Divorcing or terminating your partnership when you have children is a difficult and painful process for the entire family. Whether you are terminating your marriage or partnership by mutual agreement or one parent has initiated the process against the other’s wishes, it is stressful for both parents and it places the children at risk. Those of us who work to assist families through this process have learned that children inevitably experience a profound loss and find the adjustment to their new lives quite challenging.
However, we know that nearly half of marriages end in divorce and that a high percentage of children are going to be raised for a portion of their childhood by divorced parents. Studies of children whose parents terminate their marriage or partnership indicate that their adjustment depends primarily upon the ability of their parents to support one another as parents and to keep their conflicts with one another from directly impacting the children.
It is also possible that the dissolution of a marriage or partnership, as much as it is a profound loss, may, for many people, become an opportunity for positive change. If the issues leading to the dissolution are responsibly addressed and resolved, it may be possible to find increased happiness and fulfillment in a new life and to become a better parent and collaborative co-parent, to the benefit of your children.
When you have minor children, in order to complete a dissolution you will need to have a custody agreement or order that spells out your post-dissolution parenting plan. The plan needs to include a schedule for sharing time with, and responsibility for, the children, as well as a clear description of how decisions about the children will be made. In addition, whether spelled out in the order or not, you need to establish processes for sharing with each other important information about the children and for resolving any co-parenting disputes that arise.
For those who wish to make their divorce or the dissolution of their partnership as constructive and healthy as possible for themselves and their children, Dr. Bess currently offers the following services: consultation, mediation, co-parenting counseling, parent-coordination and court-ordered/court-involved therapy services, as well as child specialist services for families involved in a collaborative divorce process. Although Dr. Bess is not currently providing child custody evaluations or expert review of custody evaluations for family court cases, he has been appointed on numerous occasions to provide child custody evaluations or expert reviews in bay area family courts and provides consultation to individuals who are undergoing, or about to undergo, such procedures. The following description of divorce-related services is intended to provide a comprehensive over-view of the type of procedures and services you may encounter in seeking a marital dissolution and a parenting arrangement that is best for your children. For a description of a particular service click on that service or go to the section below. For a description of Dr. Bess's qualifications to provide these services and/or a copy of his curriculum vitae go to About Dr. Bess
or Dr. Bess's CV
Services to Help Establish Parenting Plans
Confidential, Non-Recommending Mediation
Non-Confidential, Recommending Mediation
Child Specialist/Parent Coach for Collaborative Divorce
Standard Custody Evaluations
Brief, Focused Evaluations
Therapy for Individual Parents
Therapy for Individual Children and Adolescents
DESCRIPTION OF SERVICES
CONFIDENTIAL MENTAL HEALTH CONSULTATION TO ATTORNEYS AND THEIR CLIENTS
Mental Health Consultation is a service intended to help support a parent’s functioning through the relationship transition and prepare him or her for any child custody proceedings and dispute resolution processes he or she may face during this transition. The consultant may also provide consultation to the client’s attorney. Typically the consultant becomes involved with one parent at the onset of a case, or even before the divorce has been initiated. From the onset there is no intent to involve the consultant directly in the child custody proceedings or dispute resolution proceedings or to disclose the consultant as a potential expert witness. The service is confidential in that the consultant’s work is considered part of the attorney-client privilege and is not subject to discovery procedures.
The confidentiality of the service is important in that it enables the consultant to safely provide critical feedback to the client to assist the client in recognizing significant issues on which he or she may need to work. As a confidential advisor, the mental health consultant is better able to avoid the parent’s fears and defenses and aid him or her to become a more effective parent and co-parent. The intent of this service is to create a safe opportunity for parents to reveal vulnerabilities, let down defenses, confront unrealistic expectations, and learn to make more effective choices for their children. The ultimate goal of mental health consultation is to help the parent learn to make emotionally intelligent and well-informed decisions that are in the best interest of their children. The immediate goal is to provide a parent emotional relief and practical guidance, so that the parent can regain equilibrium, separate his or her emotions from the legal issues, and become capable of effective parental decision-making.
The services provided may include education on parenting and co-parenting issues, psychological support to help the parent deal with the challenges and stresses of the relationship transition or legal procedures, assistance in improving communication skills and competency in conflict management, or sharing specialized knowledge relevant to the various dispute resolution processes in which the client may be engaged.
Dr. Bess has been hired as a confidential mental health consultant on numerous occasions by several law firms throughout the bay area.
SERVICES TO HELP ESTABLISH PARENTING PLANS
If you are able to do so, there are many advantages to negotiating your own co-parenting or child custody agreement. No one knows your children better or cares more about them than you do. You are probably going to feel better following a plan that you have agreed upon with the other parent rather than one that the Court has ordered for you. The expense of mediation is also significantly less than that of litigation. Moreover, many lawyers and judges will insist that you try mediation before taking your case through Court.
Dr. Bess has been hired as a child custody mediator on over one hundred cases in the bay area.
It is important to recognize that two different types of mediation may be recommended or requested and to understand clearly the differences between them.
“Confidential, Non-Recommending Mediation”: in this form of mediation, the role of the mediator is to help the parents negotiate an agreement on a parenting plan. Sometimes referred to as “traditional mediation”, it is a confidential process. The mediator is expected to present to the attorneys and/or the Court any agreement the parents reach, so the agreement may be made into a Court order. However, the mediator is not expected to disclose anything else. If the parents do not reach an agreement, the mediator simply informs the attorneys and/or the Court that they were unable to reach an agreement. The mediator is not allowed to offer any recommendations and cannot be called upon to testify if the matter is taken to Court.
“Non-Confidential, Recommending Mediation”: in this form of mediation, sometimes referred to as “arbitration”, the role of the mediator is also to help the parents negotiate an agreement on a parenting plan and to present the agreement to the attorneys and/or the Court. However, if they are unable to do so, the mediator is expected to provide recommendations to the Court for a parenting plan and may be expected to testify in Court to explain the reasons for these recommendations. The mediator’s procedures may include some limited, focused investigation of relevant issues raised by the parents, which may involve speaking with collateral sources of information, speaking with the children or reviewing relevant documents.
Child Specialist/Parent Coach for Collaborative Divorce: in this form of mediation, the parents work with a team of professionals to negotiate a parenting plan. The team includes a collaborative attorney for each parent and a coach for each parent. In addition, the parents may elect to add a child specialist and/or financial specialist to their team. The process is entirely confidential, in that all members of the team and the parents agree, at the onset, that their work will not be used in family court.
Dr. Bess has served on collaborative divorce teams as a child specialist or parent coach on over thirty bay area cases.
Court-Ordered Child Custody Evaluations
For situations in which parents are unable to negotiate a parenting plan, a formal child custody evaluation may be ordered by the Court to provide a neutral, objective investigation and assessment of the children and parents and any other factors relevant to determining the best interests of the children. The purpose of the evaluation is to provide a recommendation to the Court for a parenting plan deemed by the evaluator to be in the best interests of the children. Under certain circumstances, such evaluations may be particularly useful or necessary: for example, if one parent is requesting to move out of the area with the children; or if a parent is raising concerns or making allegations about the parental fitness of the other parent, perhaps due to suspected child abuse, substance abuse, or impaired emotional or psychological functioning; or if there are unresolved parental disputes about the needs of a child, such as the best medical care or educational placement for the child. Consequently, the order appointing the evaluator may need to specify the specific issues that the evaluator is expected to investigate and assess. The evaluator is appointed by the Court as an expert witness under California Evidence Code 730. It is understood that the work of the evaluator is not confidential and that the evaluator’s records may be subpoenaed, that the evaluator may be compelled to give a deposition and may be required to testify in Court as an expert witness. After completing the evaluation procedures deemed relevant and appropriate, the evaluator is expected to produce a written report, summarizing the evaluation findings and conclusions and providing comprehensive recommendations for a parenting plan or custody order and for resolving any specific issues identified in the appointment order.
Dr. Bess has conducted over two hundred custody evaluations for bay area family courts.
There are two distinct types of evaluations that may be ordered: standard, comprehensive custody evaluations and brief, focused custody evaluations:
Comprehensive Custody Evaluations
Comprehensive custody evaluations take at least two to three months to complete and require 25-30 hours of the evaluator’s time. Depending upon the complexity of the issues, however, they may take significantly longer and may require additional work.
Brief, Focused Custody Evaluations
Brief, focused custody evaluations or assessments are ordered to have a more specific and limited focus, as specified in the order appointing the evaluator, and are expected to be completed in a shorter period of time, requiring less of the evaluator’s time. Evaluation procedures will be tailored to the specific issues to be addressed, limited to one or two issues, and the written report will produce recommendations limited to those issues.
Expert Review of Parenting Plan Recommendations
Whatever process you go through to obtain a recommended parenting plan, you may disagree with the recommendation. It is your right to object to any recommendation. However, you should recognize that the Court is likely to give a significant amount of weight to the recommendations of a qualified, Court-appointed expert. If you have a strong disagreement with the recommendations you should consult with your attorney and consider having your attorney hire another qualified expert to conduct a confidential review of the recommendations made and of the work conducted by the evaluator or mediator. An expert review should provide you with an objective assessment, including not only any significant criticism of the work done but also an assessment of the strengths of the work done and of the likelihood that the recommendations made would withstand an objection. If your attorney believes the testimony of the reviewer would likely be credible to the Court and may also help with your objection, your attorney could then declare the reviewer as an expert witness for you. Your expert would then be subject to his or her records being subpoenaed, could be deposed, and would be subject to cross-examination if called to testify.
Dr. Bess has been hired as an expert reviewer and witness on numerous occasions by several law firms throughout the bay area.
SERVICES TO HELP IMPLEMENT PARENTING PLANS
Establishing a parenting plan is a critical accomplishment. It provides a necessary structure to guide your efforts to share parenting responsibilities and opportunities as separate co-parents. No parenting plan, however, can anticipate all of the decisions you will need to make together or all of the challenges you will face. To manage such issues collaboratively and to implement your parenting plan effectively, so that the needs of your children are best served, will require you to develop communication and conflict resolution skills with each other. This is understandably difficult in the midst or aftermath of a dissolution and you would be wise to utilize the services of a co-parenting counselor or parent coordinator to help you.
These are significantly different services. It is important to understand the purpose and nature of each role so that you may choose the service best suited to you and your situation. Both services are intended to help divorced parents implement their parenting plans. They differ in that Co-Parenting Counseling is a confidential service, designed primarily to facilitate the Co-Parenting skills of the parents, while the services of a Parent Coordinator or Special Master are designed primarily to facilitate Parallel Parenting and are not confidential.
The concepts of “Co-Parenting” and “Parallel Parenting” represent two different approaches for implementing parenting plans. Whereas Co-Parenting requires a significant amount of direct collaboration and engagement between the parents, Parallel Parenting allows parents to remain relatively disengaged, while assisting them to exchange information, get decisions made, and parent separately in ways that are “parallel” or “consistent enough” to serve the best interests of the children. In the Co-Parenting Counseling process, the goal is to help you work collaboratively and independently to exchange information, make decisions and coordinate your parenting efforts on your own. In the Parent Coordinator or Special Master process, the focus is on the issues that need to be resolved or decided. Although the PC/SM will try to help you negotiate agreements, if you are unable to reach a resolution the PC/SM is authorized to make the decision for you in the form of a recommendation to the Court. Each parent has the right to object to the recommendation but in most cases the decision recommended by the PC/SM will become effective immediately, unless and until it is over-turned by the Court.
These services are so distinct, in fact, that some divorced parents utilize both simultaneously. They will work confidentially with a co-parenting counselor but if they reach an impasse on an issue they are unable to resolve, they then utilize the services of the PC/SM to resolve the issue.
Co-Parenting Counseling is a confidential process, focused on building communication and collaborative co-parenting skills so that divorced parents may share information about their children with each other, coordinate their parenting efforts, implement their parenting plan, and make necessary decisions about their children together. Although a co-parenting counselor may make recommendations to the parents, he or she has no authority to make recommendations to the Court and may not be compelled to provide recommendations to the Court or to testify. The goal is to help the parents develop the skills to function effectively as co-parents and to make decisions on their own.
Dr. Bess has been appointed by bay area family courts to serve as a co-parenting counselor on over fifty cases.
Parent Coordination/Special Master
Parent Coordination is a non-confidential process, as the PC/SM is authorized by the Court to make decisions on issues specified in the PC/SM Appointment Order and to formally present these decisions to the Court, as recommendations or orders. Moreover, in most cases the PC/SM may conduct non-confidential dispute resolution hearings, may order evaluation procedures in order to obtain information, assessments and recommendations about certain relevant issues, and may elect to testify in Court. The specific issues the PC/SM is authorized to address, as well as the procedures the PC/SM will use, should be specified in the Appointment Order.
Dr. Bess has been appointed by bay area family courts to serve as a Parent Coordinator or Special Master in over fifty cases.
Court-Ordered or “Court-Involved” Therapeutic Services
In many cases, some form of counseling or therapy will be ordered as a part of the parenting plan or will be recommended for the parents and/or children.
Dr. Bess has served as a court-ordered or court-involved therapist for parents or children on over two hundred cases.
These therapeutic services include:
Parent-Child Counseling and “Reconnection” Therapy
The process of terminating the parental marriage or partnership and establishing new, separate family lives places a significant strain on parent-child relationships.
Parent-Child Counseling: Parent-Child Counseling is often helpful in assisting parents and children to improve their communication with each other and maintain or strengthen their relationships.
Reconnection Therapy: Unfortunately, in some cases, children become estranged from one of their parents and may refuse contact or "shut down" or "act-out" when with that parent. Re-Connection Therapy is a therapeutic process for re-establishing and facilitating estranged parent-child relationships. Depending on the severity of the estrangement, this service may involve supervised visitation, parent-child counseling sessions, and collaborative work with both parents.
Therapy for Individual Parents
The termination of a marriage or partnership is a difficult and stressful process but it may also be seen as an opportunity for positive growth in one's personbal life. Parental roles and responsibilities also tend to change with the separation of the parents, requiring one or both people to develop new parenting skills. Many people have found it especially helpful, as they confront the challenges and opportunities of their new life and new parenting responsibilities, to work with an individual therapist who is experienced in these areas.
Therapy for Individual Children and Adolescents
Children who are experiencing these transitions in their family life often benefit from having a confidential relationship with a qualified therapist. As they may be uncomfortable talking with their parents about issues related to the termination of the marital relationship and the division of the family, they may benefit greatly from having a safe, confidential place to express their concerns and gain emotional support and assistance in learning how to effectively express their feelings and needs in the changing famiiy environment.