Entrevista a M. Sullivan: Prem aquí per a la versió en català

Interview with M. Sullivan: "In cases of high conflict coparents, the family justice system being more part of the problems than the solution".

On February 14th, the Association of Families and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) and the Official Association of Psychology of Catalonia will organize the Conference "Contact Refuse dynamics after a separation and/or new family configurations. Interventions and best practices". Dr. Matthew Sullivan, Clinical Psychologist, Family and Child Forensic Psychologist is going to lead the conference. He's parenting coordinator pioneer, California, and President of the AFCC."

1. The Conference "Contact Refuse dynamics after a separation and / or new family configurations. Interventions and best practices" will take place on February 14th, in Barcelona. The event aims to identify the warning signs of high interparental conflict and understand the complexity of these dynamics in thedifferent services seeing these families. As we all know, you will be part of the event as a keynote speaker. What do you think is the guiding principle in working with these famílies?

Non-traditional, innovative interdisciplinary legal and psychological interventions are critical with high conflict coparents who share parenting. Alternatives to involvement in adversarial legal processes and specialized whole family mental health interventions are guiding principles for family justice professionals.

2. Why is it important to intervene in cases of rejection or resistance of a boy or girl to communicate with a parent after a separation or divorce? How many cases are we talking about?

There has been a significant rise in family court cases where a child is resisting contact with a parent in the last 15 years. Though this is a relatively small percentage of separating and divorcing parents, these cases consume disproportionate resources of the family courts and often have damaging developmental outcomes for children. More serious cases tend not to resolve without effective intervention.

3. These types of conflicts are often chronic and considered "intractable". When can we consider we are in front of an intractable conflict?

Most high conflict shared custody cases move to more functional parallel parenting within a year or two after separation. Those that don’t and become intractable typically have a combination of problems in 4 areas – psychological vulnerabilities in one or both parents, coparenting deficits (communication, restrictive gatekeeping), negative narratives and scripts (trauma, violence, betrayal) and vulnerabilities in the child(ren).

4. Which are the characteristics of the members of these families? Which attitudes and parental shortcomings contribute to such conflicts? How can professionals help the favorite parent stop passive or overprotective attitude and be part of the solution?

Individual psychological vulnerabilities, stemming from past trauma, personality pathology and child vulnerabilities are prevalent in families where a child develops resistance and refusal to have contact with a parent. These issues both create unhealthy parent-child relationships (alignments, enmeshment and estrangement) and make these families less flexible and able to utilize mental health interventions when they are offered. Often a combination of Court orders that mandate safe contact with between the parent and resistant child and family system therapeutic interventions are necessary to be effective. More coercive court action, including custody reversal may be necessary to protect children from the emotional abuse of severely alienating behaviors on the part of favored parents.

5. Which professional mistakes contribute to worsen these conflicts?

Legal professionals who advocate blindly for their clients or engage adversarially and procedurally with with the other parent’s counsel exacerbate and escalate coparenting conflict. Mental health professionals who lack specialization in resistance and refusal dynamics and in working in the Court involved context can also do harm to children and families who present with these complex issues. When multiple professionals are involved in cases, failure to coordinate and collaborate work negatively impacts effectiveness.

6. Which models of reunification interventions are most effective? What are the most common emotional consequences of a boy or girl's when the re-bonding process is not effective?

Family system-based interventions are critical to effective interventions. Parent-child contact problems are multi-factorial and require an approach that includes all family members in its resolution. Preventative psycho-education for parents can be effective and the earlier legal and mental health interventions occur, the more amenable these cases are to managing and addressing the factors that contribute to resistance and refusal. Children who lose the positive involvement of a parent and their side of the family lost a valuable contribution to their upbringing. Some studies have found that children in these situations show a variety of problematic developmental outcomes.

7. Parenting coordination professionals intervening in high conflict co-parenting dynamics may assist with re-bonding parent-child relationships. What are the limits of this intervention or differences between the parenting coordinator intervention and the therapeutic intervention with the same goal? When is indicated a therapeutic intervention in addition to the parenting coordination?

Parenting coordination is the most intensive coparenting intervention and ideally suited to help families where a child is resisting contact with a parent. The parenting coordinator involvement can both managage and minimize coparenting conflict, that drive a child’s alignment with a parent and the case management function links therapeutic interventions to the Court, increasing accountability and compliance. Finally, the Parenting Coordinator can help coordinate the work of multiple professionals on cases and address issues inappropriate for therapists, such as whether increases in parenting time with a child and parent should occur, based on progress with interventions.

8. You were a member of the Deontological Commission of the American Psychological Association. What are the most common complaints in these cases? Or what is your advice for professionals working with these families.

The most common complaints that we addressed on the APA commission are those brought against psychologists engaged in court assessments, parenting coordination and working therapeutically with in court-involved cases. Being court appointed, having rigorous procedures to guard against engaging in multiple roles and having frequently consultation with fellow professionals are helpful in managing professional risk in this work.

9. What would be the elements or factors needed for professionals and institutions to be part of the solution and not part of the problem?

Professionals who work with high conflict coparents are vulnerable to engaging in professional conduct that mirrors and reinforces the family’s dysfunctional dynamics. A collaborative, highly specialized approach in professional activities, whether working on cases, or engaged in scholarly activities is essential. Polarization and incivility between highly gendered advocates and groups that are involved in issues such as domestic violence, shared parenting and parental alienation create a challenging context for our work with these families. Interdisciplinary approaches so crucial to effective intervention challenge professionals to reach out to professionals with different training and roles to bridge differences that can result in the family justice system being more part of the problems than the solution.