This clinical model focuses on providing effective
professional service to
of family client. Litigating co-parents in any of these types may be ordered
to seek clinical help by a family-law judge. In such cases, the definitions
of "the client" and "effective clinical service" differ significantly from
non-court-referred clients. From
36 years' professional
experience with these systems, this
article hilights these differences and their implications for effective
clinical assessment and interventions with court-ordered client families.
To get the most from this article, first (a) view this slide
presentation on the [wounds + ignorance]
cycle, and read (b) this general introduction,
and these introductions to effective (c)
assessments and (d) interventions with
these complex clients.
adults seek legal help to resolve co-parenting
impasses over (a) personal-boundary
violations (e.g. harassment), and/or (b) disputes over child custody,
visitation, financial support, names, adoption, education, and/or
parenting-agreement design and compliance.
Hiring attorneys to force
resolution of such family impasses indicates...
(a) one or more family adults are
and (b) family adults are unskilled in effective
one or more adults or kids may be
(broken bonds), and family adults and professionals are unaware of this
or what to
is low, and some or most family-members' primary needs
filled well enough;
the antagonistic win-lose court process will
add significant current and long-term stressors to the family's
situation, rather than reducing them; and...
the family adults and supporters, and their
attorneys and associated judges and ancillary professionals lack
awareness of how these
are promoting the current intra-family impasse.
This usually means that legal
proceedings and rulings will (a) not reduce the
adults' wounds + ignorance that cause the impasse, and (b)
will probably increase intra-family disrespect, distrust,
hurts, resentments, frustrations, hostility, anger, anxiety, guilt,
shame, and polarization.
self-referred clients are motivated to work with clinicians to reduce some presenting
"problems" (unfilled needs). Clinicians can use that motivation
for constructive systemic change. Often,
court-referred adults come to therapy to avoid noncompliance and
contempt-of-court charges, rather than because they believe it can
really help them. They typically...
are cynical and skeptical that therapy will
resolve their impasse/s - specially if they've tried counseling and/or
professional mediation before with no major benefit,
resent being forced to interrupt their
schedules to work with - and pay for - a professional they (usually)
didn't choose; and client-adults...
are so distracted by a web of old and new
(legal and financial) "problems" that short-term therapy is unlikely
identify and reduce the primary problems causing the current impasse/s.
Restated - typical court-referred client adults want
the clinician to side with them against their other family member/s, the
hostile "other attorney," and perhaps an "unfair or biased" Guardian ad
Litem (court-appointed child's attorney) and/or family-court judge. If the clinician says "you both
are co-creating your impasse, and you each must want to make
some fundamental changes to get what you need, clients are apt to sabotage,
ignore, or abort the clinical process. They're not ready to accept
responsibility for half of their distress.
Compared to work with self-referred clients, key clinician choices here
"my client" to include the attorneys, judge, and other professionals
(e.g. mediators, doctors, tutors, and psychologists) involved;
assessing all metasystem-members
for significant wounds and ignorance;
redefining "effective clinical work" to
fit the results of the assessment;
educating all metasystem members on
the probable primary causes of the client-family's impasse;
the client-family's unmet primary needs, and (b)
refocusing all metasystem members on acknowledging and filling these
needs (i.e. on problem-solving), rather than on winning the legal case;
specific written and verbal recommendations to all parties on (a) ending
the current (harmful) legal process, and (b) reducing the family's
primary problems long term; and...
get no benefits from initial therapeutic contacts (by their own
definition), respecting this and not urging them to continue - even if
the judge orders them to. If client adults become more self-motivated to
continue clinical work, treat them like self-referred clients with one
exception - make acknowledging and resolving the stresses from the legal
battle/s an early clinical priority.
If this looks like a lot of work and potential conflict - it is!
Links above will take you to more detail on each option.
1) Redefine the Client
With typical court-referred families,
all family members involved in - or affected
by - the presenting impasse, and all influential supporters of these
members - e.g. biased siblings and senior adults (grandparents); and
all legal professionals, including all attorneys,
and the family-court judge/s;
all other involved professionals like
mediators, clergy, social caseworkers, law-enforcement professionals
(including any probation officers), doctors (prescribing medication),
and child-welfare evaluators.
Premises: (a) all of these people are probably
of major ignorances that will stress the client family, and (b)
typical over-busy, self-confident professionals aren't seeking
self-growth, and will deny, ignore, or discount their wounds and
unawareness in order to fill higher-priority needs.
2) Assess All
Starting with initial phone and personal contacts, clinicians need to
estimate each involved lay and professional adult's level of (a)
woundedness; and (b) awareness of...
[wounds + ignorance] cycle and its
common effects on people and
their personality - in general, and in this legal/therapeutic case;
and grieving basics;
family nurturance levels (low to high), and
the factors that usually determine this
between surface (secondary) problems, and the unfilled primary needs
that cause them (e.g. cause the client-family's current impasse); and...
the inherent limitations of short-term
if the client-family is a
also assess metasystem-professionals' awareness of...
make effective assessments, the
clinician needs to first assess
himself/herself for these same things - honestly. Typical
clinicians ruled by a false self will resist, postpone, or discount doing
this. Others will self-assess and do nothing meaningful toward reducing
their wounds and ignorances.
Reality check: do you know
if your true Self is guiding your personality now? If so -
who currently leads your
team of subselves? If it's not your Self (capital "S"), lower
your expectations about getting anything of value from this article.
psychological wounds range from minor to significant to extreme. With practice,
you can quickly guesstimate another person's degree of woundedness
(false-self dominance) by watching for the frequency, scope, and context of
behaviors like these. With client
adults, you can also assess their family trees
and their related homes for
wound-symptoms. The more contacts you have, the sharper your assessment can
your wound-assessment results to (a) guide how and when to educate
metasystem members on subselves, wounds, wound-recovery, and the [wounds +
ignorance] cycle; and to (b) adjust your goals and expectations of working
with this metasystem. The more "significantly-wounded" members the
metasystem has, the lower the odds that clinical interventions will cause
long-term positive systemic change - unless such interventions trigger
breaking their protective
and committing to real (vs. pseudo)
from 1 to 10, rank how useful you feel
wound-assessment is in working with typical client families - 1 =
"unimportant " and 10 = "extremely important."
Have you honestly assessed yourself
for psychological wounds? (Yes / No / Other)
Because contacts with metasystem professionals are usually limited,
clinicians need to develop some strategic "all-purpose" questions to ask in
order to sense the professional's (a) self-awareness, and (b)
accurate knowledge of the topics above. Each contact can deepen these
Useful broad assessment questions to ask professionals include things
"Who's needs are you working to serve in this case?" The answer
will often be a subset of all members of the metasystem, which
inherently promotes systemic conflicts.
cases like this, what do you see as the main real problems?"
Typical answers will (a) focus on the client-family's surface problems,
and (b) minimize or ignore the primary needs, conflicts, and goals of
all members of the metasystem.
"On a scale of 1 (unimportant) to 10
(very important), how
significant do you believe family-adults' childhood environments are in
cases like this one?" If the answer is low, the professional
probably has little or no awareness of the [wounds + ignorance] cycle
and its effects - in general, and in this case.
How do you usually assess whether a client
family like this one (a)
communicates and (b) problem-solves effectively?
"What role, if any, do you believe healthy grieving plays in
problems like this family is struggling with?"
"How do you define
"effective therapy (or
"How do you define the main responsibilities
of the attorneys in cases like these?" Typical answers focus on
winning the case (a short-term, non-therapeutic goal), rather than
long-term healing and client education (improving the client-family's
nurturance level so they don't need legal interventions).
"How do you define
"an effective court
intervention" in cases like this? An unaware answer sounds like
"settling this case." An aware answer sounds like "the family adults
become more (a) aware of what they all need to do to resolve family
conflicts without litigation, and (b) more committed to doing this as
to the above, clinicians need to assess client adults for several things:
prior experience with professional mediation
and/or counseling, if any; and...
adults current attitude and expectations
about court-ordered counseling. Typical assessment questions for this
might sound like:
"Who's idea was it that you should get
"Why do you feel s/he did?"
From one (not at all) to ten (totally),
how accurately do you feel the judge assigned to your litigation
understands your family situation so far?"
"How do you feel about being ordered to
attend counseling together now?"
"In your opinion, what is 'effective
counseling (or therapy)'?"
In your situation, what would have to
happen to have you judge counseling as 'worthwhile' or
"How likely is it that counseling can
help you (a) resolve your current dispute, and (b) prevent similar
conflicts in the future?"
response to questions like these will probably suggest additional questions
to sharpen the clinician's assessment. Again the assessment results will
guide the clinician's decisions of how and when to educate metasystem
members on (a) the key topics above, and (b) how the topics relate to the
3) Redefine "Effective
A definition of "effective clinical work" with
self-referred family members
can be something like "the family adults become (a) more aware of their
respective primary needs + any significant psychological wounds + their
(how they try to fill their needs, and (b) more motivated and skilled
at problem-solving, so (c) their family's nurturance-level increases, over
With a court-referral metasystem, additional clinical goals include...
all legal and other professionals
involved in the family's
become notably more aware of these
topics (above), and...
they all become motivated to use
their knowledge to...
and take appropriate actions;
client adults to
adopt a long-range view, end the
lose-lose litigation quickly, and to...
assess for psychological wounds - with
clinical help as appropriate; and motivate client adults to...
learn, tailor, and apply the topics
above to (a) resolve their current impasse/s and (b) intentionally
raise their nurturance level, over time.
Note your reaction to this proposal. If you were
one of the client-family adults, how would you feel about this definition of
"effective clinical work," once you understood it?
4) Educate All
An economical way to do this is to give each metasystem member your version
of a one-page summary like this
early in the process. Then discuss it with each person (or ideally in a
group), and follow up to see what each person does. Expect
significantly-wounded people to balk, evade, postpone, dispute, scoff, or
ignore ("resist") your request. Use
as needed, and adjust your clinical goals and plans to match metasystem
limitations (wounds and ignorances).
Compose a brief written digest on each topic
above and give it to selected metasystem members. ....If useful, print
and distribute copies of selected articles in this nonprofit Web site -
ignoring stepfamily references if inappropriate;
Patiently and repeatedly refocus each
metasystem member on the client-family's primary problems (wounds +
ignorance) when they focus on the family's impasse and/or the legal
process (the surface stressors);
Refer to selected topics above in phone,
personal, and written contacts, and educate people "real time." Do this
even if the person has followed the suggestions in your initial digest,
to reinforce their learning and understanding;
steadily encourage all members to adopt and
keep a long-term view in making their decisions (e.g. the next 25
years), vs. a short-term focus on ending the legal battle..
5) Refocus Metasystem
Members on Effective Problem-solving
Typical metasystem members will not
be aware of the difference between surface
and primary problems (unmet needs) - in general, and in the current
case. They also will usually not know how to (a) be objectively aware of
and to (b) clearly distinguish between true win-win
and common lose-lose
Clinicians who accept the vital difference between surface and primary needs
have an opportunity (and ethical obligation?) to (a) explain it and (b)
persistently remind other metasystem members of it as the clinical/legal
Clinicians' second-highest overall priority with any client should be
to facilitate the client adults learning to...
become aware of how the [wounds + ignorance]
promotes their current impasse and other significant conflicts, and then
learn to use these
to fill their primary needs as co-equal partners, vs. adversaries.
Achieving this requires all
adults' true Selves to consistently guide their personalities, which
needs to be their first priority. Typical wounded client adults
and other metasystem members will not know this, and will often resist
the concept's relevance and/or acting on it.
6) Make Specific Written
7) Respect Clients' Wishes
About Further Clinical Work
Again - typical court-ordered clients are ambivalent at best about being
forced to participate in and pay for professional clinical work. Many will
resist and may sabotage "counseling" and/or go through the motions but
aren't genuinely committed to the process. Even veteran clinicians usually
can't offset this ambivalence, resentment, or disinterest.
client adults attend one or more sessions, the clinician can begin to assess
(a) their attitude and expectation about clinical work, and (b) what their
primary systemic problems are. The latter will usually be some combination
practical clinical goal can be to "plant seeds" (new knowledge,
attitudes, and communication options)
with unmotivated, resentful, and skeptical adults, rather than to
trying to motivate them to make significant systemic changes. A related goal
can be to describe the probable long-term personal and family
benefits of investing in further self-motivated clinical work
regardless of the legal process. Then empathically
the client's local response, despite any court order.
With limited time and client motivation, I suggest focusing on how (a)
- which promotes using the legal system to solve family problems - which
aggravates the surface problems, rather than solving them. If clients
are receptive, a second core point to seed is that false-self
promote disrespectful attitudes, and once acknowledged, such wounds can be
for everyone's benefits. At the least, recommend clients review and discuss
these articles on the [wounds + ignorance] cycle, normal
personality subselves, and effective
client adults become more self-motivated for further clinical work during or
after the legal process, then clinicians can shift toward their normal
intervention goals and plans. If clients don't become more
self-motivated at this time, (a) they're probably controlled by well-meaning
and (b) that probably won't change unless each adult hits their personal
Therapy and the legal process cannot force this, and the
applies to everyone.
The above ideas suggest that
counselors and therapists who accept court-referred divorced-family and
stepfamily clients have some "extra" challenges to providing
the conflicting needs and opinions
of involved attorneys, judges, and other professionals _ adds more
discussions, paperwork, conflicts, and decisions to each case, and _
amplifies the ongoing task of assessing and prioritizing these;
clinicians and related colleagues have an ethical responsibility
to _ qualify
to serve these clients, and _ patiently strive to motivate clients and
related legal professionals to learn, accept, and act on the
stressors above are real, and secondary without exception.
With limited time and energy to invest, clinicians are challenged to help
clients and others understand and stay focused on (1) keeping a long-range
view, (2) focusing on strengthening the client family's nurturance level
over time, and (3) identifying, prioritizing, and improving the primary
Co-parents who choose legal
force to fill their needs are probably more apt to make malpractice charges
than other clients. Clinicians need to be clear on their ethical and
strategic stance in case a participating co-parent or child asks or demands
"Don't tell ___ about ___, OK?" They also need to know prevailing ethical
and legal constraints on what client information to reveal to whom, when -
e.g. if a clinician is subpoenaed to depose or testify about the case, what
are her or his obligations and options?
Professional associations like NASW, APA, and AMA publish guidelines and/or
offer consultation on conforming to "best practice" confidentiality
guidelines. A supervisor or clinical director who has clear answers to
questions like these is a major asset during the work.
is rarely (never?) one informed person monitoring and guiding
the complex interactions between client, legal, clinical, insurance, and
systems over time. This is like a construction crew trying to build a
complex structure without a coherent plan or qualified leader. The
and adapt to the resulting confusions, conflicts, and frustrations as s/he
works to serve the client family over time.
Whatever their litigation stressors
(above), the attitudes and motivations of client
co-parents toward court-ordered clinical intervention usually include ...
_ un/focused resentments
_ anger, blame, hostilities, and antagonisms
_ weariness and/or
_ anxieties or
(plural) and "defensiveness"
and righteous justifications
_ skepticism, cynicism, and distrusts
_ intense frustrations (unmet needs)
_ "numbness and apathy"
_ confusions and ambivalences
Co-parents' mix of emotions like
these are often thoughtlessly dubbed client resistance
to forced clinical intervention.
A judge's "suggestion" or
order to "get professional help" implies "I see you as an incompetent co-parent
and/or adult now, and I don't
trust you to get appropriate help on your own."
co-parents already (long?) embroiled in grieving
and complex, frustrating (old/new) conflicts, this public verdict of incompetence usually
(a) amplifies personal
, and (b) intensifies co-parents' existing hostilities,
blamings, defensiveness, and denials. These all raise the co-parents'
effectively without professional help. Their vulnerable kids lose
in many ways.
common early target with legally-referred clients is invite any "resistive"
co-parents to make a second-order attitude shift about clinical or professional service. At times, there is too much inner-family, client
family, and metasystem chaos and conflict for one professional to master. In
such cases, these timeless
are practical helps.
Early in working with legally-referred clients, clinicians need to
assess some special systemic factors like these:
1) _ Who comprises the
affecting this client
_ Who's making the key decisions in this system? _ What does each
now? _ How knowledgeable is each influential professional
about stepfamily basics,
including my supervisor or case manager? Low to high, what's the
level ("functionality") of this provider
metasystem, and _ what interventions seem warranted, if any, and _ who
should make them?
2) What biases does the clinician,
supervisor, and/or case manager have, if any, about _ parents who sue each
other, _ the family-law system and/or specific legal professionals, _
working with legally-embroiled clients, and _ being caught up in a complex
lose-lose web of conflicts among antagonistic co-parents, attorneys,
opinionated, unaware colleagues, and ancillary people like client relatives,
and law-enforcement, welfare, and/or media professionals.
specifically, does the referring judge want _ this service to provide, _
for whom, _ by when, _ based on what?
4) Relative to
this client family, what are the real (vs. surface) priorities and
biases of each active lawyer, including Guardians ad Litem (GAL)? How
attorney currently affecting the nurturance level of the client family? How accessible
is each lawyer?
current legal actions are in process, and what's the (active / inactive
/ hearing or review scheduled / ...) status of each? Who initiated each
action, when, and why? According to whom?
realistic options exist for making initial contact with each client
co-parent, including those not ordered to participate? Does the order or type of contact matter here? (phone
/ letter / e-mail / fax / messenger...)
willing or able am I to testify in court about my work with, and
perceptions of, the client family? What organizational policies and
laws affect my answer? Do I need a consultant to help guide me, if I'm
called to testify? If "Yes"- who?
8) Do I feel
qualified to work effectively with this client-provider
situation? If "No," or "I'm not sure", who
can/should I consult with about possibly referring this client out? To whom?
If I do take this case, what consultation help will I probably need? What are my options?
the above, what factors should I
assess first with this client, after
normal introductions and initial
and owning their
and learning alternatives to using legal force to fill them - e.g.
to put their true Selves in charge
(b) learning to use the communication
Every case will require "extra" initial assessments like these.
These illustrative questions imply the necessity of including concurrent
assessment of (a) each provider, (b) the impact of the whole
provider system on the client system, and (c) the court-ordered
of the six
in this clinical model may initiate clinical service because of, or during,
legal conflict between divorced co-parents or other relatives. Serving such
clients effectively requires clinicians, supervisors, and consultants to be
aware of extra complexities and special needs. These include (a) being alert
for special ethical and malpractice concerns, (b) assessing how the legal
system is affecting the client-family's nurturance level, and (c) helping all
involved identify and stay focused on the primary client stressors.
article summarizes common secondary legal stressors, proposes key
realities about working with litigious co-parents and unaware legal
professionals, and outlines common clinical implications of these realities.
An overarching premise is that
co-parents resorting to legal force...
related premise is that most legal (and other human-service) professionals
are unaware of stepfamily basics,
hinder effective clinical work by using "traditional"
Where this is true, a proactive option for clinicians is to suggest or urge
appropriate education for legal (and other) professionals. Options include
selected handouts, referral to Web information like these
articles, and/or seminars or an
in-service program for non-clinical
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