Attorney Articles | Avoiding the Good Mom Bad Dad Trap

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Avoiding the Good Mom Bad Dad Trap

A therapist who treats a child in the midst of a custody battle needs to be aware of his or her proper role in the process.

By Bonnie R. Benitez, Attorney
Previously employed with CAMFT

The Therapist
(July/August 2001)
(Updated December 2006)
Revised October 2017 by Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW (CAMFT Attorney)

In a disciplinary action by the California Board of Psychology, a psychologist was required to surrender his license after the State of California issued an Accusation against him for engaging in repeated acts of negligence. According to the case, the psychologist offered a psychological assessment of the father of his patient without meeting or evaluating him. The Board determined that disciplinary action was warranted in the matter because the psychologist made recommendations modifying a court-ordered child custody arrangement, but failed to conduct a balanced assessment that was consistent with accepted standards for conducting such an evaluation.

Unfortunately, CAMFT receives many calls from therapists who have already done or would like to do something similar to the situation for which this psychologist was disciplined. Many therapists find themselves treating children in the midst of the parents' custody battle. Unfortunately, parents will often try to use the child's therapist to get what they want-the child-or to get back at the other parent. In most cases, the therapist's refusal to have little or nothing to do with the parents' litigation best serves the therapist and the child.

The "Good Mom, Bad Dad" story
While not true in all cases, some therapists seem to get caught up in what can be referred to as "the good mom, bad dad trap," or in some cases the "good dad, bad mom trap." The underlying scenario is usually the same: mom brings child to therapist for treatment in the midst of a separation or divorce. A therapist begins treating child with mom's consent, and sometimes even dad's consent. For one reason or another, however, the therapist's communication with mom far exceeds the therapist's communication with dad. As a result, the therapist is much more familiar with mom's side of the story underlying the divorce, and the subsequent custody battle. Thus, she becomes seen as the "good mom" and dad as the "bad dad." Then, at some point, "good mom" or her attorney asks the therapist to write a letter, submit a report or sign a declaration for the court regarding the child and both of the parents. Naturally, the therapist has little or nothing good to say about "bad dad," and lots to say about "good mom" and what a good parent she is.

Not having thought of the fact that the job of "good mom's" attorney is to make "good mom" look great and "bad dad" look like a monster, the therapist, wanting to advocate for the child's best interest, signs the declaration. "Good mom's" attorney then uses the declaration in court to further the case of "good mom." As a matter of course, "bad dad" and "bad dad's" attorney receive copies of the declaration and subsequently contact the therapist about its content. "Bad dad's" attorney calls the therapist on the telephone and proceeds to be hostile and intimidating. The attorney threatens to sue her and take her license away by submitting a complaint to the BBS. Now alarmed, the therapist calls CAMFT for help.

A Therapist's Proper Role
A therapist who treats a child in the midst of a custody battle needs to be aware of his or her proper role in the process. Generally, this role should be limited to the clinical treatment of the child, evenhandedly providing updates to the parents regarding the progress of treatment, communicating as needed with the child's attorney (if one has been appointed by the court), and perhaps providing information to the court- appointed custody evaluator, with proper authorization, as requested to do so.1

It is important to understand that a treating therapist is not required to write letters, submit reports, or sign declarations for parents' attorneys. Furthermore, as a general rule, it is not a good idea for a therapist to offer his or her opinion to the court, unless the court has requested the therapist's input, and the parties have agreed to the arrangement. A therapist should always limit his or her opinion to issues which fall within his or her scope of competence and scope of practice and avoid making recommendations on legal issues, such as those that would ordinarily be made by a custody evaluator.

As a general rule, a treating therapist should avoid communicating with the parents' attorneys. This is to be distinguished, however, from permissible communication with "minor's counsel," an attorney appointed by the court to represent the minor.3

>These self-imposed limitations on the therapist's role are designed to protect the therapist not only from falling into the "good mom, bad dad trap," but also to limit the therapist's exposure to liability.

Some parents work hard to manipulate therapists into seeing the family's story through that parent's eyes. There are various reasons for each divorce, usually accompanied by hurt feelings, anger, and resentment. The perspective of each parent in the midst of a divorce is skewed by such feelings. With regard to child custody, it seems logical that if each parent feels so strongly about the other parent to no longer want to live with him or her, those same feelings would be projected onto the child. Therapists should remain aware of the mental and emotional viewpoint of the parents with which they are dealing, and not get drawn into the psyche behind the "good mom, bad dad" outlook. Obtaining both clinical and legal consultation can assist therapists with maintaining clinical objectivity, firm boundaries, and professional distance.

Ethical Guidelines
Ethical standards, such as the CAMFT Code of Ethics, provide guidance to therapists who are faced with complex and challenging treatment scenarios. ..

Some or all of the following sections of the Code of Ethics may be applicable to situations involving the treatment of one or more members of a family during a divorce and custody battle.

Section 1.9: FAMILY UNIT/CONFLICTS: When treating a family unit(s), marriage and family therapists carefully consider the potential conflict that may arise between the family unit(s) and each individual. Marriage and family therapists clarify, at the commencement of treatment, which person or persons are clients and the nature of the relationship(s) the therapist will have with each person involved in the treatment.

Section 3.12: RESEARCH FINDINGS: Marriage and family therapists take reasonable steps to prevent the distortion or misuse of their clinical and research findings.

Section 3.13: PUBLIC STATEMENTS: Marriage and family therapists, because of their ability to influence and alter the lives of others, exercise care when making public their professional recommendations and opinions through testimony or other public statements.

Section 8.1: TESTIMONY: Marriage and family therapists who give testimony in legal proceedings testify truthfully and avoid making misleading statements.

Section 8.3: CONFLICTING ROLES: Whenever possible, marriage and family therapists avoid performing conflicting roles in legal proceedings and disclose any potential conflicts. At the outset of the service to be provided and, as changes occur, marriage and family therapists clarify role expectations and the extent of confidentiality to prospective clients, to the courts, or to others as appropriate.

Section 8.5: IMPARTIALITY: Marriage and family therapists, regardless of their role in a legal proceeding, remain impartial and do not compromise their professional judgment or integrity.

Section 8.7: OPINIONS ABOUT PERSONS NOT EVALUATED: Marriage and family therapists shall only express professional opinions about clients they have treated or examined. Marriage and family therapists, when expressing professional opinions, specify the limits of the information upon which their professional opinions are based. Such professional opinions include, but are not limited to, mental or emotional conditions or parenting abilities.

Confidentiality & Privilege Issues
A minor's treatment is confidential and privileged.4 And while parents are generally entitled to access the records or other confidential information regarding their children, there are some exceptions that therapists may employ as needed.5 In addition, there are some hidden confidentiality issues associated with the treatment of a minor. For example, many therapists will identify as the patient only the minor. However, the therapist may have seen one or both parents in session, with or without the minor, one or even several times. Does this mean that the parent(s) is also entitled to confidentiality or psychotherapist-patient privilege? It depends. Is it likely that one or both parents have an expectation of confidentiality or privilege? Did the therapist make it clear to the parents, preferably in writing, that they are not the identified patient and therefore not entitled to confidentiality or privilege? Did the treatment of the child originate in family therapy, or couple's counseling? If so, there may be a confidentiality issue with regard to not only the child, but other family members as well. As a result, the therapist would not be permitted to release confidential information about the child without also obtaining authorization for release of confidential information from each of the parents regarding their own confidential relationship with the therapist.6 Please be aware of these considerations whenever you are contemplating the release of a minor's confidential information to anyone, even one of the parents. Call CAMFT for consultation whenever you receive a request to release a minor's confidential information.

The best way for a therapist to avoid the "good mom, bad dad trap" is to stay focused on the clinical needs of the child, and remain neutral, to the greatest extent possible, with regard to his or her interactions with the child's parents.7 Also, it may be helpful to seek clinical and legal consultation before releasing any confidential information. Finally, explain to the parents, at the start of therapy, your policy of not taking sides in custody disputes of parents.


1 See, Griffin, Michael, JD, LCSW, "Working With Clients Who Are Involved With the Legal System: Common Legal & Ethical Issues, The Therapist, July/Aug 2015. , see also, California Family Code Sections 3150(a) and 3151(c)
2 Id, See also Mr. Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW, “Sometimes It’s What You Don’t Say,” The Therapist, March/April 2013 (This article provides additional detail and explanation concerning legal and ethical issues associated with writing letters.)
3 See California Family Code Section 3151(c)(5)
4 See California Business and Professions Code Section 4982(m); see also California Civil Code Section 56.10(a);see also CAMFT Code of Ethics Sections 2.1 and 8.6
5 See California Health and Safety Code Section 123100; see also California Health and Safety Code Section 123115(a)(1)-(2).
6 See California Civil Code Section 56.11
7 See CAMFT Code of Ethics Section 8.5