Treating Children of Divorce: The Legal Do’s and Don’ts for Pediatricians

Thousands of families experience the stress of divorce each year. While parents who are in the midst of a separation should put aside their differences for their child’s wellbeing, there are those that will misuse their child’s pediatrician to exclude the other parent from-decision making – potentially placing the physician in the middle of the dispute.

Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 5.34.45 PMCommonly, parents and guardians will ask their child’s doctor to send a letter to the other parent or to a lawyer amid complex divorces. Doctors are often uneducated on how to properly help parents in such a conflict, including communication protocols, setting rules about what will be discussed in front of the child, and how to keep records for legal cases.

Last month, Kluger Kaplan’s Lindsay Haber spoke at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Convention during the education session, Children of Divorce: Helping Children and Families Manage the Challenges, leading the discussion about the legal perspective of treating children with divorced parents. This particular issue is multifaceted because there is not a one size fits all solution. Cases deliberated were approached first from a medical perspective and then followed by the legal perspective, as Lindsay educated pediatricians about their role in common problems that arise.

She advised the group to not overstep boundaries and to preserve neutrality by not recommending lawyers to their patients. She also left the pediatricians with practice changes they may consider with future patients including:

* Creating family assessment intake forms to be filled out yearly to learn about changes to custody, living arrangements, or decision making,

* Becoming familiar with divorce education programs, divorce mediation professionals, or support groups in the area,

* Screening children who have experienced divorce for depression and anxiety, and

* Discussing the impact of divorce on all family members during well-child visits.

It’s vital doctors establish with parents and guardians that they are unable to take sides, keep secrets or be a go-between. It just as important that doctors also avoid offering to call and repeat visit details to the parent not in attendance. The child needs equal access to both parents as do the child’s doctors unless circumstances advocate otherwise, and parents need to develop strong co-parenting strategies for the child to be provided with proper medical care.