Lately I’ve been thinking about custody issues, difficult divorces and how legal issues sometimes creep their way into kid therapy sessions. I’m not talking about helping children deal with the fall out (that’s what counseling is about after all); I’m talking about the way parents can be confused about the role the therapist plays and may expect her to do more than she is legally or professionally able.
As I said before, in general counselors do not do custody evaluations. Ethically we also aren’t able to shore one side up against the other by sharing case notes, testifying or supporting a parent’s agenda in session. I don’t mean to make parents sound like bad guys here. I think it’s understandable that a parent would like to their child’s therapist in support of what they believe will be their child’s best interest.
Ideally both parents would be involved in or at least aware of any counseling their child is getting. Sometimes this isn’t legally possible (in the case where protective orders prevent communication) but in general if mom brings the child to counseling, dad should know and vice-versa. This is partly to avoid any accusations of favoritism and also to make sure the counselor is getting both sides of the story as well as the opportunity to better understand the child’s relationship with both parents.
Dealing with parents at odds with each other can make things challenging. Sometimes I’m dealing with requests or directions from mom or dad that are totally different than what the other parent is asking for. Generally I try to make it clear that I am happy to communicate with both parents and give serious thought to what they say but ultimately the course of therapy will be dictated by the child’s response, wants and wishes. For example, if a parent calls me and asks me to try to convince the child to ask for a change in visitation, I’ll explain why the counseling office isn’t a place to push a parent’s hoped for outcome. Likewise I will not grill a child to try to get things “on record.”
Guardian ad litems (GALs), which are court-appointed representatives for the kids, often call me to ask what’s going on. If either parent has signed a release of information, I’m happy to to talk with them. GALs try to stay neutral and they often help me understand what’s happening for the family legally or answer questions to help me clear up a child’s misunderstanding or confusion about the process. Sometimes they will ask me for my impression of the parents but I don’t give opinions. I’ll report facts (things like father picked child up from counseling today, mom dropped him off or child wanted one parent present in therapy and they played in the sand tray together) I will pass messages on from kids (by request) and will sometimes ask for insight in how to reach a parent who has been reluctant or even hostile about being a partner in their child’s therapy.
Sometimes the court or a lawyer will make requests about how therapy should happen. In that case the GAL may be able to help me convey my response appropriately. For example, if the court is pushing for me to address a particular issue with the child or is telling me I need to include some person in counseling and I don’t feel this is in the best interest of the child’s treatment plan, I’ll push back. Courts and lawyers don’t get to decide therapy. They don’t get to decide who comes or who doesn’t or what gets talked about. There are programs where these kinds of requests can be honored but it’s outside of my scope of practice. For example, I will not force a child to participate in a mediation with a parent if that child is not prepared to do that. I will also not try to get a child to give me an answer about their wishes with the intent of reporting back to the court.
Parents don’t always understand that in general therapists are powerless in court. If we are subpoenaed what we can say without risking our license is limited to facts. To testify for or against a parent or to speak for our client is inappropriate and risks the therapeutic relationship. Again, a therapist not doing ongoing work with the child may be a better choice for evaluating and assessing the child with a particular court-focused goal in mind.
If your child is seeing a therapist due to divorce or if you’re considering it, make sure you talk to therapist beforehand so you understand her limits. This way your expectations will be realistic and if you end up needing someone to support you in the divorce court, you can consider your options while protecting your child’s therapeutic relationship.