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Interview: Allison Bell on Custody Mediation

April 11th, 2007 by Dr. Bromberg

In this post, I’m presenting Part I of a two-part interview with Dr. Allison J. Bell. Dr. Bell is a child psychologist, marital therapist, Divorce Coach, Child Specialist in Collaborative Divorce, mediator and negotiator. She has over a decade of experience working as a forensic custody evaluator, and has recently begun working as a custody mediator with divorcing parents. In addition, Dr. Bell is a trained dance therapist, who has developed a series of workshops and seminars on movement and physical presence for corporate clients, public speakers, and others. In today’s post, I’m discussing her work with divorcing families. In Part II, I will present our discussion on the movement work.

Dr. Bell’s contact information is provided at the bottom of this post.


Dr. Bromberg: I’m interested to hear about the custody mediation project that you recently launched. What is it you offer?

Dr. Bell: I’m offering a way for divorcing parents to retain control over their decision-making regarding their children, rather than presenting those concerns to court, where someone else will take over the decision-making.

My ideas about custody mediation are coming from the collaborative divorce model, particularly the interdisciplinary model, and from having been in the role of a forensic custody evaluator.

In the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Divorce model, each parent has a coach, and there may be a neutral Child Specialist that’s called in to explore with the parents what their questions and concerns are regarding parenting plans, access, scheduling, and other issues. The Child Specialist also addresses concerns involving children’s particular needs, including how one or the other parent is going to meet those needs. Generally, the Child Specialist brings the voice of the children into the negotiation process. The role of a Child Specialist, in part, is to keep aspects of the negotiation process child-centered.

When I interview kids as a forensic custody evaluator, I am limited in terms of what I can convey back to parents. I’m a data gatherer in that role, rather than an interventionist. And I’ve certainly seen that, even in litigated divorces, when parents get on the same page regarding their concerns about their kids, it really feels like that whole piece should be taken out of the court realm. It has no business being there. Figuring out what is going to work well for the kids is much more of a family issue than it is a legal issue, and so families should be talking with someone who has expertise in family systems and psychological well-being, a strong working knowledge of child development, and who also has mediation and negotiation training and expertise.

Dr. Bromberg: If the parents are in agreement that they can solve this problem outside of the court system, even if they’re in the midst of a litigated divorce, then they’re free to do so?

Dr. Bell: Absolutely. Even in the most amicable divorces, there may be questions that come up for the parents about the impact of the divorce on their kids, and they really need someone to talk to about it – not necessarily a therapist. The work isn’t about an in-depth exploration of the family dynamics, though family dynamics that have preceded the divorce certainly come into play in thinking about post-divorce life. The focus is different, the emphasis is different. The emphasis is much more about moving forward, problem-solving, and helping these parents who are in the throes of dissolving a life that they made together to remain united in their parenting roles and decision making.

Dr. Bromberg: Is this short-term or time-limited work, or can it potentially go on through early stages of adjustment to post-divorce life?

Dr. Bell: Both. I think that, again, it’s not therapy, and doesn’t necessarily involve weekly meetings. It is solution-focused and divorce-focused, and yes, beyond the signing of the divorce agreement, it is certainly possible that a family may come back around particular sticking points that come up. This often happens. People devise what are now called parenting plans, and the research shows that, within the first 18 months after the divorce has been finalized, people come back to court because there are glitches in the parenting plan. Why? Because life changes. Something comes up that somebody didn’t foresee. Well, instead of going to court and involving lawyers, why not go back to the mediator and say, “Here’s this problem that we ran into,” or, “Here’s this particular issue. How do we rethink this?”

Dr. Bromberg: It sounds like there’s an ongoing consultation role.

Dr. Bell: There can be, or not, depending on the needs of a particular family.

Dr. Bromberg: What is the child’s place in all this? When there’s a custody mediator working with both parents, how is the child’s voice incorporated?

Dr. Bell: I think a central part of the role is incorporating the child’s voice. Not only do I want to meet with the parents, but if it’s possible for me to meet with the kids, I want to be able to do that. I want the kids to know that I’m talking to their parents, and their parents are talking to me, and that everybody is thinking about what’s going to work for the whole family. The child should know that someone is asking, “What works for you? What works in terms of how you feel about things? We’re thinking about your safety, your comfort, and your particular concerns.” So I see the role as one that really utilizes that Child Specialist expertise.

Dr. Bromberg: Tell me a little more about the interdisciplinary, collaborative divorce teams.

Dr. Bell: Collaborative Divorce practice groups can consist of members of the legal, psychological and financial disciplines. When a case comes in to a Collaborative attorney, that attorney, and his/her colleague, can offer the names of coaches to the parties, and the names of neutral financial consultants that the parties may choose. The work of divorce negotiation is then conducted in 4-way meetings with lawyers, 2-way and 4-way meetings with coaches; a Child Specialist may be called in, who also acts as a neutral and meets with both parents together. The financial person meets with both parties together, and the team has releases to be able to communicate about the process, and potential glitches in the process, so that the negotiations move along as smoothly as possible.

When there are children involved, and if the Child Specialist is called in, parents will meet jointly with the Child Specialist, which preserves the neutrality of the Child Specialist. The Child Specialist is one neutral party, and the Financial Specialist is the other neutral party. Both parents will meet together with the neutral specialists, so that information is being given to both people at the same time, in the same room.

Often times the Child Specialist meets with the parents and also meets with kids. It’s very important to clarify that that this is not a therapist role. Often people are in therapy, and that’s great. But this is about helping people, very specifically, to navigate the rough waters of the divorce process. The Child Specialist meets with kids to find out what they think of the divorce, and to discern what works for them. The approach is focused on answering questions like, “How is this going for you? Is there something different you’d like to see happening? What are you worried about here?” The Child Specialist explains that his/her job is to bring that list of concerns back to the parents and figure out how they can help make the divorce process easier for the child.

Dr. Bromberg: I imagine that, sometimes, children are not sure how to articulate what they’re feeling, or are afraid in some way to voice what they want.

Dr. Bell: My impression, thus far, is that children are not afraid to voice what they want. They are incredibly eager to have a voice. They may not be able to fully articulate what they want or what they need, but they are able to articulate their feelings about what’s going on, and can work with the Child Specialist to develop some ideas about what might be better, or what needs revision. My experience has been that they’re so hungry to be able to tell somebody that they have some idea about this, too. That overrides any fear.

Dr. Bromberg: How old are the kids that you work with, at the youngest end of the spectrum?

Dr. Bell: I can think of a case where I’ve been a coach, and a Child Specialist was called in, and the youngest kid was five.

Dr. Bromberg: That’s young.

Dr. Bell: Yes. This was a very articulate girl, who was having some issues with her dad, and was feeling frightened. Not because he was a terrible person or was doing anything terrible, per say. She simply was not used to being alone in his care, and there were a couple of things that happened that didn’t feel right to her. And they scared her, and she was very happy to be able to tell somebody. “I don’t like that. I don’t want that to happen that way.” And that, then, was able to be talked about with the coaches, and raised in coaching sessions, both with the dad, and then between the mom and dad, so that they could come up with ways of thinking about this problem for this girl.

Dr. Bromberg: So you’ve worked in a team like this, in the capacity of coach for one of the parents, and also as a Child Specialist. How does custody mediation work differ? How did that grow out of the team oriented approach that you were involved in?

Dr. Bell: Rather than working with a team, the custody mediation work takes the same principles, and makes it a stand-alone role. The work doesn’t have to be something that happens in the context of a collaborative divorce team. The same model can really be used in the mediation forum.

Dr. Bromberg: You’re still in a neutral role.

Dr. Bell: Right.

Dr. Bromberg: You said earlier that your custody mediation work grew out of the interdisciplinary collaborative divorce team work, but also out of your role as a forensic custody evaluator. What does that work entail, and how does it inform your practice as a custody mediator?

Dr. Bell: As a forensic evaluator, you are an ally of the court. You are the neutral appointee of the court, and your job is to provide factual data to the Trier of fact, who is the Judge. So, your clinical skills, your clinical acumen and intuition are vitally important, but the kinds of questions that you ask, and the information you want to gather are different. The role is much more about using your investigative skills in a systematic way. There is a focus on trying to be rigorous and scientific in maintaining a level of neutrality and consistency across cases.

You’re being asked to get to know a family and the dynamics of a marriage in a very short amount of time. You’re being asked to offer an opinion about the impact of parents’ behaviors on children, such as a parent’s extramarital affair, a parent’s temper, or a parent’s use of alcohol. You’re being asked about relocation issues: What the impact is on the family if Parent A moves to Australia, or to California, or ten miles away. You’re being asked about the impact of domestic violence. And you’re being asked all of these kinds of things, not just in terms of your clinical impressions of people, but in terms of the current state of the research on any of those issues. For example: Overnight visitation for three year olds. You can’t just give a clinically based opinion about that, you have to know what the research literature says, and you have to be able to use that as a basis for your viewpoint.

Dr. Bromberg: Does a forensic custody evaluation involve neuropsychological testing of multiple family members?

Dr. Bell: No.

Dr. Bromberg: Of any family members?

Dr. Bell: This is highly debatable. My practice has always been to do a battery of psychological tests with both parents. That position is an arguable position. There are people who do this work who feel that that’s really important. Then there are people who do this work who feel that psychological testing has no place in it at all, because there are no statistically valid, normed psychological tests out there that test for parental fitness or parenting capacity.

Dr. Bromberg: And, ultimately, in the role of forensic evaluator, you have to make that determination and offer it as an opinion to the court.

Dr. Bell: You’re offering an opinion about that, that’s right. Now, at this point, in 2007, there are even questions about whether the evaluator ought to be offering any kind of recommendation to the court. So that, perhaps, the limits of what the evaluator should be doing is presenting the information, pros and cons, and then leaving it there.

Dr. Bromberg: Are there people questioning the validity of the data presented, or are they questioning a psychologist’s ability to use that data to make empirically based, valid recommendations?

Dr. Bell: The latter.

Dr. Bromberg: But the ability to present data with a scientific foundation is not in jeopardy?

Dr. Bell: That part doesn’t seem to be in as much jeopardy, no. My own objection to the position that’s being promoted is that it takes all of the ‘art’ out of the work. It is reductionist kind of thinking, to me. Scientific evidence is very nice, but it isn’t the sum total of everything. What is so readily dismissed is the clinical feel, the eye and experience and intuitive gut of a clinician who has a backlog of experience with families and with people. That’s always my struggle with people who want things to become formulated and manualized. The nuance gets lost. I have been thought of by some professionals as being ‘too intuitive’. I personally think intuition is a critical aspect of understanding and working with people, and is something to be cultivated, not shut down. But there are some people out there who consider intuition to be sloppy, random. Clinical intuition is not quantifiable in the scientific sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid.

Dr. Bromberg: That reminds me of a story I recently heard about Pablo Picasso. A woman came to Picasso and asked him for a drawing. He did something very elegant and simple with a single line. I don’t remember what it is he drew, but he did it very quickly. And then he charged the person a thousand dollars. She said, “A thousand dollars! Why should I pay you a thousand dollars for that? It took you all of two seconds!” And Picasso replied, “Madam, it took me a lifetime.” The idea that intuition may look sloppy and tossed off to some people, but it’s the product of years of training.

Dr. Bell: It’s built on something. It’s the product of years of work. My own experience and training is such that I’ve been a custody evaluator for more than ten years; I also have training in collaborative law, and mediation training from the Center For Mediation In Law in NYC. I completed the Program for Senior Executives at The Harvard Program on Negotiation last fall, and have been reading pretty much anything on negotiation that I can get my hands on. Along with my clinician skill set as a child psychologist, this provides me with the foundation necessary to feel that I am on solid footing in this arena. It is essential to know something about New York State Law, to know something about family law, and to know something about divorce law in the state. Otherwise you could be saying something that is ultimately going to be harmful.

Dr. Bromberg: It seems like very difficult work, but also very meaningful work, regardless of whether you are functioning as an evaluator, a member or a collaborative team, or as a custody mediator.

Dr. Bell: Divorcing couples are trying to make rational decisions that have durability, but are also life-altering, at a point in time when strong emotions could potentially interfere with good judgment. So it’s a complicated time to be making thoughtful choices and decisions. In part, that’s why the process needs to take time. Because it is process, it’s not product. It’s not about getting from point A to B. If you read Pauline Tesler’s book on collaborative law, she writes about achieving “a deeper peace.” It is about the notion of helping families not just get to where they can sign a document, but get through enough of that emotional nitty-gritty that, by the time they sign the document, they’ve reached agreements that they really feel that they can live with. And live reasonably well by, so that there continues to be a sense of family, and that fabric has not been completely torn apart. It’s been reconfigured, restructured. It morphs into something different from what it was, but it isn’t negated, it isn’t annihilated, it isn’t obliterated, which is typically the outcome of litigated divorce.


Dr. Bell’s contact infomation is:

Allison J. Bell, PsyD.
190 Goldens Bridge Road
Katonah, New York 10536
Office:  (914) 232-1211
Fax:      (914) 232-3479