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Intervention - Moderate Cases

Intervention for moderate alienation cannot be only the educational and counseling intervention described for mild alienation. Education cannot be successful because the alienating at this level is not a rational process and reason alone will not change an irrational behavior. At this level the alienating parent's individual internal difficulties have become so intense that insight and judgment as to the target parent is impaired. Further, the alienating parents interactions with and about the target parent are based not on observed behavior but on inner fears and serve to reaffirm the belief that the target parent is bad. Additionally, external forces (individual therapists, attorneys, extended family) have become polarized on behalf of one party and serve to perpetuate the alienation.

We believe that the family system must be thoroughly evaluated by a professional or a team of professionals competent in the "family systems" approach. The evaluation must be of the entire system, including all adults directly involved in the life of the child, as described above. The evaluation must be generated by a single source or team: multiple individual psychological evaluations will not be able to advise the court as the inter-relational issues that are effecting the functioning of the family.

The purpose of the evaluation is to 1) identify the specific motivations and behaviors that are causing the divorce impasse or subsequent alienation; 2) to assess whether or not individual therapy might be beneficial for any party to help resolve intrapsychic issues; and 3) to develop a complete behavioral plan to intervene in the alienation process.

The behavioral assessment must be very specific as motivation for the impasse behaviors that are causing the alienation, and the changes necessary to alter the system. Once the behaviors and beliefs are identified, the evaluator can make recommendations as to specific behavioral measures to take to counter the alienation. The recommendations must be sufficiently detailed and specific to be quantifiable.

We wish to emphasize here that individual psychological evaluations and therapies or "talking" group or family therapies are of minimal value in these situations, as they may only serve to perpetuate the alienation process. The goal of appropriate treatment is not only to gain understanding of the divorce impasse but also to behaviorally reduce or eliminate alienation within the system. In order to intervene in alienation, behavior and group dynamics must be modified.

We suggest the Individual Educational Plan (the IEP) as a model. The Recommendations must be as specific and goal oriented as the IEP, and compliance must be targeted in much the same manner. Compliance should be approximately 70% compliance the first two months; 80% the third or fourth month; 90% the fifth month and thereafter.

For example:

  • The child will see Target Parent X times per week without parental conflict at times of transition;
  • The child will telephone Target Parent X times per week, and talk about positive things for a minute or two; (depending on the age of the child); (depending upon whether telephone calls to a hostile environment would be beneficial or not to the child):
  • During the visit the Alienating Parent may call only "x" number of times ( or may not call at all);
  • The child will send Target parent a picture or painting in the mail once per week, with a positive note attached;
  • The child will bring home from visits a project done or a note to Alienating Parent about what was enjoyed during each visit.
  • The Target parent will provide a photograph of himself to the child, and the Alienating Parent shall encourage the child to display it.

Essentially, what the evaluators must do is to understand the impasse, address it directly and compassionately. Clearly, this plan will work best if the internal and the interactional issues which created the divorce impasse are concurrently addressed and alleviated. At the same time the court must mandate the occurrence of specific behaviors that counteract the battle forces. The court must make the parents demonstrate that they can follow a plan whose ultimate goal is the mutuality of interest, even if they don't feel it. It is our position that the alienating parent must become the welcoming parent, in deed, if not in thought.

Finally, the plan must cover a specific and lengthy period of time during which the behavioral requirements of the parties and the child are explicitly laid out. This will provide the parties sufficient predictability to calm the system down and to allow every one in it to get used to the idea that different relationships between all the members are going to be established in a predictable manner. We suggest that the plan cover approximately six months with an automatic court review at that time.

Procedurally, we suggest that the Guardian ad Litem be authorized at first stage of intervention, as noted above, to require the evaluation, and that the Guardian's request have the force of the court behind it. When the evaluation is commenced, the Guardian ad Litem simultaneously should request the Court to schedule a hearing to be held before the Court when the evaluation is complete. At the hearing, all parties could present to the court proposed remedial measures; the Guardian ad Litem would present the evaluators' report and recommendations which will likely include individual therapy to address the impasse and all IEP like behavioral management program. The Court should then issue a detailed, quantifiable. specific order with sanctions enumerated, as to the behavioral changes necessary to ameliorate the alienation and order the parties into therapy, if recommended.

There will be no confidentiality by the time a family is in this stage of alienation and need for intervention. The court needs to be able to monitor the progress of the family through the behavior management therapy. The behavior management therapist will need to be able to communicate with any individual therapists involved with family members so as that there is a full and complete exchange of information and no family secrets.

Creative sanctions must stand behind the court order as compliance at this stage will be motivated only by fear. The ultimate sanction is a change of custody, but there are many others we could suggest the legal system has traditionally used fines and loss of liberty as punishments for failure to comply with court orders. Certainly, these are sanctions that could be used in these cases, but they may harm or confuse the children as much as the contemnor. Obviously, an award of attorney's fees, the threat of attorney's fees, the threat of weekend jail time may be a useful sanction. Threats of transferring or assigning responsibility to the Guardian ad Litem's fees, the cost of the evaluation, the costs of the child's therapy or even therapy for the other parent can all be used to motivate compliance in this early stage of intervention, subject always to the best interests of the child.

We also suggest that the court could shift both time (expand visitation or award cherished holidays and birthdays to the complying parent) and function (assign areas of traditionally joint parental authority such as medical care, education) in favor of the target parent. both as all appropriate sanctions, and as possible preparation for the ultimate sanction, a change in custody.

The careful monitoring of such a detailed court order is an essential piece of this intervention, and we suggest that there be a monitoring team to do it. The Guardian ad Litem and a therapist most likely the evaluator or the original post-divorce counsellor, should work together monitoring compliance. Such monitoring perforce will be largely through reports of the principles involved, the parents and the child, but can also be done by teachers. individual therapists, friends, etc. through reports to the Guardian ad Litem. For instance, teachers can be asked to report on the emotional condition of a child before and after visits and to report on any information the child offers in school. A child can be asked where he keeps the photograph of the Target Parent (as an indicator of the degree of comfort the child has in the display in the allegedly hostile environment).

A team is necessary to lessen the danger of the professionals becoming caught into the polarization in the family system. In extreme cases the monitoring team may even want to have a third consultant monitor available to them to oversee the case as a more distant figure not caught up in the everyday details these kinds of cases chronically present. A consultant monitor could stay aloof of the various warring, factions.

If the parties fail to comply with the court orders there needs to be swift access to the courts and a second look at the custody situation.


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New Hampshire prefers the parents resolve custody and visitation issues. The court will listen to the parents' wishes. However, if no agreement can be made, there is evidence of abuse, or a parent appears unable to care for their child, the state will intervene to find the best option for the minor child's well being.
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