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February 18, 2016

Advocating for Children in the Collaborative Process

In advance of the 9th Annual Collaborative Law Course presented by the State Bar of Texas, we spoke to Carie P. Mack, an Allen-based collaboratively-trained family lawyer and co-presenter of the session titled “Advocating for Children in the Collaborative Process,” to learn more about the information she’ll be sharing with other Texas collaborative professionals.

What are the different ways mental health professionals might be used in a collaborative case?

There are three roles that a mental health professional can take on to help bring a collaborative case to settlement, and they’re all specific and distinct.

The first is the neutral MHP, who is sometimes thought of as the divorce coach. This is a team member responsible for helping the divorcing couple communicate effectively, develop the parenting plan, and doing other work to help them reach a settlement.

The second is the child specialist, who is part of the collaborative team, but representing the children. The child specialist communicates with the children and relays their feelings and opinions back to the rest of the team. The neutral MHP cannot double as the child specialist, for that will jeopardize her ability to work as a neutral with each parent.

The third is the child therapist, who is not part of the collaborative team, but can confer with the neutral MHP and child specialist to help them understand what the children think and feel. A child therapist might be involved in helping the child prior to the divorce, and therapy might continue beyond the divorce.

What cases could benefit from a child specialist?

Really, any case involving children who are old enough to express opinions about the divorce. Some might think that child specialists are only needed for high-conflict cases or cases involving “problem children,” or are a luxury exclusively for high-net-worth cases, but the truth is that child specialists can be extremely helpful when they’re involved in cases from the start. Unfortunately, some collaborative teams only use child specialists when they’re in “Hail Mary” mode to try to resolve conflicts that come up during the case.

Your course description says that professionals will be “amazed” by all the different options collaborative teams have to help resolve difficult negotiations. What do you mean by that?

The Texas Family Code provides lawyers with many tools to advocate for children in family law cases, such as appointing an amicus attorney, appointing an attorney or guardian ad litem, and preparing a custody evaluation. These options are typically used only in litigation cases but could also be included in a collaborative law case. Our presentation will address these statutory tools and highlight the benefits of including a neutral MHP and child specialist, which are professional roles unique to collaborative law cases.

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