Professional psychology is failing the family courts.
A child’s rejection of a parent surrounding divorce is a family therapy issue, not a child custody issue.
Child’s Best Interests
Divorce ends the marriage, not the family. A cutoff family structure is always pathological. A cutoff family structure is NEVER a healthy post-divorce family.
The courtroom is not the proper venue to solve family pathology. Family pathology cannot be litigated. The resolution of family pathology is the domain of professional psychology.
The legal system therefore turns to professional psychology for consultation on family pathology.
This request for consultation takes one of two forms, an order for something called “reunification therapy” or an order for a child custody evaluation by professional psychology.
In each of these, professional psychology is failing the court.
First, there is no such thing as reunification therapy. This is important to understand. There is no such thing as reunification therapy. It’s an entirely made up thing. There is no book, no article, no theorist who has ever described anything called “reunification therapy.” It’s a sham construct designed to allow the “reunification therapist” to just make stuff up and do whatever they want, and just call it “reunification therapy.”
I’m a clinical psychology. Psychotherapy is what I do, and I don’t think I’m being clear enough about this yet:
“Reunification therapy” is a snake-oil remedy of unknown contents that is more likely as not to kill you as to cure ya. If any mental health person says they do “reunification therapy” – run. There is no such thing as “reunification therapy.”
There, is that clear enough?
If any mental health professional disagrees, there is a Comment section to this blog. Cite for me a single book or article that describes what “reunification therapy” is.
What the court and all parents want is family systems therapy; either Structural family systems (Minuchin) or Strategic family systems (Haley; Madanes). Bowen has a foundational family systems model (Bowenian family systems therapy; The Bowen Center). Satir has a model strong on family communication dynamics.
A competent family systems therapist is knowledgeable about all of these variations. They all center around the same basic core constructs of Bowen; elaborated by Munichin and Haley.
Family systems therapy is one of the four primary schools of psychotherapy, the others are psychoanalytic psychotherapy (think Freud and his couch), cognitive-behavioral therapy (think lab rats pressing a lever), and humanistic-existential psychotherapy (think hot tub in Esalen).
Family systems therapy is the only school of psychotherapy that is designed to address and solve current family relationship conflict. Family systems therapy is the appropriate form of psychotherapy for addressing and resolving family-related conflict surrounding divorce.
The pathology of a child-rejecting a parent surrounding divorce is called an “emotional cutoff” (Bowen). This is not Dr. Childress saying this. This is Murray Bowen saying this. Standard family systems construct.
The pathology of an “emotional cutoff” is caused by disturbances in the process of “differentiation” within and among the family members. Read:
Bowen Center: Eight Concepts
2. Differentiation of Self
This is not Dr. Childress. This is Bowen. Standard family systems therapy. Disturbances in differentiation within family members can lead to the child’s “triangulation” into the spousal conflict to stabilize a parent’s vulnerability.
The child’s “triangulation” into the spousal conflict can take the form of a “cross-generational coalition” with one parent against the other parent, resulting in an “emotional cutoff” in the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.
Differentiation of self
All standard family systems therapy stuff. Bowen, Minuchin, Haley.
There is no such thing as “reunification therapy.” No book. No article. No theorist. The court and parents want family systems therapy.
Structural family systems therapy (Minuchin)
Strategic family systems therapy (Haley, Madanes)
Bowenian family systems therapy (Bowen)
Problem 1: Professional psychology is failing to provide the court with the proper professional knowledge and expertise needed to solve attachment-related family pathology surrounding divorce. Instead, mental health persons surrounding the legal system are simply making stuff up willy nilly.
Problem 2: Child custody evaluations.
This is important to understand: There is no scientifically established support for the validity of child custody evaluations.
Child custody evaluations violate every standard of professional practice regarding the development of an assessment procedure. I discuss all of this more fully in:
There are multiple-multiple devastating problems with the practice of child custody evaluations, but I’ll focus here on just one, the most devastating one: No inter-rater reliability.
The conclusions and recommendations reached by child custody evaluations have no inter-rater reliability. What this sentence means is that two different evaluators can reach two entirely different sets of conclusions and recommendations based on exactly the same data.
Well, that’s a problem. According to the axioms of assessment, if an assessment procedure is not reliable (does not produce stable results), then the assessment procedure CANNOT – by definition – be valid. The conclusions and recommendations from child custody evaluations are not valid.
If there is no inter-rater reliability, the conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations are simply the opinions of one person, that specific evaluator, perhaps based loosely on some psychological principles, perhaps based on no psychological principles whatsoever, just a matter of the individual opinion of the evaluator.
Don’t believe me? There is a Comment section to this blog. I challenge any mental health professional to cite for me a single study indicating the inter-rater reliability of the conclusions and recommendations reached by child custody evaluations.
The conclusions and recommendations of child custody evaluations are no more valid than a monkey throwing darts at a dart board, and a lot less entertaining – and, I might add, far more expensive. Child custody evaluations are a very lucrative industry for professional psychology surrounding the family courts.
Child custody evaluations are a financial racket, pure and simple. That is a strong professional statement to make, and I am absolutely prepared to back it up anytime, anywhere. If any mental health professional wants to take exception to my statement, cite for me a single study identifying the inter-rater reliability of child custody evaluations. If an assessment procedure is not reliable, it cannot, by axiomatic definition within professional assessment, be valid. Child custody evaluations are a financial racket, pure and simple:
Do child custody evaluations actually do anything to solve the family pathology? No. Of course not. They’re “evaluations” – not “therapy.” For therapy, you’ll need “reunification therapy.”
See, right here in Recommendation 3 of the child custody evaluation, right after Recommendation 2 that custody time-share should remain exactly where it is right now (with the child rejecting one parent), see, a recommendation for “reunification therapy.”
Child custody evaluations don’t actually fix things, they just tell the court to keep things where they are right now (with the child rejecting one parent) and do “reunification therapy.”
And do you know what the “reunification therapist” is going to say?
“We need to go slowly and not rush the child. We’ll start with 2 hours of supervised visitation and then increase it from there as the child decides they want to spend time with the parent. We don’t actually want to solve the family pathology of a cutoff family relationship.”
“We need to go “slowly” – a consistent hour of “therapy” on my schedule every week. Court-ordered, month after month, year after year. But nothing actually changes, because “reunification therapy” isn’t really a form of therapy. It’s just designed to give pablum to the court as if something was taking place.”
But the child never “decides” to spend more time with the targeted parent. Surprise, surprise. In fact, things get worse, and worse, and worse, throughout all of the “reunification therapy.”
It is the responsibility of professional psychology to treat and resolve family pathology. That’s our job.
Professional psychology is failing the family court system. Professional psychology is not providing the court with the proper professional expertise required to solve the family conflict.
The court and parents don’t want or need a pointless child custody evaluation. If you’re tempted to conduct a child custody evaluation I suggest you hire a monkey with darts instead; it’ll be more entertaining and equally as valid.
The court and parents don’t want a mythical “reunification therapy,” a snake-oil therapy that solves nothing, ever.
The court and parents want family systems therapy – real psychotherapy that will solve the family conflict and facilitate the family’s successful transition to a healthy and functional separated family structure following divorce, which is always in the child’s best interests.
It is time for professional competence based in the standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology.
Family systems therapy: Bowen, Minuchin, Haley.
The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857