guide you in drawing a (multi-home) three-generational “map”
of their whole stepfamily (this takes a big
flipchart or blackboard!); This is an efficient way of (a) learning all the
players, (b) making a preliminary co-parental GWC assessment; and (c) teaching those
present to visually conceptualize “who we all are.”
Verbally frame their genogram as “your whole stepfamily,” and ask
for reactions. Stress that all
bioparents of minor and grown stepkids are full co-parents. Suggest
co-parents reproduce the exercise with their kids and other key relatives;
Give the client/s a
selection of stepfamily educational materials for home study.
Assess the client home/s and
whole stepfamily per the four-axis typology above, form Tx goals, and
Key Assessment (Dx) Factors
Overall: use the
as a Dx framework
for individual co-parents and co-parent couple/s. Tailor to
fit the client-system's type and situation;
Assess who’s now
in charge of each co-parenting home, using
structural diagrams .
Identify intra and inter-home alliances, coalitions, and hostilities. Who
supports and who resists the co-parents’ re/marriage(s)?
Affirm and balance
- Have the client co-parents define their specific marital, household, and
multi-home family strengths and (human) assets. Refer to these as you
go to build hope, and offset overwhelm and pessimism;
major household: which relationships get the most energy? Assess re/marital vs. parental relationship primacy: note actions, vs. words.
Justify re/marital primacy as
protecting dependent children against major re/divorce trauma;
Assess for GWC co-parents: using the
genogram, assess all co-parents for significant childhood trauma and
dysfunction. Family-tree symptoms: divorces / desertions / abortions /
chronic illness / job and geographic instability /
/ verbal - physical - spiritual
/ hospitalizations /
/ bankruptcy / recurrent
legal trouble /
/ murder... Where these are apparent: is the co-parent in true or
pseudo recovery, or denial?
Assess for blocked grief: Can
co-parents describe ...
1) the three grief levels and stages within
2) The symptoms of blocked grief, and
implications of it?
3) the major losses they and each child have sustained from
death / divorce and parental re/marriage?
4) Whether any family member
significantly blocked in grieving major or collective losses?
5) The present policy that governs grieving
in their home?
Assess child dynamics:
2) status of any
or financial support disputes, including prior
or present court actions;
review the 30+ unique stepchild developmental tasks: assess (a)
co-parents' awareness of the tasks, and (b) each custodial or visiting child's status with them.
Dx for dwelling stressors: is the
client family living in his former personal dwelling, hers, or one new to
all? How are all co-parents and kids adjusting to "invasions",
and/or losses from moving to a new location? How satisfied are clients with
space allocations, privacy, etc.?
Dx ex-mates' status: Grieving or
blocked ? \ supportive ->
indifferent -> hostile to ex’s re/marriage? To ex’s new mate? \
stepfamily knowledge and identity? \ co-parenting communications’
(specially problem-solving) effectiveness? \ co-parenting role clarity? \
new romantic relationship (with another stepparent)? \ relationship
strengths and stressors?
Dx re/marital health
- how satisfied
is each partner? Explore how _ understood and _ supported each
stepparent feels by their current partner re conflicts over stepkids and
Dx co-parent verbal-communications
effectiveness: how does each co-parent rate their present verbal
problem-solving ability as a couple? How satisfied is each co-parent on
their partner’s present ability to hear them? Note specially how values
conflicts over money, co-parenting, and home-management are handled. Can
each co-parent clearly describe the key differences between “fiting” or
“arguing”, and “problem-solving”? (Can the clinician?)
Assess for addictions: check all three
generations of each co-parent. Any evidence of active substance / activity / relationship
dependencies? If so - status of client-family's addiction knowledge,
recovery, and resources?
Assess for prior stepfamily/remarital counseling
experiences: If any, what were the
outcomes? Was the clinician stepfamily-trained? (often, any prior Tx was
ineffective or negative, if the clinician was untrained and used a biofamily-systems
Assess stepfamily knowledge
- Assess the
degree of co-parent stepfamily/stepparent education: how realistic are each co-parents' expectations about their
stepfamily / co-parenting /
partner / stepchild behaviors? Educate clients as needed to the 60+
stepfamily vs. biofamily structural and dynamics differences, and
common co-parent myths.
Assess co-parent role-clarity: Does each
co-parenting couple have a clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve with their stepfamily? Can each co-parent name
their current specific "job responsibilities" in guiding each
resident and visiting child in the stepfamily? Do step and
bioparents agree on these? Do the stepkids? Do key relatives? If not -
how effectively does the family handle the disagreements?
Assess presenting problems and attempted
solutions: (often will be covered in several of the above foci) who
wants what (specifically)? Who's
tried what? What happened? What options toward resolution are untried, if
any? If nothing changes significantly - what's likely to happen? (Note:
unrecovering GWC co-parents typically use bi-polar thinking: only two
solutions to any problem)…
About the Presenting Problem/s
Questions About the Client Family
_ "Who comprises your present family?"
_ "Who's home are you living in now?" (a prior-marriage home, or
a new one?)
_ "Who has been living in each (co-parenting) home recently? Has
that changed in any major way in the last (six to 12) months?"
_ "What physical and legal child custody arrangement do you
_ "If there are child visitations, who goes where, how often, for
how long, who transports the child/ren, and how satisfied are all concerned with
the present arrangement?"
_ "Is there a legal parenting agreement that governs child
visitations? If so, how
is it, as judged by each co-parent and
each affected child?"
_ "Are all prior divorces legally finished?" if not, "What's
needed to finalize?"
_ "Have any of your co-parents or children been in therapy
before? if so, "When, for how long, what at was the goal, and generally how
helpful was it?"
_ "Has there been any court
litigation between any co-parents or
kin in your family? If so, (a) who initiated it, (b) why, (c) what was the legal
(vs. psychological) result, and (d) how did that process affect relations in and between your
_ "Has the Department of Children and Family Services (or your
state's equivalent) ever been called in about anything in your present or past
family? If so, who called, why, when, and what was the outcome?
_ "Do you feel that anyone in your past or present families was
(a) substances (including
food), (b) activities, (c) mood states (like anger/excitement, sexual arousal,
or other), or (d) relationships
If so, who, to what,
and are they in effective recovery now? The answers to these questions can
trigger a group of addiction-specific intake questions.
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September 29, 2015