New Ways Training in Texas
On Thursday and Friday, July 25-26, I gave a full 2-day training in the New Ways for Families method for managing high conflict divorces and custody disputes in Williamson County just outside of Austin, Texas. There were about 80 professionals there – half counselors and half lawyers – as well as one judge. The consensus seems to be that they will start implementing a New Ways program there, with at least 3 judges already ordering cases. As we have learned, most potentially high conflict parents will not volunteer to help themselves, yet they will cooperate when the court orders New Ways for both parents. For those who don’t know about the New Ways for Families method, go to our website: www.NewWays4Families.com. One of the best ways to get an overview of the method is to watch the one-hour video, which you can do for free by clicking on “Watch It Now!” in the lower right-hand side of the Home Page below “Introductory Video.” The focus of the method is teaching four “big skills” which parents can learn to help make decisions with a high-conflict co-parent – and to teach their children, to help them manage throughout the separation and divorce process.
Family courts seem to be discovering what we have been saying for years: that high conflict people in family court may have personality disorders or traits and therefore think differently. They cannot handle the adversarial, criticizing process that is common in family courts. They are trapped in defensive thinking and unable to change or even process logical information in a courtroom. The goals of New Ways for Families includes trying to get these families out of the courtroom and giving them skills to calm down and make their own reasonable decisions. “Skills before decisions” is our motto.
We now have experience in three jurisdictions which shows that these challenging families can be managed – primarily out of court. In the training last week, we discussed domestic violence issues, which are managed in New Ways by never having both parents together in the process. They each have their own separate individual counselor – yet both parents participate. It is so important for victims, as well as perpetrators, to have an opportunity for this short-term counseling to help them become more assertive and to learn about how partners with serious behavior problems don’t change overnight – if ever.
We also discussed the increase in cases of alienation (when a child refuses to see one parent after the separation) and how this is the result of several factors, including a lot of unconscious emotional messages over a long period of time. New Ways for Families includes exercises to involve both parents in re-building the child’s relationship with the “rejected” parent. New Ways is just a beginning in many cases, but we have been having success given how structured and prepared parents are to discuss learning skills with their alienated children.
We also addressed child sexual abuse (CSA) allegations, which are also increasing in family courts today. Most of these are very vague cases and not easy to figure out. In contrast to the common practice today of immediately ordering no contact for 3-4 months, I recommended that in most cases the alleged perpetrator and the child should be observed together right away, so that a professional supervisor can see whether there is fear in the relationship, and how the child and parent interact independent of the other parent’s descriptions. Since a significant percentage of these allegations turn out to have no basis in fact (two-thirds, according to surveys I have received from family lawyers), it is important to observe from the start what is really going on. Based on my experience with true and false reports of CSA, there is no reason that a child cannot safely be around their allegedly-abusive parent when there is a professional supervisor present. Since this is how New Ways is structured during the 3 Parent-Child Sessions, I believe that we have sufficient protections built in to manage most of these cases. However, there will always be few CSA cases where all contact is inappropriate based on compelling evidence, so judges will simply not order those cases to use New Ways.
Overall, the participants had a lot of experience with high conflict family court cases and widely agreed that this skills-building approach is necessary to help calm these high conflict families. The process of attack and defend in family court does little to determine what is really going on, and many of these families simply do not follow court orders anyway. So it is much more productive to engage them in learning and applying conflict resolution skills, so that they can mostly reach agreements about parenting – and follow through on their own agreements.
I was more encouraged than ever that a family systems, cognitive-behavioral skills method like New Ways is what is needed in today’s family courts. Now we will have four jurisdictions trying this approach and I am very optimistic that the Williamson County folks will find that it really is a better fit for potentially high conflict families.
Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the developer of “New Ways for Families,” “New Ways for Mediation” and “New Ways for Work.” Each of these methods is designed for managing high conflict situations with more structure, simple conflict resolution skills that anyone can apply right away, and less stress on professionals, co-workers and family members. His the author of several books, including Managing High Conflict People in Court, The Future of Family Court and Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce. See www.HighConflictInstitute.com.