This brief was prepared for court to explain the 3-way Counselling Model to a Judge.
The 3-way coaching team is part of Collaborative Divorce, an approach developed for assisting families through separation and divorce without engaging in court based litigation (Collaborative Practice; Deepening the Dialogue, Cameron, 2004; Collaborative Divorce, Tesler & Thompson, 2006). The Collaborative Divorce team is interdisciplinary, including Collaborative Lawyers and Financial Specialists working together with credentialed Psychologists and therapists experienced in working with families and children.
A 3way Team is made up of 2 Divorce Coaches and a Child Specialist. The originators sought to improve upon the pre-existing models of one family therapist working with all members of the family, or alternatively, the children working with a child therapist with the parents involved only for feedback focused on the children. As this work has evolved, the value of the 3way coaching team has become evident to professionals working within the dispute resolution continuum. Divorce Coaches have been brought into Mediation and now into Litigation and Post Agreement conflict.
The 3way team model is an intervention at the level of the family. It bridges the gap between the tasks and changes involved in the separation and the family members’ capacities given the complexities of the situation. It involves all family members simultaneously, providing parent education, coaching and counseling as is appropriate for the parents coordinated with a neutral therapeutic setting for the children.
The Divorce Coach
The Divorce Coach is a Family Therapist working as an ‘aligned neutral’. The Divorce Coach is aligned in that they create a strong working alliance with one parent. Their responsibility is to understand, therapeutically support, and manage one parent. This is done in partnership with another Divorce Coach who is in this role with the other parent.
Together the two Divorce Coaches create a neutral or systemic view of the family and its dynamics.
From this systemic view, Divorce Coaches use any and all relevant therapeutic approaches to assist their clients to move forward by assisting them to articulate the impact of the conflict on them, understand their impact on the conflict and on their spouse, the impact of the conflict on their children, the unintentional participation of the children in the conflict, etc.
The Child Specialist
The Child Specialist provides therapeutic support to the children and acts as a conduit of information from and about the children to the parents and the team. S/He has a strong background in working with children and families, specifically in situations of intense conflict. The Child Specialist is neutral to the parents and works to stay out of their conflict, leaving this aspect to the Divorce Coaches. They engage a process of ‘therapeutic information gathering’ with the children, meeting with them as a sibling group and then individually as appropriate. With the children’s awareness and permission, the Child Specialist brings this information to the Divorce Coaches and the parents.
A. Building the Foundation
1. Parents have individual meetings with their respective coach
2. Divorce Coaches share this information to create a ‘unified’ or ‘systemic’ view
3. Parents have the first 4way meeting with coaches to create the working team, establish ground rules, sign
Participation Agreement that stipulates no court, etc.
4. Coaches select appropriate Child Specialist(s), verify availability and choreograph parents’ and children’s
involvement with Child Specialist
B. The Child Specialist Sequence
5. Coaches pre-brief with Child Specialist at the same time to ensure neutrality
6. Child Specialist meets with children as a sibling group and individually as needed
7. Child Specialist debriefs with Divorce Coaches at the same time to ensure neutrality
8. Parents, Divorce Coaches and Child Specialist meet for feedback from the Child Specialist to the parents.
C. Integrating the Child Specialist feedback and on-going work
9. Parents and Divorce Coaches, work in 4way meetings, alternating with individual
meetings or other types of team meetings as necessary, to work toward implementing the feedback from the Child Specialist and to support meaningful change in the family.
The 3way coaching team is part of Collaborative Divorce, an approach developed in California, for assisting families through separation and divorce without engaging in court based litigation (Deepening the Dialogue, Cameron, 2004; Collaborative Divorce; A Problem To Be Solved Not A Battle To Be Fought, Fagerstrom, 1997; Collaborative Practice; A New Opportunity to Address Children’s Best Interest in Divorce, Gamache, 2005; Collaborative Divorce Handbook, Mosten, 2009; Collaborative Divorce, Tesler & Thompson, 2006). The Collaborative Divorce team is interdisciplinary, including Collaborative Lawyers and Financial Specialists working together with credentialed Psychologists and therapists experienced in working with families and children, to bring the wisdom and experience of their respective professions to the problems of families experiencing separation, divorce and post divorce conflict in a focused, solution oriented, and coordinated way with an agreement to keep the process out of court.
The psychological professionals who developed the 3way Team model spent 10 years studying, discussing and experimenting with different team structures, eventually describing the 3way coaching model as consistently the preferred one for divorcing families, especially in moderate to high conflict situations. A 3way Team is made up of 2 Divorce Coaches and a Child Specialist. The originators sought to improve upon the pre-existing models of one family therapist working with all members of the family, or alternatively, the children working with a child therapist with the parents involved only for feedback focused on the children. Their experience, similar to many doing this work, was that the parent conflict often takes over making it very difficult if not impossible for the psychological professional to keep the children’s needs front and center. Most psychological professionals working in this area would also agree that the parent conflict is implicated in the creation of the children’s distress, the children’s distress then increases the parent conflict and that the co-parenting relationship can be greatly improved once the parents understand and reduce the impact of this dynamic.
The originators of the Collaborative Divorce model then encountered the Collaborative Law initiative out of Minneapolis (The Collaborative Way to Divorce, Webb & Ousky, 2006). These two groups were instantly compatible and provided their first interdisciplinary training in Vancouver in June of 1999, invited by Nancy Cameron, QC and Phyllis Kenney, Barrister and Solicitor. This marked the birth of the Vancouver Collaborative Group.
Originally part of the Collaborative Divorce initiative, Divorce Coaching was used exclusively in Collaborative processes. As this work has evolved, the value of the 3way coaching team has become evident to professionals working within the dispute resolution continuum. Divorce Coaches have been brought into Mediation and now into Litigation, Post Agreement conflict. (A small percentage of couples, about 3%, reconcile.)
The 3way team model is an intervention at the level of the family. It bridges the gap between the tasks and changes involved in the separation and what family members are actually able to accomplish by providing comprehensive therapeutic support to all family members in a coordinated way. It involves all family members simultaneously, providing parent education, coaching and counseling as is appropriate for the parents and a neutral therapeutic setting for the children.
Together these aspects merge seamlessly through the team, providing a comprehensive understanding of all perspectives as well as an understanding of the ‘family system’; that is the dynamic created by all the different perspectives. For families, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. Equally, as one aspect of the family dynamic begins to shift, new opportunities arise providing opportunities for growth, resolution of conflict and higher order problem solving. Furthermore, the team provides a coordinated approach for the professionals allowing us to function in a way that is more in tune with the dynamics of a family system.
THE PROFESSIONAL TEAM
The Divorce Coach
The Divorce Coach is Family Therapist working as an ‘aligned neutral’ in the Collaborative Divorce model. The Divorce Coach is aligned in that they create a strong working alliance with one parent. Their responsibility is to understand, therapeutically support, and manage one parent. This is done in partnership with another Divorce Coach who is in this role with the other parent.
The Divorce Coach is also neutral as both Coaches work as a team to see the ‘unified story’; the neutral, systemic view that includes both clients’ experience and their impact on each other – ‘the dance’. The term ‘neutral’ is used because their role is not to simply advance their client’s case. From this systemic view, Divorce Coaches use any and all relevant therapeutic approaches to assist their clients to move forward by articulating the impact of the conflict on them, understanding their impact on the conflict and their spouse, the impact of the conflict on their children and the unintentional participation of the children in maintaining the conflict, and exploring possible pathways that will allow the family to move forward in greater harmony, with the children’s needs front and center. This work requires experienced professionals who are able to work with families in high conflict and with ‘not-entirely-voluntary’ clients, many of whom present many other individual and relational problems together with the problems of the separation and divorce.
Divorce Coaches meet individually with their client and in 4way meetings with both Coaches and both clients. The principle products of this process are (a) a more functional co-parenting relationship and (b) a viable parenting plan.
In the Collaborative Divorce model, the team creates forums as is appropriate to the family and the problems at hand. These forums could include Divorce Coaches, Collaborative Lawyers, the Child Specialist and/or the Financial Specialist together with the parents or separately, for the purposes of team planning and debriefing.
The Child Specialist
The Child Specialist provides therapeutic support to the children and acts as a conduit of information from and about the children to the parents and the team. She or he has a strong background in working with children and families, specifically in situations of intense conflict. The Child Specialist is neutral to the parents and works to stay out of their conflict, leaving this aspect to the Divorce Coaches. They engage a process of ‘therapeutic information gathering’ with the children, meeting with them as a sibling group and then individually as appropriate. With the children’s awareness and permission, the Child Specialist brings this information to the Divorce Coaches and the parents. The Divorce Coaches then work with the parents on the best way to integrate this information to support therapeutic movement and to support the short and long-term decision making for the family. The original model included the Child Specialist as providing a snap shot of the children’s presentation and information however when appropriate, the Child Specialist can also work with the children through the separation process to provide on-going therapeutic support.
The mental health aspect of the Collaborative Divorce model (the 2 Divorce Coaches and the Child Specialist) lends itself well to moderate to high conflict separation, divorce and post divorce conflict. The two Divorce Coaches and Child Specialist provide therapeutic support to their respective client(s) and yet, with their clients’ consent, have full information from the other coach in order to maintain a neutral or systemic view. This helps the Divorce Coaches work more effectively with the parents and to focus on the ways in which both parties are contributing to the problem, no matter how unintentionally, in order to work toward a more productive parenting process. The Child Specialist remains neutral to both parents, maintaining a focus on the children’s experiences. With a long-term engagement, the Child Specialist can also provide counseling to the children. The coordination of these three professionals provides comprehensive support to all family members and a 360 degree view of the family for the professionals.
PROTOCOLS BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
Engagement of the Divorce Coaches
The process begins with each of the parents meeting individually with their Divorce Coach to begin to create the working alliance. The coach gets a sense of the client, their experiences in the family, their current concerns and their aspirations for a successful outcome. The client has the opportunity to fully describe their concerns to a trained therapeutic ‘listener’. Many people have not worked with a therapist or have not worked with a therapist with a specialty in separation and divorce issues. This is often a welcome relief.
Once the two Coaches have been engaged they, with permission of their clients, share their understandings of their clients with each other. This marks the beginning of creating the ‘unified or neutral’ story of the family dynamics and conflict. The Coaches then return to their clients in an individual meeting to prepare for the first 4way meeting.
Addressing issues and focusing on tasks
At the first 4way meeting, the two parents meet with coaches and together, agree to the ground rules and expectations for their conduct in the meetings. They will generally also sign a Participation Agreement (the contract that stipulates that the team will not go to court, and that if the problems cannot be resolved collaboratively the team will resign).
On-going 4ways (typically 2 hrs each) provide the foundational container for exploring the obstacles to successful resolution of the tasks of the separation and the creating of the best possible family environment, including the co- parenting relationship and parenting plan.
The clients may meet with their coach individually between 4way meetings as necessary to keep the 4way meetings moving forward. These individual meetings offer an opportunity for the client to debrief the 4way meetings and to prepare for the next one. They also offer the opportunity for any therapeutic work to be done to reduce conflict and to support the well-being and good problem-solving capacity of the client.
Identifying the Child Specialist
Generally the clients first learn about the Child Specialist in the general information about Collaborative Divorce early on in their process. Then, when appropriate, the Child Specialist process becomes an agenda item in the coaching 4way.
The Divorce Coaches facilitate the selection and introduction of the Child Specialist to make sure the Child Specialist is appropriate for the children and to protect the neutrality of the Child Specialist. They consider professional experience, gender, location, availability, and then choreograph with the clients the process of the family’s involvement with the Child Specialist. This ensures as calm and orderly a process as possible. Given that many parents feel vulnerable when it comes to their children and are often very sensitive to bias on the part of the neutral Child Specialist, we take great care in facilitating this process in order for it to be neutral and fair for both parents.
THE CHILD SPECIALIST SEQUENCE
Pre-briefing the Child Specialist
The Coaches pre-brief the Child Specialist, generally in one conversation in which both Coaches and the Child Specialist participate either in person or more often on the telephone. The Coaches provide relevant background information to the Child Specialist, provide a brief review of the family history, the perspective of their respective client, any therapeutic information they feel is appropriate as well as the concerns their client has in regards to the children. The Child Specialist then has the opportunity to ask questions. This is generally done in one conversation to avoid the possibility of complicating nuances and to continue the development of the professional team.
The Child Specialist may have brief introductory conversations with the parents and answer any questions about their professional background, but generally the parents remain at arms length. The Child Specialist then meets with the children, generally first in the sibling group and then individually as appropriate given the ages and circumstances of the children. The process involves developmentally appropriate therapeutic information gathering about the children in terms of their general well-being, in regards to issues specific to the divorce and any other specific requests of the coaching team.
Debriefing the Child Specialist
The Child Specialist then debriefs with the Coaches, again in one conversation usually over the phone. The information may include how the children presented in the room, how they related to each other in the sibling group meeting, how they presented in individual sessions, what they said in conversation with the Child Specialist, any activities that were engaged in, any pictures drawn, etc.The debrief allows the Coaches to vet the information and for the team to decide on the best way to bring the information to the parents. Generally we create a 5way forum with the Child Specialist attending the first hour of the next coaching 4way. If the information coming to the parents seems too difficult for them to hear in the presence of the other, we find ways to give them the information separately but still come together before leaving the meeting. It is better that they see each other with the team present rather than having to continue co-parenting involvement without having had professional intervention after difficult information has been shared.
Presenting feedback to the parents
Generally the Child Specialist attends the first hour of a two-hour coaching 4way, leaving the parents and coaches for the second hour to implement the information presented. The feedback is presented to the parents and the parents have time to ask questions. The Child Specialist does not provide a report however the parents are free to take notes as they like
The team works hard to create a safe and stable forum for the parents to receive the Child Specialist feedback. We prepare our clients as best we can to receive the information calmly and with a view to respecting that the children love and need both parents, and to move forward for the children rather than slide into judgment or blame. Most parents profoundly love their children. When the information is presented with respect and compassion, parents are often very responsive and willing to consider their part in creating a better family environment for the children. When the other parent witnesses this responsiveness, there is a great opportunity for change in the family system and for the children’s needs to be front and center.
The Child Specialist also does not make recommendations. We strive to create an environment where the parents can use the information from the Child Specialist to ‘step up’ in their parenting. One parent witnessing the other parent responding positively to the information can have a very positive effect on the restoration of trust in the co- parenting relationship. Recommendations from the Child Specialist can rob the parents of this experience.
INTEGRATING THE CHILD SPECIALIST FEED BACK AND ONGOING WORK
If it appears that a parent is not responding to the information, the team structure offers many ways to continue the work. For example, their coach can continue to work with them in individual meetings and in 4way meetings; the Child Specialist can continue to see the children and come to another meeting, the Divorce Coach and Child Specialist can meet with the parent, with or without the child present, to continue to work on entrenched problems; the lawyer and coach could meet with the parent, etc.
Generally the Child Specialist presents only one time to the parents but can continue to work in any capacity agreed on by everyone. The Child Specialist may continue to meet with the children throughout the separation process, and once the emotional climate is sufficiently calm, may also work directly with one or both parents. As an interim step, the Child Specialist can meet with the child(ren), one parent and their coach, to have difficult conversations with more support in the room. The over arching concern is to shield the Child Specialist from the parent’s conflict so they can maintain their focus on the children.
This work should be considered specialist work within the field of Family Therapy. Given the emotional, familial, and legal complexities of moderate to high conflict divorce and post agreement conflict, professionals working in these teams must have a high level of professional training and experience specific to this area. The Collaborative Society Roster establishes credibility, as well as on-going experience and continuing education requirements to qualify to do such work.
This actual case summary is similar in structure to the family we are currently discussing. The names and details of the family members have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Mom (40) and Dad (40) had separated 2 years earlier. While married they had worked with a couple therapist without success. A Child Psychologist was hired but conflicted out. A Collaborative Law process was begun and dissolved. Both parents had retained new council and a JCC was pending in 1 month.
Two children were involved, Jody (10) and Peter (6). The children appeared to be adapting to the separation until Dad introduced his new partner. The introduction left Mom very angry as she believed they had an agreement to not introduce her for the time being. Jody was very angry because she felt tricked in that they were not told that this was Dad’s new partner. Soon after Dad moved in with his new partner and had the children with him there for his parenting time. These events triggered unresolved conflict between the parents and distress with the children. Jody started to become quite upset and to refuse to go to Dad’s. Peter seemed less affected but was also very upset in general.
Following an initial information meeting with both parents and Dr Susan Gamache in which possible process options were explained, the 3way Team model was agreed upon and implemented. With the agreement of both parents, Dr Gamache referred Dad to another Divorce Coach.
During the work with this family, Jody become progressively more upset, crying and screaming at transitions, developing headaches, stomach aches, and a condition in which she needed to urinate at approximately 15-minute interval. This became progressively more anxiety provoking for Jody as the need to urinate would also occur during group activities with other children. She became adamant that she would not go to her father’s home as scheduled. The relationship between Mom and Dad continued to deteriorate as Mom saw Dad as not listening to their daughter. Dad became more distressed about his relationship with his daughter holding Mom responsible.
Mom and Dad worked with their respective Divorce Coaches individually and in 4way meetings. While emotions were high and many breaks were called, Mom and Dad were eventually able to focus on the children’s needs. A pre- existing power difference between Mom and Dad became a central focus for Mom in developing her ability to speak to Dad without crying uncontrollably. For his part, Dad was not accustomed to hearing and respecting Mom’s opinions. He was also deeply distressed over the state of his relationship with his daughter and concerned about the impact on his new relationship.
The children met with a Child Specialist as a sibling group and individually. The Child Specialist reported back to the parents on a number of related topics: both children were comfortable in one-on-one time with both parents, Jody was missing one-on-one time with her Dad and was very anxious about what would happen if she needed Mom when she was with Dad because it might cause a fight, etc. Both parents acknowledged that Jody was more sensitive to these things than Peter.
The maternal grandmother also figured into the situation as Dad had been estranged from her for some time and then began to leave the children with her for childcare. The right of first refusal guideline was established.
The parenting schedule was reviewed and modified to create less back and forth. It was important for Dad that the schedule was agreed to in principle while the family responded to Jody’s distress. It was agreed that the schedule would not come into effect until Jody’s relationship with her Dad was sufficiently restored. Ultimately Dad agreed to honour Jody’s requests to go back to Mom’s as needed. This allowed the situation to move forward. Jody eventually regained her well-being in her father’s home.
Jody was also referred to a Child Psychiatrist close to the family home. This provided excellent on-going therapeutic care for Jody. Dad was also involved in this work.
The 3way Team Model was used with this family for 6 months. According to my records I (SG) met with my client (Mom) individually or in joint meetings on 12 occasions for a total of 19 hrs over a period of 6 months. In a debriefing meeting with Mom about 1 yr later, the family was reportedly doing well. Both children were well adjusted in their two family homes and Jody was no longer seeing the child psychiatrist.