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Understanding Ethical and Legal Boundaries

Working with high-conflict divorce families is tricky for many reasons. First, you must have a clear understanding of your profession’s code of ethics as well as the legal rules which define the divorced couple’s parenting relationship.

If you are going to work with high conflict divorces, it is important to attend seminars that address the specifics of your state’s laws regarding divorce and child custody issues. You will want to have a good understanding the statutes guiding the court in making custody decisions, and consult your professional board regarding your profession’s code of ethics regarding your work as a therapist for the children and/or adults.

In more specific terms, it is important to make yourself knowledgeable about laws and ethics regarding:

- Confidentiality
- Record-keeping and sharing
- The rights of parents to see you regarding their children if you are the children’s therapist
- The limits of your decision-making or recommendation-making ability in each case.

There are three primary roles for clinical social workers working with HCD families. It is crucial to define which one of these roles you will perform because there are specific differences between them.

1) Custody evaluator: Insist that you be court-appointed for your own protection and neutrality. Always evaluate both parents as well as the child(ren). If you undertake this role, you cannot become a therapist for any party. You will be asked to make a report to the Court and will likely consult with the attorneys to try to promote settlement of the issues. You may be asked to provide follow-up visits or monitor progress.

2) Parenting Coordinator: Again, require a court appointment and ask for as much authority as possible. The usual goal is to either prevent a formal court showdown/custody evaluation, or monitor the implementation of a court judgment to see that it is carried out appropriately. This role calls for skills in educating and motivating parents to improve their cooperation and communication in the child’s best interest.

3) Therapist: Seek the advice and collaboration of the custody evaluator or parent coordinator to protect your role as therapist. You will usually not have to be involved in court proceedings and can maintain more confidentiality for your client, while consulting with other professionals working with this family.

Since high-conflict couples are usually very defensive of their own viewpoints, they will be quick to look for signs that you are “favoring” one side or another. Even if you are the children’s therapist and have clearly explained your role to both parents, it is likely that one or both of them will try pressuring you to make recommendations about visitation, schoolwork, or extracurricular activities that may be interpreted as a “win” for one parent and a “loss” for the other. It may protect your work in these areas to carefully spell out in writing for the parents what your boundaries are.

Practical Considerations

- Adopt very strict boundaries with the parents. Be clear about your policy regarding phone calls, payments, and the scope of your involvement in this case. Have a clear policy regarding the use of email to contact you as well as what you will charge for lengthy phone calls.

- Do not get pulled into the emotional dynamics of the case. Rely on psycho-education about post-divorce parenting as well as the developmental needs of the children. Focus on the present, not the past.

- Repair distortions, not relationships. The divorced couple must learn to relate to one another in a new, business-like way. Help each parent identify his or her own emotional “loop” and teach each one to relate in an assertive, reasonable way.

- Praise parents for improvements in their own behavior. Rely on their desire to be a good parent as a motivator for why they should want to get out of the high-conflict loop.

- Consult other professionals as needed. It’s crucial to avoid bias in these cases. If there has been a custody evaluation, ask each parent for permission to contact and confer with the custody evaluator or to get a copy of the report. Use your peer group to discuss cases to check for your own “blind spots.”

- Don’t expect to achieve perfection. Even children of never-divorced parents will be fine if their family is “good enough.” We don’t have to hold divorced parents to higher standards. “Good enough” is two divorced parents who each provide a secure, loving, and competent home, no matter how the time is divided.

Setting the tone

These cases require the therapist to take a pleasant but authoritative stance. Remember that these parents are often stuck in “Child” mode—they do not control their emotions well and resort to passive or aggressive behaviors.

Therapists must model “Adult,” not “Parent,” behaviors. If you come across as a Parent (by appearing to take sides, scold, or preach), you will reinforce their Child behavior. The parents will likely engage in “sibling rivalry,” expecting to convince you to “pick a side.”

It is only when you take a firm stance as an educator and therapist and show confidence in both parents that you are able to help them move from “Child” to “Adult” themselves.

To do this, it is important to be very firm about your own boundaries with meeting times, phone calls, and the scope of your involvement in this case. If you are a child therapist, you must make it clear that the child is your client.

You may be the therapist to only one of the parents. Or perhaps you have contracted to work with both parents on behalf of the children. The work may be court-ordered or voluntary.

Be firm about your boundaries regarding court work. Parents involved in high-conflict divorce tend to litigate often, and they may be trying to enlist you to testify on their behalf. They are unaware of your ethical responsibilities.

For example, parents usually believe that one parent can bring in a child for an interview and you can then make a decision regarding the child’s visitation with the other parent. Of course, this is highly unethical and would be thrown out of court.

It is best to have a contract which you mail out to each parent before the first meeting. Your potential client(s) can read it and ask questions in the first session. Be sure to get releases to talk with the attorneys if necessary.

The Beginning: Setting up the case

Starting with the inquiring phone call, it is important to gather some primary information.

- Has the divorce been finalized?

- Has a parenting plan been put in place? If so, is the arrangement for joint or sole custody? Has a domiciliary parent been named?

- Did the parents make this agreement outside of court, or was a legal judgment made? If so, ask that the parents fax you a copy of the judgment before you see them. Get the names of each party’s attorney; you may have to make sure that you have the most recent judgment, as there may have been many custody changes in a chronic high conflict divorce.

- Are there any past or present allegations of domestic violence, drug addiction, or child abuse?

- It is wise to tell the caller that your first visit is exploratory and at the end of the session you will discuss whether you will take the case or refer it to someone more appropriate.

The first appointment

When you have your first appointment with either one or both parents, it may be useful to start with the development of a genogram. After the initial round of introductions and pleasantries, hold up a small whiteboard and explain, “First I’d like to sketch out who’s in the family.” Start with the marriage partners and their children, then ask about other marriages and step-children. Add in grandparents if they are significant figures in the dynamics.

Working on the genogram first provides a safe question-and-answer format which keeps you in charge and places the parent(s) in a cooperative position.
As the parent(s) name grandparents, their own siblings, their children, and any step-relations, you will get a quick feel for each parent’s ability to embrace the idea of an extended kinship model.

The completed genogram creates an excellent visual of divorce, the children’s extended kinship system, and the place of stepfamily members.
To emphasize the point, you might hold up the completed genogram and say “This”—the whole chart—“is the children’s family.”

Model respectful language

While working on the genogram, it is useful to model respectful language. Refer to “Jody’s father” or “Brandy’s mother,” or the parent’s first name. You will want to avoid terms like “your ex” or “your former spouse.” Keep the focus on person-as-parent, not person-as-ex-spouse.

Correct the parents each time they slip into third-person references (only calling the other parent “he or she”) or something worse. “Visitation” also implies a lesser parenting role; you may choose to use another phrase such as “time in Jody’s father’s home” or “when the child is with you.”

Themes to stress from the start:

Parental conflict is very painful for the children. Parents lacking in empathy will insist that their children are “relieved” not to see the other parent. Even empathic parents have a hard time coping with their children’s suffering. Placing blame solely on the other parent assuages any sense of guilt or responsibility they may have.

Divorce is a process, not a single event. Especially with the pain involved in high-conflict divorce, parents are very eager to “be done with it.” They often lack insight or foresight, and prefer to believe that the divorce ends all their relationship problems. We must explain the “after-marriage” binds parents as long as their children live. We can teach them that parents can improve their after-marriage relationship with time and experience. Recommending a business model for their relationship helps.

Children need close and continuous contact with both parents. Research indicates that it is not the particular division of time that ensures good parent-child relationships, but the children’s knowledge that both their parents are “at hand” and they are free to communicate and spend time with each parent without conflict.

Children’s self-esteem and personality growth can be damaged by parents who insist on a “good parent/bad parent” mentality. Parents with very rigid ego boundaries will attempt to hold on to a “I’m right/you’re wrong” mentality. We must help them understand that their need to be right has nothing to do with the child’s needs.

Childhood is irreplaceable; parents who focus on fighting take away the children’s right to a happy childhood. This may result in the children distancing themselves from both parents when they grow up. Many of the parents came from similar backgrounds and need to be reminded that there IS another way.

Co-parenting is a business relationship with strict boundaries. Children will do better with two parents who never speak to each other—if that’s what it takes to keep the children out of conflict. However, there are many good options for communicating important information—email, phone messages, even divorce-dedicated websites where family calendars can be posted.

Parenting plans should be re-evaluated occasionally to address children’s changing needs. Due to the differing developmental phases of childhood, as well as the changing circumstances of parents, it’s helpful to remind parents that their plans need to be flexible. It’s a good way to keep them from being in an “I won/you lost” mindset.

You can always remind the parents of sweet young children that they only have a few years before those children will learn to play the adolescents’ favorite divorce game, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll move to the other house.”