Child custody cases are complex and difficult for everyone involved. Many families going through custody proceedings choose to involve a therapist to provide additional support to the children during this time. The role of the therapist in these cases can often become blurred or confusing. During a time when everyone involved needs support, clarity regarding the therapist’s role is critical. This article offers a brief overview of a child therapist’s role in three different child custody scenarios.
Before jumping in, it is important to know that the therapist’s priority is their relationship with your child. Without a strong, trusting therapeutic bond, therapy work quickly becomes difficult if not impossible. Because of this, many therapists try to avoid involvement in court processes to protect their relationship with the client. With that in mind, it is important to discuss a treatment plan and any potential involvement in court at the beginning of therapy to ensure a clear direction for therapy.
- Cases in which a therapist is involved in court proceedings via subpoena: In these cases, it is important to understand that a therapist who is actively (or has in the past) provided therapy for your child should not be giving recommendations about child placement and custody arrangements. These decisions are best left to custody evaluators because their job is to bring a neutral, balanced perspective. Your child’s therapist likely has a biased perspective because of their emphasis on your child. What your child’s therapist can speak to is content of therapy, your child’s mental health and symptoms, and treatment. If your child’s therapist is going to testify in court, or their clinical records are subpoenaed, it is important to review not only the potential impact of this on their therapeutic relationship with your child but also the content of the records.
- Cases in which a therapist is not involved in court proceedings: Therapists prioritize client well-being and confidentiality. However, child therapists should also work closely with parents to understand familial and parenting needs. Child therapists in custody cases should communicate with both parents about their child’s treatment. They may set certain boundaries, such as only speaking with both parents in person, or always emailing both parents together to avoid splitting or triangulating.
- Cases involving child trauma, or allegations of abuse or neglect: A therapist may take a different role in these cases- especially if they have specialized training in trauma, abuse, and neglect. In these cases, a therapist may be able to provide expert witness on trauma symptoms and treatment to help the court understand what is happening with your child and their needs. Therapists in these cases may also support children who may be required to testify about their experiences by helping your child feel safe, supported, and prepared.
Hopefully this brief overview has offered insight into the role of a therapist in child custody cases. Each type of case here could be written about extensively. The biggest take away? Speak directly with your child’s therapist about any needs your family may have regarding court proceedings and the impact of these on your child’s well-being and therapeutic process. You, and your family, deserve support navigating the complexity of child custody.
– Meg Hamilton, LPC is a therapist in Durham, NC with Birch Counseling. She works with children, adolescents, and young adults. Meg is an art therapist and a trauma specialist. She also offers counseling to LGBTQ+ youth and their families. You can learn more about Meg at her website.