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The Psychiatrist's Role in Divorce Custody Battles

The Psychiatrist's Role in Divorce Custody Battles


Psychiatric Times December 2004
Vol. XXI
Issue 14


"Arnold" and "Betty" were married for 10 years and had two children. When they divorced, they could not agree on the custody and visitation arrangements for the children. Although they previously loved each other and still had sincere respect for each other, they were gearing up to make extremely angry allegations about each other in court.

When "Calvin" and "Dotty" divorced, Dotty had custody of their 6-year-old daughter and Calvin had regular visitation with her. Rather abruptly after an extended summer visitation with Calvin, the girl said her father was extremely mean to her and refused to go with him for her next scheduled visitation. Dotty accused Calvin of abusing the girl. Calvin accused Dotty of inducing parental alienation syndrome in the child.

These and dozens of similar scenarios come to the attention of both general psychiatrists and child and adolescent psychiatrists every day. There are approximately 1 million divorces in this nation each year. Since many of these divorces involve litigation over custody or visitation, it is common for both clinical psychiatrists and forensic psychiatrists to confront these issues in their work.

Clinical Practice

Even before parents anticipate their divorce, their child may already be seeing a psychiatrist or other clinician. Once the divorce is imminent, each parent's first impulse is to ask the therapist to take that parent's side in the ensuing custody dispute. The therapist may feel it is obvious that one of the parents should have custody of the child and may readily agree to send a report to the court or to testify. However, that path has many dangers and should be avoided.

Rather than try to influence the outcome of the custody dispute, it is better to simply continue as the child's therapist and help the child cope with the changes in the family. After the parents separate and divorce, it will be particularly important for the therapist to communicate with and have a good relationship with both parents. That is unlikely to occur if the therapist has sided with one of the parents in an angry custody dispute.

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