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Trailblazing therapy helps warring parents work together in the interests of their children

Date:26 JAN 2016

The Parents in Dispute Therapeutic programme engages with the most difficult cases and provides an alternative to protracted and damaging court battles for separated couples and their children

A new programme has demonstrated that it is possible to successfully engage parents 'entrenched' in emotionally damaging and costly legal disputes surrounding the care of their children.

The results, just announced, of the innovative Parents in Dispute programme, run by The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), show that substantial numbers of parents are willing to participate, and benefit from, specialist therapy for themselves and their children.

Funded by the Department for Work and Pensions through the Help and Support for Separated Families Fund, Parents in Dispute (PiD) targeted long-term separated families in entrenched conflict which involved the family courts.

In seeking to resolve conflict or improve the capacity of parents to co-parent effectively, PiD offered a new intervention in this field aiming to engage and work with both parents by using the skills of a specifically trained psychotherapist.

Remarkably, given the mutual long-standing antagonism which these parents have towards each other, nearly three-quarters of the parents who attended individual assessments were helped to also attend joint sessions together. For those parents who did attend at least one joint session together, the evaluation showed that they demonstrated a significant increase in the strength of their parenting alliance.

Strengthening this relationship between separated parents is of particular importance, given the growing body of evidence which suggests that the quality of co-parenting has both direct and indirect effects on child outcomes, via associations with parents' psychological well-being and parenting capacity.

Other results of the programme included: nearly 70% of parents increase their understanding of the impact of inter-parental conflict on their children, as well as enabling 90% to be better able to identify types of situation which might put their own, or their children's, safety at risk.

In addition, mothers also showed a significant reduction in terms of their anxiety and psychological distress; an important finding, given that we know that poor mental health in parents presents a risk for children's emotional well-being.

These results are significant given the research which conclusively shows that poorly managed conflict between parents - whether expressed overtly or through emotional withdrawal - has a debilitating effect on children's psychological development.

These findings are all the more startling given that many parents on the programme reported that, prior to embarking on it, they would not have believed it was possible to engage in joint therapeutic work to make positive changes for their children.

Couples caught up in such entrenched court-based conflict invariably have a deep mistrust of each other, which makes them very difficult to work with constructively; let alone achieve some resolution to their ongoing dispute regarding the care of their children. Referrals were generated through the family court system, principally via Cafcass case workers, solicitors and the courts themselves.

The programme targets the couples who are involved in protracted proceedings; of the couples referred, the highest duration of a case in court was 358 weeks, and the combined total of the 30 cases was 2,613 weeks or 50.25 years in court.

Aside from the major legal cost implications, the emotional impact on families was the most striking legacy of often escalating disagreements. The programme consulted with young people affected by chronic post-separation conflict who revealed that protracted court hearings interfered with their lives, causing emotional distress both to them and to their parents and making them feel 'different' to their peers. 'I think this is a great idea: my parents sometimes got so involved in their own disputes that it became like a war, and it was sometimes easy for them to forget that I was in the middle of it all.'

Despite this challenging picture, in the majority of cases referred to the programme, the approach was very successful; not only in engaging both co-parents, but in enabling them to attend sessions together. When the sessions were arranged, over 90% of couples then attended.

The couples participated in a specially devised 16-session therapy called Mentalisation Based Therapy for Parental Conflict - Parenting Together, or MBT-PT (Hertzmann and Abse, 2008), which enabled couples to focus on and think about mental states - the feelings and emotions of both self and others, to consider each person's involvement in or contribution to the problems of the co-parenting relationship - with a view to making choices that are in the best interests of children.

The statistics are backed up by the real stories of couples that received the free therapy. It teaches parents 'what it means to put children first', said one. 'Should be available before any disputes get to court,' commented another.

The programme was set up to reduce conflict, address mental health, improve parenting, and help the lives of children. The results and also the responses of those who participated testify to its success.

This project clearly demonstrates that, with the specialist approach and effective working across legal organisations with the critical help of Cafcass practitioners, it is possible to make significant improvements in co-parenting and reduce levels of parental conflict over children.

Unique in its approach, PiD was widely acclaimed amongst the legal community, who first-hand witnessed a potential alleviation of a long-standing professional concern; it was described as 'an invaluable and scarce resource' by District Judge Harper, who attended the advisory group. Helping couples and families at odds with these challenges points the way to an ongoing route for the legal profession and government to consider. 

Sarah Parsons, assistant director of Cafcass, said:

'The programme filled a gap for a small but significant group of families Cafcass worked with. It was an intervention that met the needs of those couples who are entrenched in conflict and whose actions are having an extremely detrimental impact on the well-being of their children. This group of families have often been through mediation and other traditional forms of support without resolution and this programme offers a new way forward. It's vital that we continue to explore building tailored services to meet the needs of and help these families co-parent successfully after separation, and this model should be of great interest to others in the sector.'

Susanna Abse, CEO of the Tavistock Centre of Couple Relationships, commented:

'With this unique and collaborative use of therapeutic methods we have seen, amongst a hard to reach group of previously embattled parents, a real willingness to enter a process that encourages some form of ongoing communication for the benefit of the family. The positive effects, both in human and statistical terms, point the way to further work in this manner that could save money, time and distress.'

For more information visit www.tccr.ac.uk.