My Child Needs Therapy…

A very common question in divorces and paternity cases is, when can one parent commence therapy for their child?  The answer to this question is not just an issue for the family court, but also a question of ethics and liability for the therapist as well as a question of good judgment on the part of the parents.

The Family Court.  If parents have joint legal custody, either party is free to make decisions for their child (without the consent of the other parent), unless the custody orders specifically require consent, notice or conferring about a particular topic, such as the commencement of therapy for the child.  So, the key here is to look to the language in the existing custody orders.  Even if the custody order is vague or does not require the other parent’s consent, both parents are allowed to access their child’s medical records.  This means that the parent who was not involved in the decision to commence therapy is likely to discover therapy is taking place and can obtain the child’s medical records about the therapy.   There are really no secrets when it comes to parents, children and joint custody.

The Therapist.  Clearly, if the court orders require parental consent for therapy, this is what the therapist is going to demand.  If the court order is silent about the need for consent, many therapists will still refuse treatment when the parents share joint legal custody.  The therapist may have many reasons for refusing treatment, ranging from personal liability to the importance of the child’s best interest.  Treating a child without the involvement of both parents, regardless of what the court document states, exposes the therapist to liability.  Also, lack of involvement by the non-requesting parent may make the therapy less effective because often the child is experiencing issues not just about one parent, but both parents.  The therapist, in essence, becomes a very important gatekeeper for efforts to ensure success for the child who engages in therapy.

Good Judgment.  Even if a parent legally can commence therapy without the involvement of the other joint custodial parent and can find a therapist who will treat the child, treatment is probably not a good idea.  This is because, for therapy to be most successful, both parents should be involved.  A parent may of course choose not to be involved. Much different is when a parent who would have participated in therapy is excluded and his or her involvement would be beneficial.   Also, if the parent excluded from the decision to commence therapy later discovers therapy is taking place, he or she may contact the therapist and demand therapy cease.   Most therapists faced with this situation will terminate the therapy until a court order is obtained to require resumption.  The terminating of therapy places the child squarely in the middle of the parents’ dispute and may be detrimental to the child’s progress.  While is seems easy to blame the parent who terminated therapy for placing the child in the middle, the reality is that the parent who commenced therapy without the involvement of the other parent placed the child at risk for this situation.

Lesson Learned.  Because commencing therapy is a quagmire involving the courts, the therapist, the parents and the child, it is best to consult with a family law attorney about the right way to begin therapy for a child under joint legal custody orders.  If consent cannot be obtained from the other parent, seeking a court order to commence therapy is the best course of action.  Obtaining a court order will ensure the therapist’s willingness to begin and continue the benefit of treating the child.  The most important lesson to learn is that beginning therapy is a serious ongoing commitment that is most likely to be successful if undertaken with consistency.