Family, Conflict, High Conflict, Divorce, Family Law, Seperation, Custody, Parenting, Co-Parenting, Reunification, Childen & Adolescents
What To Do When… There’s High Conflict in Your Case.
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What To Do When… There’s High Conflict in Your Case.
What To Do When… Intro 00:01
Welcome to What To Do When… A podcast from real lawyers with real perspective, where we explore a variety of legal issues and scenarios. Each week we focus on a new topic and discuss what to do when and if any of these legal scenarios ever happened to you or a loved one. With over 40 years of combined legal experience, our hosts offer their unique perspectives and insights on a range of real life legal situations.
Jackie Critzer 0:28
Hi, welcome back to the podcast here at Critzer Cardani in Richmond, Virginia. What to do when…
Scott Cardani 0:35
What’s on the docket for today, Jackie?
Jackie Critzer 0:38
Okay, now that sounds a little weird. That definitely wasn’t Scott, sitting next to me. Today’s docket is what to do when there’s high conflict in your case. Scott’s here in the room with us but this is Dr. Joe Gasper. She’s joining us as a guest today. And we’re going to start with an introduction of Dr. Gasper. Can you tell us a little bit about your background where you’re from where you went to school? How long you’ve been in practice?
Dr. Jill Gasper 1:03
Sure. So I’m Dr. Jill Gasper. I am, I was born and raised a Bostonian. So that is where I grew up. So I am a Yankee, and not a Yankees fan. That is unacceptable in Boston Red Sox fan. And I went to undergrad at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And then I have been down here in Richmond since 2001. came down to do my graduate work. So I got my masters and my PhD at VCU in child clinical psychology. And I did my pre doctoral internship and postdoctoral fellowship at Virginia and treatment center for children, which is the child psychiatry hospital within VCU Medical Center. And I’ve been in private practice ever since then. So it’s been about 13 years now. And I have an office in the near West End.
Jackie Critzer 1:55
Interesting. So I often and I think a lot of the practitioners, family law practitioners in Richmond encounter you in co parenting counseling, or maybe some sort of facilitating of court cases. But what is your practice all about? Who do you see do you see children or adolescents? Or is it primarily adults and co parenting situations?
Dr. Jill Gasper 2:18
I would say it is largely child focused, though my clients in the room are not always necessarily children. So I have a very small percentage of adult therapy cases, probably like 5%. And I would say about half of the rest of that is co parenting counseling. So that’s where I actually have mom and dad in my office. But we’re exclusively focused on children. And then the remainder would be children and adolescents. And I’d say the youngest I’ve ever had is probably a very verbal four year old had a couple of those. Were usually five on up.
Jackie Critzer 2:57
Scott Cardani 2:58
So if you’re in gauging a client to parents, about their children, and you see they need therapy, do you kind of split that tell them that they need to be seeing a counselor on their own?
Dr. Jill Gasper 3:08
For individual therapy? If I’m doing co parenting? Yes, I do. Sometimes, a lot of times, folks come to me with therapists. So that gets a little more complicated.
Jackie Critzer 3:20
So when we did the introduction, we’re talking about high conflict cases, we’re not talking about children who have high conflict, we’re really talking about the co parenting relationship and when there’s high conflict in the co parenting relationship. And I think it’s easy for most people who are going through custody battles, not always divorced, right. They’re not always married, or haven’t always been married to each other. Sometimes it’s just an unmarried couple with a child. There’s obviously conflict because they’re not in the relationship together anymore. But is there a difference between regular Okay, now we’re not together anymore conflict versus this this term? high conflict case?
Dr. Jill Gasper 4:00
Yes, absolutely. When we use the term high conflict, we’re really talking about conflict about the child or children. We’re often talking about involving the children in that conflict in some way and triangulating them. We are sometimes talking about actually having the conflict right in front of the children. Sometimes it may be more of a nonverbal and the kids who have understood the memo that aren’t my parents are not friends. They’re just enemies. I’ve had kids use those words. So if you think about all of the divorces that occur, about a quarter of those are pretty friendly divorces. Maybe you’re kind of Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin conscious uncoupling kind of but the another quarter, so just as many are what we would consider high conflict. And so, of those I think folks are variable on when they’re using the term high conflict, but it’s mostly that top quarter. Okay, and then even the top 10% of those are litigating a lot and are in the top like two to 5% are considered just incessant litigators. But ones that you need multiple bank boxes to hold your files for, and they’re gonna be in court till that kid is 18.
Jackie Critzer 5:21
So many questions about that, let’s start at that far, and that the highest conflict multiple banker’s boxes, I mean, Scott and I both have cases like that we’ve seen other cases go into court like that. And I’ve certainly been a part of cases like that. What is your experience in those cases? And how that high conflict impacts the children in that relationship?
Dr. Jill Gasper 5:44
Horribly, I mean, that’s the worst case scenario, right, that there’s just this chronic litigation. Because if you look at the divorce cycle, it’s roughly a five year just misery, if you look at, which starts before the actual separation, the the marriage or relationship is declining, and, and often the children are they’re experiencing that the actual separation, and then the eventual picking up and returned to baseline after right after that grief and anger and whatnot is worked through. So that is the normative process. So something like two and a half years after separation, things should be resuming in terms of parents moods, and stability and whatnot, and in these families, that that stability never returns and so kids don’t, you know, it’s one thing to ride through a storm, it’s different that the storm is just never lifting.
Jackie Critzer 6:40
And so do you see behavioral issues, discipline issues, legal issues for these kids who eventually become teenagers? And? Or what sort of? I mean, is it just mental health? Do they do they develop maybe some sort of mental health issues? Is it?
Dr. Jill Gasper 6:55
All of the above? I think, you know. But the short answer is, it’s, it does have an impact. It’s not it might it does have an impact on the children, and not a good one, and not a good one.
Jackie Critzer 7:13
That’s really interesting. So what would you say? So here we are in a high conflict case? You know, there, can you sit there talking about the children and the conflict revolves around the children. So this isn’t the divorce stuff. This isn’t equitable distribution and money. Usually, it’s more about what the parenting time.
Dr. Jill Gasper 7:33
it’s often about parenting time, it can be about things that other families just navigate very smoothly, like, Hey, I’m gonna be leaving for a trip. And I’d like to hit the road early. Do you think that, you know, Bobby could sleep over the night before another family would say, ah, and in an amicable family, they’d say, Sure, I’d like him to be able to just kind of sleep and go, that’s great. No problem. Okay, what works for you and in these families? There’s just no flexibility for just normal adjustments that need to be made to meet a kid’s needs.
Scott Cardani 8:11
Do you see that as a power struggle? Between the parents normally?
Dr. Jill Gasper 8:15
Absolutely, I think there’s a power struggle, I think, especially when you have one parent who has a lot less time, there’s going to be a lot, there’s just that that time is a hot commodity. And so that person who has less of the of the pie is not going to want to give up a crumb.
Jackie Critzer 8:34
And when you’re dealing with these high conflict cases, do you often see that that one? Or both have secondary mental health issues or personality disorders? Or maybe not really, they’re just maybe cemented in how that how much time they want to spend with their children, their child or children?
Dr. Jill Gasper 8:55
We certainly see a higher preponderance of mental health disorders in this population. Absolutely. But as you probably have seen in art cases where folks get custody evaluations, plenty of them result in no significant mental health diagnosis, it’s more personality traits that are very problematic. And I would say that rigidity is a huge one. That’s, that’s a real marker of a high conflict, family.
Jackie Critzer 9:20
You know, we have another local doctor who sees who just sees psychologist who sees or did see, not anymore, Dr. Michelle Nelson. And one thing she mentioned, and I know you’re familiar with her was that this custody conflict is just about the worst time in a person’s life. And so it brings out all of the worst parts of mental health and their personality. And so how do you help families get out of that, that almost in my mind is a ditch, right? They’re just sort of dug in and if we can just get them to come up here and sort of see it differently. I mean, Scott and I have been doing this a long time. You’ve been doing this a long time, sometimes it feels like the answer is so clear. But for these families who are so entrenched in their position, how do you help them navigate through out of the high conflict? If when it’s possible?
Dr. Jill Gasper 10:13
Yeah, I think the thing that helps the most is using the children as a beacon of, you have to realize this is not as you said earlier, whether or not your kids are going to have difficulties, it’s just when, and how significant they’re going to be. And you have so much control, to put this train back on the tracks. And we can go to court all day, but the judge is not going to make your children healthier, like the real change comes with the parents. I think the other piece when people really have any kind of transformation and co parenting is when they really put the mirror up to themselves. You know, these folks can tell me all day what the other parent is doing wrong, and probably with pretty good accuracy. But that’s not going to fix it, they have to be able to see what they’re doing to contribute to the problem, because most of the time both parents are contributing pretty significantly. I do though, have some cases where it really is pretty, pretty lopsided. And I’ve got a very reasonable parent and a very unreasonable parent they’re having to deal with.
Jackie Critzer 11:13
And so in those situations, to see you, you’ve been called as a witness into court as the co parenting counselor. And you’ve got the one parent who is the mostly bad actor, and you’ve got the one parent who’s the mostly good actor. The attorney is obviously an advocate in an adversarial position, and trying to get you to throw the bad parent under the bus. And they’ve, they’ve agreed to things and not done them or whatever they’ve done it. And I would guess, then my perspective is always that you’re you as the professional trying to maintain somewhat neutral position, because these people, you’re, but they’re both your clients. But when you go to court, and you’ve got such a lopsided evaluation of these parties, how do you? How do you best present that information to the court?
Dr. Jill Gasper 12:08
Sure. I’m always looking for the strengths and weaknesses in both right? So even when it’s very lopsided, I always see the strengths in that parent, even when they make some pretty miserable mistakes. I think another piece is I tell families pretty much immediately that part of why we don’t use health insurance is complicated in terms of who’s the client for co parenting, right. So when you use traditional health insurance, you have an identified patient, and you give that person a diagnosis, and you’re treating that diagnosis. And in co parenting, you’re seeing both parents, so the file cannot belong to just one of them. And you’re not diagnosing them. And you’re not treating that diagnosis, you might have some assessment, but you’re not going to share that necessarily. And so I what I tell them is that what’s really my client is actually your children’s best interests, you’re the one sitting in my office, but really, that’s my client. So I’m going to say things that you might not find to be particularly favorable. But I think the other piece, so I’m always looking for those strengths and weaknesses, but I’m also never testifying about something the client has not heard in the room. Okay, and so I’m pretty transparent all the way through. And so they would never, they would never for the first time here that I thought they were more of the problem than the other guy again, that I still think that’s the rarity where it’s so lopsided. Usually, I think, usually attorneys if they’re asking if they want me to testify, they’re basically assessing. Okay, she’s gonna say some terrible things about my client. But is she gonna say enough good? Or is the bad about the other client worse, that it’s worth me calling her? And I think that’s really I don’t know, maybe that you too, if you could tell me but that’s what I hear attorneys thinking out loud as they’re deciding whether they want to call me because it’s rarely rosy about one person and muddy about the other.
Scott Cardani 14:05
Can I go to another perspective, because, I think this is important. They get a lot of high conflict cases. One parent may have a view, a strong view about how the child is to be raised, religiously, educationally, whatever that may be. The other parent seemingly has kind of gone along with whatever, for most of the marriage, and now that the divorce presents itself. And my question, is this, trying to put a little context to it, but my question is, what do you see is worse, the one parent conceding her way of doing things and what she believed that was the right way to raise the child. So there’s less conflict or these high conflicts, whereas I know we we set this boundary, we’re gonna do it this way. I see that especially as a guardian. I’ve been doing that for over 20 years, almost 25 years. I say that as always seems to be a problem there, my children, we agreed to raise them this way. And then the conflict really comes in the one parent’s inability to let go of some of the way they want to raise them. And my point is, what’s worse for the child giving that up, or the high conflict that they’re in?
Dr. Jill Gasper 15:13
I think the conflict is worse, most of the time. I mean, unless you know, there’s something dangerous or particularly unhealthy that you’re trying to reverse, right. So sometimes I have things that they’re trying to recreate that are going to be very difficult, like, I’ll do something more innocuous, like screen time, that it was not their preference for it to be a free for all. But it became a free for all. And they signed on for screentime, with their kids being a free for all for the last five years. And now they want to change it, I would certainly advocate for a parent to pursue that. But it’s, it’s not going to stick if they don’t both do it, they can do their best to exercise that in their own home, that you have to recognize you, you set the course with the kids already. And so it would depend on age and whatnot. But things like religion, trying to make a change. I mean, I think we try to respect that both parents have rights here. And so I see lots of kids who are raised in multi faiths. And so I personally and co parenting takes the stance of the more the merrier. And you can introduce your child to your own faith and your time. But you’ve got to keep in mind, if we’re talking about a 14 year old, they might not really be down for that, and the same sort of way a seven year old would be and you need to respect the other parents still, I’ve had more times than I want to count folks who like baptize children without the other parents knowledge, things like that, that are you know, that to me is very problematic.
Jackie Critzer 16:42
Even an even in the situation where they were raised in a in a church or religion, if you will, where baptism is sort of a normal thing for that, that coming of age or whenever this child decides but the divorce occurs or separation occurs prior to the baptism. It really what I’m hearing you say is it’s it’s important because the child was raised in that. But if you weren’t communicating with that parent and getting them on board, going ahead and doing it, absent their quite, I guess permission, that it’s not just their knowledge, it’s not enough for them to know about it. But if you just act out of Well, I’m just going to do it, because that’s the way we’ve raised this child that that you’re part of the problem?
Dr. Jill Gasper 17:25
Absolutely, I think that you need to share that information. And we might come to the conclusion that maybe the other person doesn’t agree. But there has been this history within this particular faith, and maybe the child very clearly wants to do it. And I might support that, anyway. But I would also support that you need to invite the other parent and the extended family and we need to try to make it work.
Jackie Critzer 17:47
Part of the divorce process or separation process or whatever the the parent relationship was that no longer is, is understanding that, that you very likely are going to raise the child or children differently than when the family was intact. And I think that probably if people would come to that understanding, we Scott and I would have half our caseload probably.
Dr. Jill Gasper 18:11
Yeah, I tell my families, I think the motto of co-parenting is different is not bad. That actually your children benefit from that, that we know from studying human bonding, that opposites attract. That’s literally a fact. But that same thing that you thought completed you, you then despise that thing that is so different. And now it’s foreign and alien, and I want nothing to do with it. But kids that that benefits them greatly to have these very different experiences, but with both of their parents, and it prepares them for the world around them, because the world around them is not just mom personality or not just dad personality. And so if they can understand that, that is a huge component of being able to be cooperative co parent recognizing the value that your co-parent adds.
Jackie Critzer 19:02
Well, from a parenting perspective, or even a practitioner, whether it’s another mental health professional or legal professional, how do people figure out whether they have a high conflict case? Is there sort of a top three if these things are going on, you probably have a high conflict case and proceed down that path or how do people figure that out?
Dr. Jill Gasper 19:26
Meaning the clinician, excuse me, the clinician or the attorney or the the clients are recognizing that it’s a high conflict?
Jackie Critzer 19:32
Before they come to you. So the attorney and or the clients, maybe the parents haven’t even met with attorneys yet. Or maybe they’re with an attorney that wouldn’t necessarily recognize high conflict. How do people recognize when they’re in a high conflict situation?
Dr. Jill Gasper 19:49
I think that unfortunately, probably Dr. Google plays a role in that to an extent right of folks looking at what what the sim gyms are of a high conflict situation and feeling like they’re checking those boxes. I think some degree of it is from, you know, just talking with friends and family. I think when folks come to an attorney, I’m hoping that most attorneys are giving them the full range of options available to them in terms of mediation and collaborative divorce and, and litigation and so that they’re considering the options. I think a lot of people say they don’t want to be litigating. And yet they are. But they will tell you, that’s because I have to because of my co parents here. Yes. So, you know, certainly I think you’re in a high conflict situation when you’re dealing with unknown substance use disorder, potentially, although we can have that present in other cases as well, right, but certainly abuse scenarios. And of course, when we use the word abuse, I mean, we could be talking about physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, right. I think the difficulty is that we all have a different threshold for when we throw that word around short term. And so that’s a big, a big piece of it, but it’s really a lack of being willing to have compromise. So again, that rigidity, I think, is the biggest Hallmark.
Jackie Critzer 21:24
And when people are then in or think they are the attorneys, they are in a high conflict case. And they go looking for a high conflict professional to assist. Is that something is that key term high conflict resolution or something like that? Is that something they should be searching for? Does it matter if the I mean, I feel like I know the answer. But in your mind, does it matter if the person is necessarily trained in high conflict are all mental health professionals trained in high conflict?
Dr. Jill Gasper 21:53
They are not. So I would say our primary professional organization is AFCC. That folks who are well trained in high conflict dynamics might belong to or at least, have completed trainings with. So that is the Association for Family and Conciliation Courts. And it is an international organization that includes mental health professionals, attorneys, and judges. And that has just been a great resource. We should have training and a little bit of awareness of family law. So even though I’m a psychologist, sometimes I’ll have parents come in that are attorneys, but they are not family law attorneys. And I feel sometimes like I might know more about how this works at this point. So I think you need to have some knowledge of that. You need to have training in child psychopathology and child development, adult psychopathology, family therapy, communication, and mediation, skills training, sort of all of that is really what you should be looking for in a professional. And I will say, especially child clinicians, I think child conditions are wonderful and seek to do seek to serve the children right and to honor their voices, but can easily get lost in advocating for their client versus what might be in their clients best interest. And so a lot of times folks are not well versed in what do I do about a subpoena? And what do I do when just the mom has brought this kid for therapy, and the dad doesn’t even know I exist? Should I be seeing this child. And so I think it’s really important that folks have a respect for separated families and the importance of including both parents and a child’s care. So that’s more I’m speaking more about being the child therapist in a divorce situation. But you know, a huge percentage of kids whose parents are separating, though, even preventatively to a clinician. So that’s going to be more people, not just the high conflict people.
Jackie Critzer 24:05
Well, and not to throw myself in the mix. But years ago, more than 10 years ago, when my first separated. My children were little, they were three and four, almost five, and the year that love the word preventative, that’s really little to be seeing anyone Sure. But I thought, well, let’s just make sure they’re okay. I just want to see how they’re doing. And so they did some play therapy. This is a really quick and short, funny story. My daughter was three and a half. And she’d had her play therapy session. And then the counselor came out and she said, Well, I just want to, I want to talk to you about something. Okay. You said your daughter was playing with a coffin, like a little wooden coffin in the same tray. I said, Okay. And so I brought my daughter in and I said, what is that? She said, It’s a treasure chest. There you go. She’s not fascinated by death and dead people in common. She thinks it’s a treasure chest, like you would find in a fish tank. So…
Dr. Jill Gasper 25:08
That’s why the risks of over-interpretation.
Scott Cardani 25:10
Jackie Critzer 25:12
But just being aware that even just little things, you know, it’s not always gospel truth, and sometimes, context and perspective is certainly important. And all of that. Alright, so as we bring this particular topic to a close, what is it that a legal team can do? Or parents involved in the legal system? What can we all do together to help reduce conflicts? And I’d like to focus particularly on practitioner legal practitioners in this process, because some of us are more rigid, rigid is a good word more inclined to push towards conflicts because it’s higher billable time. And I hate to say that about some of our colleagues in Richmond, but I think we see it, not here. But across the board everywhere. There are people who are going to push for the more conflict, it’s just generates more money for for them in the billable sense. But what can we do, like Scott and I who don’t push the high conflict to try to resolve things, even outside of court, I mean, we’re we’re always trying to resolve without the necessity of going to court.
Dr. Jill Gasper 26:20
I think client control is really important for attorneys. And so, you know, being aware of missteps, your clients might be taking, giving them good advice to rein that in. I think being realistic with your clients about what they can, what they can realistically expect to get as an outcome, because I think you probably have a good sense. So for example, I had a mom come to me, you know, expecting that the dad was going to have, I don’t know, four hours a week of visitation, something like that, like, two two hour stints and I mean, I need an attorney to let that person know. No, that’s not going to happen. Like that’s, that’s not the bottom that we work with. And so, I think I think that’s really important. I think, again, using that same beacon, you know, I know many of you are parents as well, to be able to try to help them recognize what’s going to help get things back on track and for that pert for that parent to start rebuilding their life and to pull the child out of any conflict that’s there. I think also, I have a there’s a local attorney in town and who I think is really good at asking, like, is this the hill you want to die on? This is the one? To just help prioritize. I think that helps get to settlement, as well.
Jackie Critzer 27:44
Got it. Got it. Well, we have other topics that we want to explore with Dr. Gasper. So please stay tuned. But in summary, today, high conflict, the most important thing really parents practitioners anyone is that real change doesn’t come because the court orders that it comes because the parents reflect upon their own behavior and realize that they need to make the change to reduce the conflict, not because they care so much about the other parent, although That’d be nice. But because they love their children so much that they want to see the children become well adjusted members of society instead of the result of high conflict forever litigation. The second takeaway is that when you’re dealing with a co parenting counselor, and you’re going to court, you really ought to be considering the strengths and the weaknesses, both of yourself and the other co parent, unlikely is it going to be where they just were a co parenting counselor comes and says this parent is great and this parent is terrible. So be aware that your your weaknesses are going to be exposed in this process too. So do your best again to reflect and make some of those changes on your own as you’re going through this process. And finally, I would say for the for the practitioners in the in the case cases is maintain client control and set some realistic expectations about what could be the possible outcome of the custody litigation, not the bottom four hours a week and not necessarily shared custody either or primary physical custody, but what are the realistic expectations in your given in your given case? So be sure and stay tuned for our next episode where we talk about Parental Alienation with Dr. Gasper.
What To Do When… Outro 19:37
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