“I am honored and humbled to receive this year’s Visionary Award from the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar during the Marital and Family Law Review Course in Orlando. A heartfelt thank you to Magistrate Philip Wartenberg, current Chair of the Family Law Section for this recognition. The surprise was genuine and I was extremely grateful that much effort (behind the scenes) took place to arrange for my husband, daughter and son to be present as I received this Award. My family has always been so supportive of my volunteer work and it was wonderful for them to share this special moment together with me.”
“Resist and Refuse Dynamics” (RRD) is a term used to describe a pattern of behavior that can occur in high-conflict family situations where a child or children actively resist or refuse contact with the other parent, despite court orders or agreements. These family dynamics arise from multiple factors including factors within each parent, factors in the coparenting relationship, particular vulnerability of the children. This pattern can be particularly frustrating and distressing for the parent who is being resisted. However the more favored parent as well as the child or children involved have their own set of stressors.
Resistance or refusal to see a parent may be appropriate when there has been abuse or IPV. While some children continue to want to spend time with an abusive parent, the safety of the child is paramount to consider. Children who reject a parent due to witnessing domestic violence or having been abused or witness to either, express justified concerns. It is essential for family law professionals involved in these cases to address safety issues. In cases with documented safety concerns it may not be appropriate for a children to spend unsupervised time with the parent in question. It is essential to balance the child’s safety with their need for a relationship with both parents. Cases with safety concerns and where the child is resisting contact fall into a different category than RRD and will not be discussed in this paper.
Why is it important to understand cases of Resist and Refuse Dynamics in a family? Family law professionals, whether judges, attorneys, mediators, parenting coordinators or mental health professionals are likely to encounter these complex and frustrating cases. Family law professionals need a common vocabulary as well as a common approach to these cases in order to be of service to these families. It is essential for any family law professional in RRD cases to have knowledge of family systems theory and practice as well as to understand how holding multiple hypotheses when sitting with members of the family can help keep natural biases and alliances in check. It is also essential to understand the levels of severity in these cases in order to tailor interventions to meet family goals. Children having to make a choice between two “good-enough” parents (with whom they have had a positive relationship) may suffer long term consequences of the loss of one parent.
What are some of the causal factors in RRD? We have ruled out safety concerns and are dealing with two good enough parents who have expressed that the children need a “safe and healthy” relationship with both parents. We also know over time a child can and will feel closer to one parent than the other. This is normal. It is only when a child feels or is forced to choose one parent over the other that the problems ensue.
A history of conflict between parents where one parent may talk negatively about the other parent in front of the child or overtly interfere with the parent’s time with the child is certainly one causal factor. Children may blame one parent for the conflict; previous positive memories and relationships can become viewed as all bad. Parenting difficulties such as harsh discipline, substance misuse, or mental health problems can lead a child to choose one parent over the other. Children who are prone to anxiety or depression may be more likely to be caught up in a loyalty bind. It is essential to consider the co-parenting relationship, any parenting concerns, the vulnerability of the child, and any critical incidents that have become part of a child’s and parent’s negative narrative about the other parent. [See Power Point for more in depth analysis of RRD].
Other causal factors can be found in external systems. Extended family in these cases can become involved and polarizing. Litigation, splintered professionals and social media too can play a role. As professionals working with these families we need to understand the multiple factors in order to find the best solutions.
In working with these families, it is essential to hear and respect child preferences and desires [a voice but not necessarily the final choice] while ensuring that a child is not being unduly influenced by the more favored parent. Children caught in loyalty binds or have chosen one parent over the other can feel an enhanced sense of confusion, guilt, anxiety or depression. Children’s choice of one parent over another may lead to a sense of well-being (“I am not caught any longer”) but may also lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness (“I miss my mom/dad but can’t say or feel that).
What are some paths to resolution in these matters? For the court, accountability is key. After careful and thorough assessment of any safety issues, therapeutic intervention with court accountability is essential. These families need a clear order from the court as to how to proceed with a family therapy intervention. For attorneys, holding multiple hypotheses about a client while supporting their own unique struggles is very helpful. While it is tempting to side with the clients point of view only, the Bounds of Advocacy are in effect to factor in the best interests of the children. For mental health professionals a family therapy intervention involving the whole family, assessing for parenting, co-parenting, child vulnerabilities, and the negative narratives that have taken hold (and may not be accurate) is essential.
So what has to occur if family therapy is to have the potential for success? Intimate Partner Violence must have been screened out. A coercive controlling parenting style must be addressed. All parenting styles, boundaries, discipline, affect, steadiness, and mental health must be taken into account. Clear parenting difficulties may warrant referral to a parenting therapist or parenting coach. A parenting therapist can help each parent navigate their own emotional response leading to better and more effective communication. The history of co-parenting cooperation or conflict must be understood. If a family therapist can help the parents address issues and work toward a mutual resolution, family therapy is likely to be more successful. Child vulnerabilities help guide the intensity of the intervention and may lead to a referral to a child therapist to be part of the team. A child therapist must understand they are part of a team, supporting the family therapy while helping the child through their anger, distrust, or anxiety.
What has to occur in family therapy? After careful assessment of the factors described and a commitment from the family to work on agreed upon goals, the detailed work begins. A family therapist must help increase the motivation for change; this can occur when the alternatives to working in family therapy are explored and found lacking. A therapist will have laid out the expectations for progress. If expectations are met the RRD should begin to resolve, both parents should be able to support the agreed on goals, and the child should have engaged with the rejected parent in steps (supported by the favored parent) toward meaningful dialogue. Gradually the relationship should improve. While there is no clear timeline, if there is no movement in the family after several months of regular meetings, a reassessment as to goals and expectations is necessary. Sometimes this leads to the necessity of more intensive work; sometimes this leads to a pause in treatment while other avenues are tried; sometimes this leads to a period of no direct contact. If the goal has been to grow a safe and meaningful relationship and this has not occurred it is essential to examine the possible reasons for lack of success. Once these are examined a new direction may be necessary.
There are pros and cons to a new direction. If that direction is a more intensive form of therapy it will be because the rejected parent has had a previously positive relationship with the children and has done all the necessary work in therapy, the children have continued to resist or refuse contact, and the favored parent is unable to unwilling to support the goals of a safe and healthy relationship. While some of these intensive programs purport to have a very high success rate, it is crucial to examine the programs in depth as well as what is meant by “success”. Sometimes the child is able to reconnect with the previously rejected parent very well, only to lose the relationship with the favored parent. Goals and expectations for these intensive programs must be determined and understood in advance.
If the new direction is to re-create and enforce a structured parenting plan with time with each parent, it is essential to determine how this will be enforced. If the new direction is to pause or say goodbye to one’s child for now, there is also work to be done.
In conclusion, Resist and Refuse Dynamics are multi-factored and complex. Family law professionals must understand the family dynamic, make certain safety is a priority, and not become part of a polarizing dynamic. Once the factors underlying the RRD are clear, the roles for the judge, the attorney, the mediator, the parenting coordinator, and the family therapist become more defined. With clear expectations and goals family therapy can help resolve the strained relationship between parent and child. Children are often caught in the middle in these RRD. They can suffer both short term and longer term consequences. It is our job as family law professionals, to approach these cases with care and compassion, always focused on the Best Interests of the Child within their family.
by Shena Kitt, InVEST Program Coordinator and Cynthia Rubenstein, MS, LMHC, CCR Specialist Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Navigating criminal justice, legal and social services systems can be a daunting task for survivors of intimate partner violence. However, certified domestic violence centers, social service providers, and legal, criminal justice, and other allied community partners can assist survivors in finding safety and justice through the implementation of proactive strategies that hold perpetrators accountable for their violence. A coordinated community response, such as the Intimate Partner Violence Services Team (InVEST), emphasizes perpetrator responsibility through enhanced criminal justice response and increased support services available to survivors.
InVEST began in Jacksonville, Florida, as a partnership between the local certified domestic violence center, Hubbard House, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and the City of Jacksonville. Between 2006 and 2009, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Office of the Attorney General identified 11 Florida counties with the highest rates of domestic violence homicide to provide funding for the expansion of InVEST in those communities. Since that time, InVEST partnerships have implemented batterer accountability measures and provided enhanced advocacy for more than 3,000 survivors per year who are identified as a high risk of being murdered by their intimate partner. Since the program’s inception, there have not been any homicides of InVEST participants. This is particularly notable since InVEST participants enter the program based on their experience of evidence-based, high-risk behaviors perpetrated against them by their partner or ex-partner.
Despite programs such as InVEST, domestic violence homicides continue to occur in alarming numbers in Florida. The Annual Uniform Crime Report (UCR) statistics released in May 2018 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reflected a 9.5 percent decrease in domestic violence murders in 2017 from the previous year. However, domestic violence manslaughter deaths increased by 28.6 percent during the same time period. There were a total of 180 domestic violence-related homicides in Florida in 2017.1
It is essential that communities engaged in the work to end domestic violence are familiar with batterer behaviors that have been identified as high-risk indicators for the escalation of violence and lethality. Examples of these indicators include:2
Perpetrator has a prior history of domestic violence
Perpetrator controls all/most of their partner’s daily activities
Perpetrator exhibits extreme and/or violent jealousy toward their partner
Perpetrator attempts to strangle their partner
Perpetrator is stalking, making threats, destroying partner’s property
Perpetrator owns a firearm or has access to weapons
1http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/FSAC/UCR/2017/CIFAnnual17.aspx 2 Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J., Block, C., Campbell, D., Curry, M. A., Laughon, K. (2003). Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results From a Multisite Case-Control Study. American Journal of Public Health, 93(7), 1089 1097.
Perpetrator has sexually assaulted their partner or forced sex in the past
Perpetrator is living in a home with their partner’s children who have a biological parent other than the perpetrator
Survivors are often the most aware of the danger the perpetrator presents to their safety. They experience the threats and violence first hand and understand the perpetrator’s capacity for escalation. Survivors who express that their partner will kill them need to be believed and validated. The fear of ongoing violence and death often contributes to why survivors stay in an abusive relationship.
A perpetrator’s violence does not simply end when the survivor leaves the relationship but is instead likely to escalate. 3 Leaving or preparing to leave the relationship can be the most dangerous time for a survivor of intimate partner violence. A survivor may only leave when she believes the circumstances are safe to do so or because she believes she will be killed if she stays. Additionally, survivors often stay to protect their children since abusive partners are frequently granted joint custody of children in common when the couple separates. When this occurs, children may be at an increased risk of harm since they spend time with the perpetrator without the survivor there to protect them.
Florida’s 42 certified domestic violence centers provide free and confidential services to survivors of domestic violence, including supportive counseling, advocacy, emergency shelter, access to a 24-hour crisis hotline, safety planning, information, and referrals. The Florida Domestic Violence Hotline connects survivors, their friends, family members, and community partners to the certified domestic violence centers in their area. The Florida Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-500-1119 (TDD 1-800-622-4202/ Florida Relay 711). In addition, attorneys are available on the Florida Legal Hotline to answer survivor’s legal questions regarding injunctions for protection, divorce, custody, housing, immigration, and other legal matters at no cost. The Legal Hotline may be reached through prompt three on the statewide hotline. Interpreter services are available for survivors with limited English proficiency on both hotlines.