Ursula Kodjoe: From the ”Practice of Cochem” to the ”Consensus Model”

Ursula Kodjoe
Dipl. Psychologin Familientherapeutin Mediatorin
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Postanschrift: Burgstr. 4 79312 Emmendingen Tel: 07641-954577
Praxis: Gartenweg 5 79194 Gundelfingen

From the ”Practice of Cochem” to the
”Consensus Model”

 

Background

The so-called ”Cochem model” ist the practice of a judge in the small town of Cochem who decided to no longer practice a family law that means endless suffering for parents and children. After a couple of years, most of its elements since the reforms of 8/2008 and 9/2009 have entered into legislation – on paper and in paragraphs.
It may take another generation though to get that change of paradigm into the heads and put into practice all over the country.

The above-mentioned judge, the presenter herself as representative oft the psychosocial profession and a lawyer performed for ten years a german wide interdisciplinary formation marathon with judges, lawyers, psychologists, counselors, evaluators and social workers. The group provided these professionals with the basic knowledge of family dynamics and the situation of children in the middle of divorce and separation. Other issues were the legal situation, conflict analysis and resolution and the formation in mediation, and non-violent communication skills.

After this formation, interdisciplinary working groups in every court district were established, meeting once a month to deepen their knowledge and keep exchanging ideas and experiences.
To do appropriate networking, it takes respect for the other professions competence – and knowledge of the way and on what grounds, what knowledge and convictions they work – prejudices included.

 

Changed rules

The rules have changed: the ”winner” used to be the parent who best succeeded in denigrating the other parent with the support of his lawyer – a negative competition between adversarial parents. The losers were the children.

Now the winner and best parent is the one who respects and promotes the children’s relationship with the other parent, a positive competition between cooperative parents. The winners are the children.

There were a lot of traditional points of view to be addressed and overcome. Germans are socialized and are still educated in a rather authoritarian belief system, and in inflexible hierarchical institutional systems. Putting social workers, judges, psychologists and lawyers on the same level and then the parents too – wherever they come from – is strangely new to people. It hurts their proper sense of prestige, the higher they think they are, the more.

A judge has always been an intimidating figure for a social worker and now we expect them to mutually respect each other and make use of their different knowledge – that is kind of tough…. Certain judges love their power to take decisions and some do not want to let that go. Certain other professionals do not want to be ”upgraded” that way.

Networking is another unusual way of dealing with each other. It takes confidence in your own way of working, not fearing someone else to have a closer look and discuss it with you. It takes the knowledge of proper feedback instead of destructive criticism. A social worker calling a judge on the phone – how strange. A judge from Germany calling a French judge – even stranger. Roundtable conferences out of the courtroom with just the evaluator, the parents, and the lawyers – good Lord!
There are safe paragraphs and good old rules regulating that type of professional contact so far.

 

Important parts of the Consensus Model

Let me give you the most important parts of the FGG-Reform, called the Consensus Model. The paramount task for all professions is to work towards a consensus between the parents in the best interest of their children.

The common aims all the professionals have to pursue are:

1. All children have the right to undisturbed access to both parents and to an ongoing relationship with the parent living outside the family and his extended family.
2. The parents have to get all the support they need to (re)establish responsible, autonomous parenthood so they can take the proper decisions on behalf of their children together. They are obliged to participate in whatever intervention that is necessary.

Another important factor is the acceleration of the legal proceeding: ”early intervention is the best prevention” of detrimental developments like alienation or loss of contact and family relations.
A win-win solution for the whole family, especially for the children needs to be worked out on an interdisciplinary basis in cooperation with all the parties involved.

 

Change of roles

Everyone has to put the children’s best interest in the middle.

The lawyers:

The lawyers have to give their clients all the pieces of information about the children’s situation, needs, and interests. They will advise them about the uselessness to file for sole custody since that is not in the best interest of the child and the judge will not grant it anyway.

The lawyer writes no disgraceful long letters to the court denigrating the other parent’s personality (no dirty washing wanted) but a short, reasonably explained application. Those are the lawyer´s paramount tasks concerning custody and visitation.

In the hearing the lawyer lets the parent speak. The lawyer can tell the parents with great accuracy what is going to happen in the courtroom, he can reassure them that no one is going to lose the child.

 

The judges:

Whenever a parent’s file for custody or visitation reaches the family court (there is ONE court for all family, children’s and juvenile’s affairs)
the judge sets the date for the hearing in no longer than 4 weeks.

No lawyers´ application for change of date is accepted ( to avoid the usual delay tactics).

In the hearing the judge makes it a point that the parents have to get to an agreement and that he/she is not going to allow the children to suffer any longer from the parents dispute (a parental conflict going on for years is considered violence against children) and that he/she is going to protect the children´s and each parent’s right to ongoing relationships.
The judge explains that parents have the obligation to enter a dialogue and talk to each other in a non-violent way – because they owe this to their children.
The judge makes sure he/she won’t accept broken relationships between a parent and his/her child. Parents need to cooperate or learn to cooperate.

”You can’t put your children here on my table and ask me to make decisions about their future life.” (Judge Rudolph from Cochem)

 

The social workers:

After the incoming of the file, the judge immediately informs (by short ways, email or FAX) the child care institution who then sets a date to see the parents and children in their home and get an idea of the actual situation of the family.

The professionals within the child care institution inform the parents about the children’s needs and discuss possible solutions. In the hearing, they show up well informed and report their impressions and findings.

 

The parents:

In the hearing the parents describe their problems, everyone can explain their point of view- they get the time they need – they speak for themselves and not the lawyers!
Parents, judge, social workers and lawyers seek to find a solution together, negotiating the problems during that hearing (open end, may take up to 3 hours time).
Over 50% get to a mutual agreement then and there – four weeks after the file had reached the court.

 

 

The counselors:

The others, non-agreeing parents are obliged to go for consultation or mediation, the judge makes the first appointment with the counseling institution from the courtroom. Counseling and mediation are confidential, the results are communicated to the judge,

Before ending the hearing, the judge fixes the next hearing in 3 month time (the sword of Damocles) There the parents have to report what they actively contributed to ameliorate the situation during that time.
The counselors get the court order (pointing out the major subjects to deal with, like communication skills, a parenting plan etc.) and have to report:

1. the taking place of the first session,

2. immediately when one of the parents drops out of counseling and who does. In that case, there is another hearing in 2 weeks time or, send the mutual agreement to the court that has been worked out together. That may be the end of the court proceedings.

 

 

The evaluators:

If still they can’t agree or it is a high conflict case, an evaluator is appointed who has two tasks to complete:

1) an evaluation of the family situation, as usual, not pointing out his or her ”solution”, no recommendation.
2) negotiating their problems with the family, trying out various possible interventions with the family during which the case stays pending in court. For instance trying out the alternate residence model for a 2-3 month or waiting for the result of a clinical therapeutic treatment of a parent etc. In case there is an agreement, the evaluator sends it to the court, if not, there will be a written report and a hearing to follow.

 
High conflict Cases
There are about 5 to 10% of high conflict cases where no consent or reconciliation approach whatsoever works. Those are parents who never learned in their biography to respect or even listen to another person’s point of view, to realize another person’s positive intentions, or to negotiate problems in a fair manner, people who need to fight their entire way through life, people with personality disorders, ongoing violence, unwillingness to do something about alcohol and drug abuse etc.
In those cases, the involved professionals agree at some point that this family needs a clear cut court decision. Oftentimes, the children have to be removed from poisonous homes here.

 
Child abuse cases

In cases where active or passive child abuse is happening, the protection of the child has absolute priority.
The abuse situation is carefully evaluated over the necessary period of time. The experts cooperate with the other professions in decision making for either suspended visitation or supervised visitation.
In the meantime, the abusive parent undergoes treatment such as therapy, anti-aggression training or whatever intervention seems appropriate to change the abusive behavior.
That parent has to proof the participation at the court-ordered treatment.
Non-abusive parents who live with their children in a violent family situation and thus expose their children to violence over a long period of time are supposed to undergo treatment as well.

 

Effect on the professionals

Networking and interprofessional cooperation have a relieving effect on lawyers, judges and the sociopsychological professionals. Sharing the tremendous responsibility reduces stress and enhances the satisfaction with the work that ends in a consensus between the parents and protects the children from further harm.

Ursula Kodjoe