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Calming Down The Anxious Family Law Client
attorneys dealing with anxious child custody litigants
a pdf copy of this article, click here
© Vicky Campagna, PhD
anxiety of the child custody litigant is all too easily understood: here
is an individual who is already likely coping with an acrimonious
divorce, who is now facing what can seem like a terrifying prospect: the
reduction or even complete loss of custody of his/her children. But
while it’s easy enough to empathize with this person, it’s equally true
that working with such a client through all the many details of divorce
litigation can be a challenge for even the most sympathetic family law
attorney! How do you help your client stay focused enough to deal with
the problems immediately at hand and then also, with the upcoming
are 6 suggestions for client management during this difficult time:
Stress to your client
that the evaluator’s top concern is coming up with a parenting plan that
is in the best interests of the children. That goal trumps
almost any other point: if Mom or Dad has a close, loving & supportive
relationship with the kids, it’s not going to matter to me, the
evaluator, if his/her home isn’t decorated like Martha Stewart’s, or if
she never finished high school, or if she doesn’t get along with her
neighbor. This is not to say that those things are not part of an
evaluation, just that they pale in importance to the relationship
between the parents and the children.
Encourage your client to
adopt a cooperative, conciliatory attitude. One of the most obvious red
flags to an evaluator is a client who is unable to consider alternate
points of view, or to weigh the merits of possible custodial plans, or
who can find absolutely nothing positive whatsoever to say about their
ex. And needless to say, it's very important that the
client keep evaluator appointments, return evaluator phone calls, obtain
requested information as soon as possible.
Please reassure your
client that the gender of the custodial parent is not a
predetermined outcome. Neither is income level or educational
background. What we evaluators are looking for is the best fit between
parent and child when it comes to custody. Dads can parent their
daughters, Moms can provide a solid home base even if their
income isn’t as much as their ex’s. Someone who only went through the
11th grade might have better parenting skills than someone
with a Ph.D! The key point to emphasize is that evaluators do not
use a “cookie cutter/one size fits all” approach when coming up with a
Help your client come up
with a rational list of concerns about custody. For example, is your
client concerned because his ex-wife allowed the kids to eat whatever
they wanted to, rather than insisting on a balanced diet? Is she
concerned because her ex-husband can’t read well enough to help with
basic homework tasks? The idea here is not to come up with a
litany of complaints; it is the idea to help the evaluator be
aware of any issues that are relevant but which might not be immediately
obvious in the short time in which an evaluation is completed.
Educate your client about
the importance of collateral sources that support the client’s position.
Now, this does not mean the client’s mother or best friend!
What we evaluators want is objective, unbiased information.
People like the child’s teacher, Scout leader, softball coach,
pediatrician, etc. are ideal. Your client should urge these people to
speak candidly about their personal knowledge (i.e. that
which they have themselves seen or heard, not information---a.k.a.
gossip---that they may have picked up from others.
This is critical:
reassure your client that s/he does not have to look like a “perfect”
person! Custody litigants often think they have to deny any mistakes or
faults. To the contrary, this tactic makes people look like they have
no insight, are defensive, and cannot learn from mistakes! And trying
to look perfect on a psychological test is particularly hazardous:
these tests have unobtrusive ways to detect this kind of faking, which
signifies a lack of candor on the part of the test-taker.
If your client still seems too anxious
to be able to present him/herself effectively, it may be appropriate for
an in-person consultation with an evaluator prior to the actual
evaluation. Obviously, this cannot be with the neutral,
court-appointed evaluator; it will have to be with someone else who is
unconnected to the case in any way. I offer such a service: As an
experienced child custody evaluator, I can explain to your client what
to expect, how to present his or her case most effectively, and help
eliminate apprehension of the ‘unknown.’ This service is not
coaching: I do not give test answers or facilitate deception. What I
do is familiarize your client with the CCE process, give feedback on
how their approach might appear to an evaluator, and encourage a clear
& forceful presentation of their position, always focused on the BIC.
Most cases can be prepared in 3 visits or less.
And by the way---there is an article on my site with exactly the same
information, but written as an open letter to the litigating parent.
It can be found---along with an annotated bibliography on books about
divorce for both parents and children, an an article describing the
Special Master process---in the section of the site "Tools for Your
Clients." Feel free to pass it along.