08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who "Gets" the Child?

When there is a celebrity the magnitude of Michael Jackson whose death leaves the future of his children in doubt, you expect dissension and melodrama, especially given the drama with which he lived his life. The carnival atmosphere that surrounded his life almost guarantees a set of press releases. By comparison, when you think of family court in suburbia, you usually think easy does it. However, unless you are current about the all too common instances of sheer madness in family court, you would find the surreal set of experiences there disorienting. Spend a day there and you might surely wonder if you were transported with Alice Through The Looking Glass instead of visiting a court of law where child custody and visitation are being decided.

Family and state supreme courts are the places where these issues are decided in cases where there is contention between parents during or after divorce. And in these same cases, the court frequently appoints professionals who have a specific obligation to "get" -- as in understand -- the physical and emotional needs of the children involved. From the most complicated cases to the most simple, the shock to sanity can be powerful to anyone who hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid, figuratively speaking. As one witty patient in my practice jokes pointedly, "I know I'm supposed to be the one with the paper work, but seriously, some of those therapists are plain cuckoo."

The need to expose insidiously sadistic and needy clinicians with lofty affectations is nowhere more crucial than when they do toxic and lasting damage in the guise of protecting the child's interests. One of the aspects least understood by a public whose tax dollars pay for these "services" is that once parents relinquish decision-making to the courts, judgments and diagnoses can be made and enforced by the law.

In the case of the forensic mental health professional assigned to independently study of all the players and factors involved in custody or visitation, it can be a matter of luck whether one receives a thorough study filled with integrity or a sheer case of unadulterated bias. This looks like, for example, a forensics person having, let's say, a pro-father view which puts the mother immediately in a negative light, (of course this can run either way and often does). Instead of one hunch leading to vigorous investigation, it can become a case of one prejudice leading to an erroneous assumption.

In a case I have come to know well, a little boy of age six that we'll call "Joey" and his mother had both been physically abused by his father/her husband. After the divorce the mother was awarded full custody, and she moved Joey out of state thinking that was her legal right. When the father took her to court over the move, she returned to New York hoping to get clarity and protection for her family. Instead she got a forensic psychologist who decided that any alienation on the boy's part from the father was her doing without consideration for the prior abuse. The psychologist said that while it was true that the father hit the kid, he was sober now and a good man, and that was that.

Joey's father is known as a "lady's man" whose wink is a key asset. He is a suave and sedate character, particularly in social situations. He felt lucky to have been assigned a woman judge to his case even though she is known to be tough on fathers in general. As usual, a law guardian was appointed to represent the best interests of the child, unfortunately she drifted with the wind as the power shifted back and forth in the case. The forensic psychologist on the case was also a woman who was known to be very sympathetic to the rights of fathers.

During one court appearance, Joey's father proudly presented videos he shot without his son's knowledge when he was in carefree play with a cousin during the court-ordered day visits with his dad. The forensic psychologist, without any further examination such as a private interview with the child, accepted the video as proof that the father deserved two weeks of uninterrupted visitation with his son without maternal contact. She blamed the mother for the child's anxiety and warned her not to make up stories about the father.

If the boy cried when he had to see the father, the psychologist said it was the mother's brainwashing and it was her anxiety spilling over to him. When the child was frightened to talk with the father in front of the psychologist, the mother was blamed again. The forensic psychologist was unswayed even when Joey's school called with concerns about his lapses of attention and apparent sadness during the period he was living with his father. They said, "He can't explain it but he doesn't feel safe with his dad." On top of that, Joey had increasing episodes of bed wetting and nightmares. Still the mother was blamed.

When Joey finally began to feel the inner courage to speak his mind after working with an outside therapist, the forensic psychologist said he spoke his mother's thoughts and not his own. By my observation, the child was never considered in favor of one adult's impression of a power struggle between two other adults.

Literally and figuratively in the wink of the father's eye, the court's favor was turned. Meanwhile, the mother had the desolation of an abused woman left to suffer in silence, to doubt her sanity and to feel helpless about being understood, even by her own attorney.

My question: is anybody home, or are we all "home alone?" In this case, as with too many others, there has been no real judgment or evaluation, only bias without relief. No one seems to recognize that a child's fears need to be respected and understood. No one is demanding that new forensics be done because the psychologist assigned was arrogant and negligent by not interviewing a prior therapist as well as school personnel and a pediatrician. No one is questioning the validity of using videos taken of play as evidence of well being in the father's home. Instead, that the video was accepted without challenge.

The problem is that no one is questioning the fact that no one is questioning.

I am a mental health professional, a social worker trained in the practice of psychotherapy which includes our obligations as professionals to know our personal limitations and prejudices as best we can. We cannot be decent clinicians if we don't examine the subjective biases which afflict and inform us all. As a community, we need to wake up to the children around all our corners who live unprotected by the justice system we are trained to think is the best in the world.

What happens to any system that finds one or more adults "right" by position or age and deem the child as manipulative or manipulated as a matter of course? It has happened in my own experience on more than one occasion that a child is forced to read the intentions of adults and defend himself/herself in the best way possible.

Ironically, the only real wisdom in this case came from the child. Joey said this to his mother when she had to appear at a pivotal hearing, "Please tell the judge to listen to what kids think and feel as much as he listens to the grownups."

The names and descriptions of all persons referenced in this post have been changed to protect their confidentiality, privacy and dignity.

Glossary of Terms as used here:

Law guardian: A lawyer, selected by the judge and assigned to represent the children of the divorcing parents or divorced parents

Forensics: A study ordered by the judge to be conducted by an appointed psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker that is supposed to get to the heart of the of the complexities of any family situation regarding litigation and conflict. This study is often used in decision making.

Therapeutic Visitation: Meetings between parent/s and child/children in a therapeutic setting with a professional to supervise, facilitate and or/investigate the quality of relationships.

Parental Alienation: Parental alienation is a social dynamic, generally occurring due to divorce or separation, when a child expresses unjustified hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difficult or impossible.

Best Interests of the Child: A combination of factors including the perceived neesds of the child for the present and future; should include the child's feelings.

Subjectivity: A judgment based on an individual's personal impressions, feelings and opinions rather than external facts.