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What does a Child Specialist do in a Collaborative Divorce?

Guest Post Introduction: Dr. Allison J. Bell, Psy.D. has been in private practice in Westchester County, N.Y. since 1987 and is specialty-trained in child-psychology, neuropsychological evaluation of children and marital therapy. For the past fifteen years, Dr. Bell has performed forensic custody evaluation in both Family and Supreme Courts in the southern New York State region. Dr. Bell serves as both a Divorce Coach and a neutral Child Specialist on Interdisciplinary practice teams and is a member of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council. Dr. Bell wrote the following guest post for us regarding:

By Allison J. Bell, PsyD.

The Collaborative Divorce process is unique amongst methods of obtaining a divorce in that it offers the opportunity for children to express their needs and viewpoints to their parents, through a professional conduit, the Child Specialist.

Who is a Child Specialist, what does that person do, and why is it beneficial to families to have a Child Specialist as part of the Collaborative Divorce Team?

Child Specialists are licensed mental health professionals who are trained in mediation and collaborative divorce practice. They are practitioners who also have training and experience in child development, family systems and divorce counseling.

The Child Specialist is often brought into the process when issues surface regarding the development of a Parenting Plan, and when parents want to know more about how their children are faring during the process. Ideally, when attorneys know that there will be problems to be solved regarding children, the Child Specialist is part of the Team from the outset.

Divorce is a phenomenon that occurs in relationships between adults. Children bear the fallout of divorce, and often find themselves placed squarely in the center of their parents’ disputes. They may be totally blindsided by the announcement of divorce, or may have expected it all along, but either way, they have something to say about it.

The outcome research on the adjustment of children of divorce strongly suggests that children believe they are not heard, seen or considered adequately in their parents’ process. They specifically tell researchers that they suffer from being in the dark, from having too little meaningful information, and from being unable to have a voice about the outcome. It is not that they see themselves as equal decision makers; they don’t. Children simply want parents to acknowledge that the adult decision to divorce has a direct, long-term impact on kids.

The Child Specialist functions as a Neutral member of a Collaborative Divorce Team, consulting to both the parents and the team members. The Child Specialist is the only team member who sees everyone in the family, and therefore has the unique opportunity to shed light on that family’s particular dynamics.

The Child Specialist begins by meeting with both parents in order to learn about the children, from a neutral perspective. The Child Specialist then meets with the children, together and individually, and offers them an opportunity to express their needs and concerns about the divorce. These meetings also help the children learn more about the divorce process and create a safe space for their emotional experience. It helps them to recognize when/if they are being put in the middle, and may offer them tools to be able to extricate themselves from this position.

The Child Specialist provides feedback to the parents in a five-way meeting with the Coach present. This way, the parents and the Coach hear the same information and have an opportunity to ask questions that may be relevant to developing the Parenting Plan. If children are in distress, the Child Specialist may make referrals for treatment or evaluation as needed. The Child Specialist’s perspective can help alleviate conflicts pertaining to the children, and allows the parents to consider post-divorce parenting with the voices of their children center-stage.


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