Effectively addressing DV and coercive control, especially when children are involved, requires lawyers and courts to define domestic violence better, utilize state-of-the-art parenting and childhood development science, and take a family systems approach to advising clients and crafting flexible orders which provide optimal protection for families and children.
When a parent has committed acts of domestic violence and other negative and coercive behaviors in the presence of children, it presents a difficult challenge for courts to address, in part because DV behaviors and coercive behaviors are hard to change. There is little evidence to make us think that current “DV treatment” can reduce the negative behaviors and impacts on families and children. At the same time, there is ample research and science to help us immediately draft court orders, which are not likely to cause unintended negative consequences, and which implement protective structures, help parents begin to reduce negative behaviors and the underlying causes of them, and help parents begin to repair psychological damage.
Domestic violence can be described on a continuum of behaviors, ranging from mild to intense. Certainly, when they are intense there are underlying personality issues. Also certainly, DV impacts the entire family system. Physical domestic violence is probably always associated with strongly coercive parental behaviors and accompanying psychological harm. If the foregoing statements are correct, then addressing DV must involve a broader perspective than the current modality of individual treatment for “offenders.” Here is one form of a basic statement of the problem, from a broader perspective:
- DV between parents harms children more. In the context of child-exposure to DV, there is ample research showing that exposure harms children more than parents, and that the harms can lead to life-long negative effects on neural structures, health, and behaviors.
- Healthy and reparative parenting techniques are not a secret. There is also ample research on what children need, in any context, to develop healthy neural structures that support healthy adult behaviors and how parents can meet those needs.
- Traditional DV treatment doesn’t work. Worldwide research demonstrates that traditional domestic violence (DV) treatment programs have little effect for most participants.
- Successful DV reduction methods are not a secret. Research studies which have looked at alternative treatment modalities, and at various sub-components of DV treatment, identify some components that work, and some components that might work and which are believed to be effective. The known effective components are fundamentally the same as parenting techniques, all of which are basically effective relationship techniques which can be learned to at least some degree by most people.
These four key issues have some things in common. They all involve principles understood by science about the interplay of personality, communication and relationships, which may be the most foreign and difficult for legal professionals to understand and incorporate. They involve relationship-harming behaviors and relationship-healing behaviors. If we use good science to understand the basic, and hopefully finer, points of each issue, lawyers and courts can piece together solutions. The brief below provides one real-world example.
The brief filed, in a 2018 custody case, provides some research and science summaries for the four key issues above and offers a few suggestions for a court order. The case involved a father who was proven to have engaged in significant and dramatic DV behaviors. There was no question he had beat, threatened murder, disparaged, damaged the mothers vehicle, phones and property, destroyed the mother’s tools of her livelihood, and caused her to become homeless. He was openly misogynistic and demeaning to people around him. Most of his behaviors were carried out in the presence of their children. The judge nevertheless awarded the father 40% of the overnight visits without any restrictions, and refused to issue any restraining order.
It is important to note that “promising” programs don’t always pan out. To help alleviate this, CSI’s approach is always to try to identify the top level issues to create a basic and foundational structure to start thinking about a problem. The four key issues identified above are such top level issues. There are always multiple specific programs or techniques that can be used or applied within each top level issue, some of which may be more or less appropriate for an individual, a particular judge/court, practitioner, or community. The argument in the brief is not complete, especially as to the solutions, and should be seen as just the start of a discussion. The third item in section IX.B. needs to be developed to identify specific programs available in the relevant community. Sections I-III.A, reviewing the facts, procedural posture and Court rulings, and the conclusion are omitted.
Note: for a similar approach, but from a client-counseling perspective on a systems-based approach, please see CSI’s article It’s legal to harm children.
III.B. Parents with risk factors usually get little or no overnights
The Washington State Residential Time Summary Report, which is required to be filled out by parents and filed in court, asks if there are any parental risk factors in the case. There are four parental risk factors identified in the Report: abuse or neglect, committed domestic violence, chemical dependency (the former three are the most commonly reported), and mental health issues. The more risk factors a parent had, the less likely they were to have any visitation at all. For fathers with one risk factor, almost 40% had no visitation; if there were two risk factors, almost 60% had no visitation; if there were three risk factors, 73% had no visitation at all.
1 risk factor = 0 overnights for 40% of fathers
2 risk factors = 0 overnights for 60% of fathers
3 risk factors = 0 overnights for 73% of fathers
The father in the instant case was found to be actively and currently involved in at least three risk factors: untreated drug use, committed domestic violence, and maltreatment (abuse or neglect) as evidenced by the child mirroring the father’s behavior. Misogyny displayed to a child is a fourth risk factor for healthy child development.
IV. Effects of DV, drug use, maltreatment
Legal professionals are not taught in school about how the parenting environment impacts childhood development nor about the many and deep impacts that problematic parenting can have. In my pre-trial Memorandum Regarding Coercive Control (DV): Children are Not Resilient and Words can Cause Lifelong Damage, I cited seven high quality articles which made the point that witnessing domestic and experiencing parental maltreatment is highly likely to negatively and permanently change the neural development and structure of a child’s brain. There are thousands of studies and reports that make this point beyond question.
In my previous Memorandum I cited a report from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child that emphasized that maltreatment (neglect) is far more subtle than what most people think. Harmful parenting includes persistently inattentive and non-responsive communication. The father in the instant case demonstrated behaviors and communications that go far beyond this. These include persistent and intensely coercive and defensive behaviors, to the point of making patently obvious lies in court and to his family and friends. If he is acting that way to his son, it would constitute a failure to provide age-appropriate protections and responsive communications with his son. It would be like spending 41% of overnights with Donald Trump –reality for a child would be hard to sort out.
V. Why do parents engage in child-harming behaviors? Personality, defense mechanisms, and self-protective strategies.
Another important point that legal professionals are not taught is that child-harming behaviors are a function of persistent and deeply hard-wired personality structures. There are many, many theory perspectives and research studies on what these personality structures are, how to best describe them, and what causes them. Professor Donald Dutton wrote a book describing the leading theories and summing them up in the title: The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships, second edition, The Guilford Press, Donald Dutton (2007). I cited other articles about this in the pretrial Memorandum Regarding Coercive Control (DV), supra.
Regardless of theory, I submit defense mechanisms are a simple way of thinking about the problem. Avoidance, denial, projection, responsibility-avoiding blame are all examples of well known defense mechanisms. A slightly more sophisticated view, which comes from adult attachment science and theory: what underlies the respondent-father’s behaviors are self-protective strategies that were developed in early childhood as a way of coping with the parenting environment, and which become effective and default strategies within the parenting environment, but which are counter-productive in other relationships. Attachment and Loss, V. III, Loss: Sadness and depression, (1980) Basic Books, John Bowlby; Self-Protective Strategies, Violence and Psychopathy: Theory and a Case Study, Journal of Personality Assessment, 95:6, 571-584 (2013), Peder Chr. Bryhn Nørbech, Patricia M. Crittenden & Ellen Hartmann.
Why the respondent-father does what he does, and defining his personality structure with specific detail is not something we can do, or need to do. What we need to do, is acknowledge that his behaviors are very intense, are fundamentally part of his personality structure (as defense mechanisms or self-protective strategies developed in childhood), and that they will not change easily in adulthood.
VI. Traditional domestic violence treatment doesn’t work
Other than a person who earns a living from providing DV treatment, I submit that all people with adequate knowledge would agree that traditional DV treatment is only effective for very small group of people. Research confirms this.
“Despite substantial problems with intimate partner violence (IPV) worldwide, the empirical support remains weak for the effectiveness of recidivism-reducing interventions for IPV perpetrators.” Effectiveness of the IDAP Treatment Program for Male Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence: A Controlled Study of Criminal Recidivism, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32:7 (2017), Ulrika Haggård, Ingrid Freij, Maria Danielsson, Diana Wenander, Niklas Långström. In this study, the researchers had high hopes the IDAP treatment program would prove effective. The study found it wasn’t.
Another study, a meta analysis of DV programs, found modest benefits, but identified six problem areas consistently found in DV cases.
“Batterer intervention programs (BIPs) constitute the primary treatment for perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV). Systematic evaluations of BIPs, however, have yielded modest results in terms of these programs’ ability to reduce perpetration. * * * We identified six themes related to challenges to promoting behavioral change among men who perpetrate violence: (a) social acceptance of IPV, (b) hypermasculine attitudes, (c) emotional problems, (d) childhood exposure to violence, (e) co-morbid mental health issues, and (f) denial, minimization, and blame.” (Emphasis added.) The Challenges of Working With Men Who Perpetrate Partner Violence: Perspectives and Observations of Experts Who Work With Batterer Intervention Programs, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, article first published online June 13, 2018 (printed journal version pending), Morrison, P. K., Hawker, L., Cluss, P. A., Miller, E., Fleming, R., Bicehouse, T., Chang, J. C.
I will connect these six factors, (a)-(f), with children’s needs below.
VII. What science tells us children need
All judges can recite some needs children have and some ways that parents can positively meet those needs. Childhood development science has published a vast amount of research which details children’s needs and highlights effective parenting techniques that can best meet those needs. Below is a summary of some of those findings which are particularly relevant to the needs of the child in question, and which help us connect, in the instant case, this child’s needs with these parent’s abilities and challenges.
Ellen Galinsky is the author of numerous journal articles and several books about parenting. She wrote the highly regarded book, Mind in the making: Seven essential life skills every child needs, William Morrow, (2010) (#17 best seller in Amazon’s Books/Medical books/psychology/education & training category). Ms. Galinsky reviewed a mass amount of research in areas such as parenting, child development, child education, and neuroscience, and identified seven key skills that research consistently finds are critical for healthy child development. They are:
- Focus and Self Control
- Perspective Taking
- Making Connections (between things)
- Critical Thinking
- Taking on Challenges
- Self Directed Engaged Learning
Immediately we can relate where the respondent-father has challenges in his own life and where he is unlikely to be able to promote these skills in his child’s life. This Court’s findings raise serious concerns about his ability to use, and therefore model and encourage, at least skills 1-5.
Dan Siegel is the creator of the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, and author of numerous articles and books, including The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are, The Guilford Press (2012). He has co-authored at least seven parenting books. In The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, Bantam (2012), Siegel identifies the following things parents can do (7 of 12 strategies are listed, my summary statement is in brackets):
- Stay connected with children with warmth, safe environments, and positive regard, especially during tough times like meltdowns and problems at school. [Respect and compassion.]
- Maintain calm during times of child-stress and help redirect children’s emotions into positive directions and activities. [Emotion management.]
- Help children identify and acknowledge feelings and then talk about them openly and honestly. [Self-reflection skills.]
- Help children connect their feelings with what they are experiencing in their bodies. [Somatic awareness].
- Help children distinguish feelings from reality (some feelings provide protective information (such as fear of snakes) while some provide inaccurate information (such as upset towards someone else’s behavior when their behavior was actually misunderstood). [Feeling awareness.]
- Help children remember past experiences, positive or negative, to understand current experiences. [Learn from the past to accurately understand the present and better predict the future.]
- Facilitate self-regulation and attentional focus. [Mindfulness.]
Footnote: On Amazon.com, The Whole-Brian child is the #1 best seller in Books\Medical Books\Psychology\Child Psychology, the #1 seller in Books\Health, Fitness & Dieting\ Psychology & Counseling\Child Psychology, and #7 in Books\Parenting & Relationships\ Parenting.
Again, we can easily extrapolate how difficult it will be for the respondent-father to do these things for his child because he hasn’t demonstrated that he can do them for himself, and through numerous examples in testimony he has demonstrated the opposite behaviors.
Finally, attachment science and theory provides insight into what children need. (Dan Siegel’s work is heavily based on attachment science.) There are two schools of attachment theory.
In the ABC+D model, attachment is frequently described as behaviors that develop during the process of a child’s care-seeking and interaction with a parent. Attachment behaviors are seen as instincts in infants and learned behavior in toddlers and older children, which drive a child to seek proximity to a caregiver in order to obtain safety, security, protection, comfort, and help in organizing feelings. When a parent responds to their child in an attuned and appropriately responsive manner (such as those described by Siegel and Galinsky above), the child develops healthy secure attachment. If the parent is not responsive, ignores the child, dismisses the child’s feelings, responds harshly or unpredictably, or simply doesn’t see the needs the child is expressing, the child feels unheard, unprotected, and/or uncomforted, and develops insecure (unhealthy/dysfunctional) attachment behaviors. That is, the child has to go to extreme measures and either stuff their feelings or use outrageous behaviors to get attention. See for example Family law and the neuroscience of attachment (parts I & II), Family Court Review, 459, 501-512 (2011), Schore, A. & McIntosh, J.; Attachment perspectives on domestic violence and family law, Family Court Review, 49, 529-538 (2011), Lieberman, A., Zeanah, C., McIntosh J.; see also CircleOfSecurityInternational.com.
The ABC-DMM model of attachment parses attachment theory more finely. Attachment involves a child’s drive to obtain protection and comfort from a caregiver, the interplay of their relationship, and the resulting effects on and development of both self-protective strategies (behaviors) and thinking patterns. A child develops behaviors and thought patterns that help the child gain the maximum available protection and comfort from their parents. If the parent has issues, such as the respondent-father, the child’s strategies will likely need to be extreme to gain what minimal level of protection and comfort is available. One simple example is a child who uses false positive affect, smiling and displaying great (but feigned) happiness in order to keep a dismissive parent engaged and focused on the child. False positive affect lures the parent into thinking they are a great parent, when they are not, because the child appears very happy in the parent’s presence. Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation, and Treatment, Crittenden P.M., Routledge (2nd ed. 2015); Crittenden,P.M. (2000). Molding clay: The process of constructing the self and its relation to psychotherapy. Revista de Psicoterapia,41,67–82. Translated in English on www.patcrittenden.com.
While a child’s extreme intra-family strategies will maximize the child’s likelihood of getting protection and surviving the dangers of childhood, they will not be effective in other relationships, such as at school or in intimate relationships. (They may be effective in the short run is some work and social-political settings, such as motivating an extreme political base with outlandish and aggressive behaviors.)
Whichever attachment model is considered, the concern is hopefully plain to see. When a father engages in pervasive and extreme coercive control, constantly resorts to threats and bullying to get his way, is thoroughly misogynistic, and is overly self-centered (because of drug use and/or personality characteristics), his child will struggle mightily to gain protection from whatever dangers the child faces on a daily basis, and will rarely find comfort or find it in aggression. (Both models of attachment theory describe how a “drama queen/king” actually feels more safe and comfortable during conflict than during peace and compromise.) Further, as a child seeks to explore the world and tries to understand its complexities, behavior strategies-thinking patterns-communication styles which the child will develop happens in the context of the father’s distorted reality. It is more likely than not, perhaps unlikely, that behaviors, thinking patterns, and communication methods will develop optimally for a child in such situations.
I submit that things become more clear when we combine personality theory with attachment theory. Personality theory informs us that problematic behaviors are persistent across relationships, meaning a pattern of coercive control in adult relationships is likely to be deployed in parent-child relationships. Attachment theory informs us that those problematic relationship styles will translate to the development of insecure attachments that grow into insecure adult behaviors. This explains the seemingly inexplicable: why would a parent engage in harmful behavior to their child?
VIII. Summing up so far
Traditional domestic violence treatment works for only a few people because it isn’t designed to address foundational personality dysfunctions, and doesn’t address self-protective strategies developed in childhood, nor does it take a systems approach where it considers the needs of the broader family.
People who engage in patterns of coercive control (DV) demonstrate behavior and belief patterns that are the opposite of what ideal parenting requires.
The parenting environment shapes a child’s neural development. When the parenting environment introduces harmful situations for the child, the child’s experiences of their parents are more likely to negatively impact a child’s neurological development. Exposure to DV by one parent to another creates a substantially harmful parenting environment.
Unless there are very unique and articulated reasons, Washington courts don’t give substantial parenting time to parents with multiple risk factors.
This still leaves us with the ultimate question which the Court has put on the table: “So what should we do increase the likelihood of motivating the father in this case, while providing a safe environment for the mother and child, and a relatively optimal development environment for the child?”
IX. Practical things a court can do maximize the father’s positive influence on his child’s life
IX.a. What do studies of effective DV programs suggest?
I have shown above that traditional DV programs don’t work, but there are studies of non-traditional programs that appear to be effective in changing behaviors. Results from those studies actually dovetail nicely with the findings from parenting science. One such study is: A qualitative meta-synthesis of interpersonal violence prevention programs focused on males, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, first published online December 24, 2017 (printed journal version pending), Taliep, N., Lazarus, S., & Naidoo, A. V.
The Taliep et al. study found that a key issue proposed by many scholars is promoting positive forms of masculinity. This means exposing a child to male figures who can demonstrate and model caring, perseverance, loyalty, healthy self-reliance, dedication, humor, positive fatherhood, and the worker-provider tradition of men. Positive masculinity promotes “constructive and peaceful ways of being and existing that are characterised by non-violence, gender equity, care, emotional responsiveness, and resilience.” [At 2].
The study found 13 characteristics or principles of a positive masculinity approach. I have listed all 13 below, and I have bolded the concepts that dovetail with the parenting-science concepts identified above. I can envision how to implement some of these in this case, and I do so below, but some I can’t conceptualize. I provide the entire list because some of characteristics may trigger a creative thought in the Court’s mind which I have not thought of.
- Use positive messages when engaging with men.
- Provide safe and supportive spaces for men and/or boys to engage, to share and to be heard.
- Provide care and support (including emotional support) to boys and men.
- Re-envision gender roles and responsibilities.
- Deconstruct current masculine ideals and promote constructive views of masculinity.
- Address men’s fears of emasculation.
- Provide opportunities for reflections on and transformation of iniquitous gender norms (including issues of power, manhood and/or fatherhood) and how these are linked to interpersonal violence.
- Encourage men and boys to recognize and comprehend the oppressive outcomes of gender inequality on women and themselves. [Encourage perspective-taking.]
- Enhance men’s sense of care, commitment and constructive engagement as fathers through the promotion of generative fatherhood.
- Empower and encourage men to be agents of positive change and role-models, especially to young boys, in the fight against interpersonal violence.
- Work with young boys to navigate their path to identity and formation of positive spiritual values such as respect and compassion.
- Build young men’s reflective capacities through mindfulness associated with self-regulation to mitigate conflict and promote peace and safety.
- Use a “bottom-up” approach, e.g., mobilize men to plan and coordinate grassroots anti-violence or peace promotion campaigns.
IX.B. Specific suggestions from effective DV research findings for this case
Here are five things a Court might do in this case consistent with the above list.
First, minimize the child’s to exposure to negative adult behavior. Giving the father 40% of the overnights is not consistent with this.
Second, maximize the child’s exposure to healthy and positive adult behavior, which can be done through extracurricular activities, including not only sports, but arts, music, and spirituality programs (more on this below).
Third, when the Court recommends treatment and education programs for the father, these could include a broad mix of multiple programs that help him develop these practices: care for others, putting other’s needs ahead of his own, perspective taking, empathy, acceptance, understanding, emotional awareness/intelligence, mindfulness, and developing a better ability to self-reflect honestly on his own behaviors. The Court should also require the father to clearly demonstrate adoption of these characteristics before any changes in the parenting time schedule are made to avoid lip service treatment.
Fourth, and perhaps bold, re-envision gender roles by defining the father’s role. This is naturally done if the Court severely limits his overnight time. It includes limiting time the father spends alone with his son. It could include encouraging the father to actively promote and support his son’s involvement in extracurricular activities (more on this below).
Fifth, again bold but something I did with good effect as a judge pro-tem in one case, require the father read a specific parenting book and file chapter reports with the Court and/or give brief oral reports to the Court about what he learned from each chapter and how he applied the techniques. The Whole Brain Child would be a good book for this, as would Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, a best seller since 1965. The latter is a simple and relatively quick read focused on positive parenting and empathy, and was the book I assigned as a pro-tem. (In that case, the father had little experience with reading as an adult, but found the book easy to navigate once he committed to reading it.)
Perhaps the respondent-father can think of some things he could do, although this would involve acknowledging wrong-doing which is probably psychologically difficult for him at this point.
IX.C. Extracurricular activities
The Court is absolutely correct that it is good for children to be involved in extracurricular activities and that the parents should be supportive of this. The Court may be able to take a little more advantage of this. Here are a few thoughts about the science behind why these are good for children.
There is a good bit of scientific evidence to show that when these activities are positive-oriented and skill building-focused, as opposed to winning-focused or aggression-focused, extracurricular activities are protective factors, they reduce negative outcomes for children including drug use and abusive behaviors, and even more importantly they help build positive neural structures in children’s brains which can counteract the negative neural structures caused by maltreatment, neglect, and exposure to DV. There are a number of studies that indicate that such positive-focused activities enhance a child’s executive functions, which are frontal lobe actions that serve a number of positive behaviors, such as reducing emotionally-driven and short-sighted behaviors, increase empathy, and increase morality. Lubans, D., Plotnikoff, R., & Lubans N. (2012). A systematic review of the impact of physical activity programmes on social and emotional well-being in at-risk youth. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 17(1), 2-13; Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959-964; Burton, J. M., & Marshal, L. A. (2005). Protective factors for youth considered at risk of criminal behaviour: Does participation in extracurricular activities help? Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 15, 46-64; Holowchak, M. A. (2003). Aggression, gender, and sport: Reflections on sport as a means of moral education. Journal of Social Philosophy 34(3), 387-399; Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, a’s, praise, and other bribes (2d ed.). Mariner Books; Tester, G., Watins, G., & Rouse, I, (1999). The Sports Challenge International Programme for identified ‘at risk’ children and adolescents: A Singapore study. Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, 11(1), 34-38.)
In line with this, a most interesting science-informed effort happened in Iceland over a 18-year period from 1998-2016. The country had a 45% youth drug and alcohol problem. The Government got serious about the problem and implemented a number of techniques to address the problem. Key techniques included a curfew so evening activities were monitored, and providing all parents a voucher for extracurricular activities. Over the 18-year period, the youth drug and alcohol abuse rate dropped from 45% to 5%. Substance use prevention for adolescents: the Icelandic Model, Health Promotion International, Volume 24, Issue 1, 1 March 2009, Pages 16–25, Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, Thorolfur Thorlindsson, Álfgeir Logi Kristjánsson, Kathleen M. Roe, John P. Allegrante, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dan038. (The Independent, a British news outlet wrote a nice story about the Icelandic Model, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/iceland-knows-how-to-stop-teen-substance-abuse-but-the-rest-of-the-world-isn-t-listening-a7526316.html.)
Because extracurricular activities are such an important and easily accessible protective factor, I developed an acronym to help my clients expand their thinking about what might constitute “extracurricular activities”. SNACCMS incorporates activities in Sports, Nature, Arts, Culture, Clubs, Music and Spirituality (see SNACCMS: Brain Building Activities for Children, https://markbaumann.com/client-resources/snaccms-brain-building-activities-for-children/.). Even broader, SNACCMS can include STEM activities, travel, and of course social-based farming type activities (such as 4-H).
Because of the consequences to exposure to domestic violence, and because the respondent-father is not yet acknowledging his behaviors, I presume based on the information above that social-based SNACCMS activities should be preferred above merely family activities such as father-son or mother-son nature experiences, but this is probably more of a call for the mother to make on an activity-by-activity basis.
To the extent the child can engage in social-based activities, it provides the respondent-father an opportunity to participate in his child’s life in a positive way and exposes both father and son to (hopefully) positive male role models. It can give them a chance to do positive things together if the father chooses. The Court can encourage the father to participate in both games/performances and practices. The Court should require him to, as much as possible, ensure activities are not missed during his parenting time. The Court is keen to provide an opportunity for the respondent-father to demonstrate better behavior, and this can be done in the context of demonstrating proper behavior during these activities. Also, it is not at all clear to me that he will be able to maintain himself at these activities, so simply having the privilege to be present is a huge opportunity for him.
The Court is keen to give the respondent-father the opportunity to demonstrate positive communication. Because he has not demonstrated an ability to communicate in a non-coercive manner, has not yet taken any communication-improvement training, and because RCW 26.09.191(2) prohibits any joint decision making, joint decision making should not be required. Nevertheless, the Court should order the mother to seek and consider input from the father about which activities will be chosen. The Court should also require her to actively encourage and enroll the child in a reasonable amount of extracurricular activities. This will meet the Court’s desire to give the father an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to cooperatively communicate, without adding the stress of forced cooperation, or risking delay and added mediation costs related to any resistance or conflict around activity sign-ups. Joint decision making on activities is a goal the respondent-father can work towards.
This brief is focused on the father, and it is worth repeating that the mother needs support. Co-parenting in any fashion with the father is stressful for her. She is a single parent of two children, putting herself through school. The Court should be mindful to design structures that provide her a sense of safety in order to support her ability to maximize her own parenting. Forcing her to have to cooperate with an extremely non-cooperative co-parent should not be the initial go-to solution, but rather a solution in the future if it appears appropriate.
Postscript. Piecing together solutions as suggested above will in some cases lead to missteps and some measure of psychological harm may come to some parents and children. Such an approach risks exposing parents to an awareness of their own shortcomings, which can be a psychological stressor. Of course, doing nothing, or simply applying approaches that we know don’t work, will also necessarily lead to harm. Lawyers know how to balance the equities. It may be that the harms which may stem from trying can be reduced by maintaining an awareness of their possibility, looking for feedback, and reflecting on the feedback. This process may not be so different from the natural process of “practicing law” or the “practice of therapy.” Perhaps it describes “practicing justice and healing.”