Intake is a place of discovery, magic and imagination. When it is done well it is a dazzling jewel that lights up the way towards a bright and hopeful future.
The Intake Session is an opportunity to set up the Settlement Conference that follows for maximum success. By connecting well, Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) can progress with confidence about how the process will occur, what the goals are, what factors each will want to have taken into account, and why they are important. The participants will be more relaxed in the process, they will know what to expect, and will be better prepared and empowered to participate fully. The Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (FDRP) will be free to focus on all the micro skills that are likely to lead to a better process and better outcome.
The Intake is where the FDRP will meet each client separately. They will connect as human beings, in the same space at the same time, united in a common interaction. To encourage fruitful discussion, the FDRP must provide an environment where the client “is primed” [i] and feels comfortable to share their inner world. This requires a safe space, free of judgment or prejudice, where respect, patience and empathy dominate.
The Intake requires an opportunity for the client to tell their story in their own words. They need to feel heard and understood, acknowledged and appreciated, for what they present. Perceptive or deep listening [ii] is required, to the words used, the body language, emotional presentation, and tone. The listener must be mindful of what is communicated as well as what is left unsaid, or hinted at but not stated.
The appropriate strategies here are designed to clarify the narrative presented, unpack the underlying needs, interests, concerns and fears, acknowledge, reframe and summarise, to demonstrate an understanding on the part of the listener. [iii]The goal for the FDRP is to establish an effective partnership or collaboration, as foundation for what will follow. [iv]
Goal and Issues
The next task is to extract the overall goal for the client-what is their “future perfect” [v], or where they hope to see themselves when the process has been completed, the agreements reached, and arrangements implemented. This sets their aims for the future, the light at the end of the tunnel, and a clear picture of where they hope to get to. It sets the scene or framework, that can then more easily be “reframed” to encourage and facilitate a different or alternate narrative.[vi]
The FDRP must then work with the client to break this down into the stages that need to be achieved in order to reach this goal. These are best seen as small steps that will facilitate a future focus, a sense of hope and confidence for moving forward towards this goal. It is more realistic to aim for incremental progress towards goals that is well within reach. This allows for a sense of achievement and develops momentum with positive progress.
The questions that might be helpful at this time might include:
- Where do you see yourself in say 12 months?
- What would this look like for you?
- What would need to happen for you to be at this place?
- What would be first small step that you could take to move towards this place?
By this stage, the FDRP should have been able to establish a very good sense of where the client wants to get to, why this is important to them, and a general indication of how they would propose to get there. The beginnings of an effective working relationship should be emerging, and trust should be developing.
The aim for the assessment phase of the Intake,[vii] is for the FDRP to become confident that the issues sought to be discussed are appropriate, and that FDR is the right process at this time.
If the issues involve decisions that arise from the separation, then it is likely that they are appropriate for FDR. In some cases, these issues are more to do with the relationship rather than the separation, and do not fall within the tasks appropriate for FDR. Referrals for therapeutic or other supports may be necessary, as well as clarity around the role of the FDRP.
Determining whether FDR is the best process at the time, involves assessment as to capacity[viii] and in particular the ability to negotiate freely.[ix] The factors mandated for consideration in the legislation are:
- Any history of family violence[x]
- Safety of the parties[xi]
- Equality of bargaining power[xii]
- Any risk to a child[xiii]
- The emotional, psychological, and physical health of the parties[xiv]
- Any other factor[xv]
Some FDRPs use a screening tool to assist with this, and others use a checklist to ensure that they cover off on the crucial aspects of capacity. Some guide is important, as research has shown that it is very easy to gain an incorrect understanding of this aspect. [xvi] Without some aid, FDRPs are reliant on what the client’s initiate, and client’s have been shown to generally under-report or minimize or even omit these matters from their narrative. Perhaps they are against self-interest and not something they will spontaneously raise, or involve trauma and are not easy to talk about.
Some of the questions that might commence the discussion of various aspects of capacity might include:
- How did you make decisions during your relationship and since separation?
- What would happen if there was a disagreement about any important decision?
- Did you feel controlled in any way by the other party?
- Have you got any concerns for your safety either in the process, before or after the process?
- Do you feel able to say anything that is important to you in FDR?
- What could you suggest that would make it easier for you to engage in this process?
- How would I know if you were struggling with the process?
- What would you like to have happen if you begin to struggle with the process?
- Can you suggest some triggers that might impact on you in the joint session?
- What supports have you currently got in place?
- Who do you rely on when things get difficult?
- What actions/supports are making it hard for you to achieve your goals?
- What do you fear most about taking action to achieve your goals?
- What are the needs underlying your fears?
- Looking at your fears, what are the hidden competing commitments preventing you from getting your needs met?
- What assumptions are you making and how can you mitigate the risk?
- What obstacles do you see making the FDR process more difficult?
The most obvious red flags are family violence, substance abuse or mental health issues. However a significant imbalance in power, or overwhelming emotion can also have a debilitating impact on the ability to participate in FDR. The FDRP needs to appreciate first if any of these factors are relevant to the client, secondly, to what extent they are impacted by them in the FDR process, thirdly what supports might be available that would assist them to engage appropriately in FDR, and lastly what format of FDR would best suit the needs of this client and this family.
The FDRP has to be sure that the form of FDR they propose is suited to the needs of the parties, with regard to venue, layout and time. [xvii] If not, they must determine that FDR is not suited to the needs of the family, and terminate the process at this time. [xviii]
Some parties lack the capacity to participate in FDR as they are “high conflict” and display personality traits or perhaps a personality disorder that means they are not suited to this process. [xix]
A suggested approach to embark upon the required assessment in these circumstances could be:
- What would your world look like if you achieved everything you wanted regarding the issues you wish to discuss?
- What would need to happen for this to take place? How would this happen in practice?
- Would your partner be likely to agree to this image of what the world might look like?
- Are there some aspects that are more important to you? If you achieved agreement on these, would you be willing to let go others that might not be as important to you?
- Can you describe anything positive about the other person? Is there any benefit to the children in spending time with them?
- How do you think the children, or your former partner are feeling right now? Or would feel if what you have described took place?
- Is your former partner likely to agree to what you have proposed? What are they likely to suggest as the best outcome?
- What might you have done something differently in hindsight? Could you have contributed to the current situation in any way? Might there be a different explanation?
The answers to these questions may indicate personality traits that would lead to an assessment that there may be no capacity to effectively participate in FDR.
The traits that would indicate this include:
- Lack of self awareness or the ability to self-reflect, which means that they focus on blaming others or the system
- Inability to read the responses of others and how this might impact on them achieving their goals
- Stuck in a position of the victim and are unable to see beyond this
- No flexibility of thinking and are rigid and uncompromising
Considerable research has been done recently on the identification of the traits of these high conflict clients and how to work with them. They are not suited to FDR as generally practiced, but some extremely experienced and qualified practitioners have developed modified processes to enable families where there is such a member, to be more likely to reach some outcomes.[xx]
There can be an underlying assumption that the cause of conflict is a problem that will disappear when a solution is reached to the dispute. However this is sometimes not the case, as the conflict relates fundamentally not to a specific problem, but to the nature of the relationship between those involved.
This can be seen in some ongoing parenting disputes. Imagine a family where both parents dislike each other intensely, disapprove of the other’s parenting style, do not trust the other at all, and cannot and will not communicate. The behavior of the other parent, even though consistent with an agreement, will be seen through this lens, and will be the cause for ongoing complaint and conflict.
This is perhaps an extreme example, and families can exist along a continuum with this extreme at one end. But in these cases, it takes intense therapy and considerable effort to change that parent’s orientation and develop a different world view. The approach to conflict management has to take this into account and to reflect this. There has to be identification of these features, expectations have to managed on both sides, and the process has to be modified accordingly.[xxi]
An important aspect of the role of FDRP is as educator.
There are obligations as FDRPs and advisors under the legislation to provide information regarding reconciliation, family violence, parental responsibility, the legislative pathways, and parenting plans. [xxii]
FDRPs also have to be mindful of the need to facilitate an understanding of family violence, and the separation process on the ability to participate in FDR, and the separation process, exposure to conflict, attachment theory, and the relevance of the different ages and stages of development of children and their relevance in the decision-making process.
These are complicated notions and not easy to convey to clients in a simple and straightforward manner. The timing of giving this information is important so that it does not lead to feelings of alignment with one parent or lack of impartiality or even-handedness.
The Intake provides a perfect opportunity to convey this information in a manner, language and at a pace to suit the individual needs of each participant. Questions and additional supports can be provided, as well as allowing time pending the FDR Conference to process this information and incorporate important aspects into current thinking.
Another important aspect of the role of the FDRP in Intake is to prepare the client for what is to follow in the FDR Process.
Providing information about the process is a legislative requirement, and this is important so that the client has an idea of what to expect, and can manage their expectations even when they are nervous and anxious about being together with the other party.
A frank discussion needs to take place regarding comfort levels in being in the same space or building as the other party to the dispute, putting forward their ideas of what is important to them and why, responding to comments from the other side, and formulating ideas and proposals. Any concerns about how to do this, or what could make this more difficult should be explored and action plans put in place to empower direct and more confident involvement.
Practicing, rehearsing and coaching are all important tools for the FDRP to prepare a client to manage in FDR.
Assisting with the formulation of ideas, options or proposals can be crucial in empowering them to be able to put forward their needs with confidence. By asking them what they would say about various topics or issues, requires them to put their thoughts together in a coherent manner. They may struggle with this, but the time between Intake and the next session allows them to process this, consider over time what they can live with, and prepare some thoughts and ideas in advance rather than being put on the spot in the FDR process.
One example might be a discussion where the parents are trying to agree upon the best arrangements for the amount of time that the children spend with each parent. You may be working with a parent in Intake who is convinced that equal shared care and week about is the best arrangement.
In preparing for the next stage, as FDRP you want to prepare the client to have a conversation about this. You could ask questions around:
- What aspects of the current circumstances are holding you back?
- What blockers are making your life harder?
- What aspects of your own actions
- What of the behavior of others
- What about others who may be impacting on those close at hand
The answers to these questions should assist with identifying aspects of the current circumstances that are problematic, and developing actions and tasks that may assist in a practical sense to get around these, and move beyond them to that future perfect place where they hope to get to.
In our example you are told that the other parent is trying to restrict their role as parent, that their refusal to agree to this arrangement is unreasonable.
You unpack the practical arrangements that would be required to have such an arrangement and this reveals that there are some circumstances making this arrangement more difficult including:
- They work full time, and although there is some flexibility, probably not enough for complete care for a whole week;
- They live some distance from the school and to manage the school pick up and work start, the family would have to get up very early and the children would have to go to Before School Care;
- The children’s extra-curricular activities are some distance away and there would be a struggle to collect the children from school and get them to these activities;
- Their house would not accommodate the children easily for extended periods of time;
The aspects of their own actions that may impact may include:
- They have promised to assist one of the children by coaching their cricket team, which would make it difficult to manage the others on those nights during the week;
- One of the main motivations is to pay less child support, but this would mean that the other parent would increase their working hours particularly in the week when the children are not with them, meaning that they would not be available as backup when needs be including when attending cricket training
- The co-parenting relationship with the other parent has only recently been improving and communication is just starting to be more civil, it is likely that by imposing such a radical change, this may undermine this progress and take the family back to a more negative and conflictual place.
Aspects of the behaviour of others that may be relevant:
- The other parent has said that they would be willing to discuss a shared care arrangement at the end of their current course at the end of 2020 when they hope to get a better job with good flexibility
- The children have struggled to cope with previous changes to the parenting arrangements and are only just settled since the last alteration at the beginning of the year
One very helpful tool for shifting focus and allowing for opening up ideas and suggestions is “Child focus”. [xxiii] It can often be extremely difficult for parties to put themselves in the shoes of the other party and consider an outcome that may be mutually acceptable. However by focusing on the children, it is often much easier to look at an outcome that would benefit the children, even if it benefits both parents.
Other strategies include separating the problem from the person, coaching and using reality testing to explore the practical realities of a suggested option for settlement. These are tool that can prepare a client for what might be to come and encouraging confidence and empowerment to participate meaningfully in the process.
An important questions can be “What actions or supports would make it easier to move towards your goal?” or “would make it easier for you to participate in the process?” This can lead to a discussion about the types of referrals that would be appropriate to ensure that they can participate to the best of their ability in FDR. Appropriate referrals might include:
- Professional supports
- Mentor/life coach
- Protective measures
- Respite to focus on your own needs
- Support groups
- Referrals to websites for info and resources
- Financial counseling or advice
- Legal advice
- Expert input
It is always preferable to make a referral to someone you have personal knowledge about and can be confident will be able to achieve the desired result that you propose. A warm referral is always preferable, and allows for feedback that will be most useful to the FDR process.
The Intake is an extremely important part of the FDR process.
It allows for the development of a constructive collaboration between client and FDRP that provides a firm foundation for the progress of the FDR process.
It also facilitates team-work, where together, the goals and issues can be clarified to enable anticipation of the substantive matters to be discussed in the FDR process. The factual, psychological, emotional and intellectual aspects of the circumstances can be explored and understood.
This enables areas requiring further preparation to be identified, and steps promoted that will empower the client to deal with these more effectively in FDR.
The FDR process can be clarified and an action plan developed to meet the individual needs of the client and empower them to manage all aspects of the process, both in preparation prior to and during the FDR process.
The FDRP gains an holistic understanding of the family that will enable them to carry out their obligations including assessment, safety planning, and appropriate referrals, as accurately and thoroughly as possible. The FDRP can determine what strategies will be of benefit to the client including coaching, child focus, child inclusive practice, or reality testing, and begin the development of these interventions in Intake with a view to further enhancing the interactions in the FDR process. They will be in a good position to consider a hypothesis regarding the family dynamics and narratives, that will be most likely to promote the best outcomes overall.
and the work of John Jantsch in Duct Tape Marketing
regarding the importance of stories, and the work of Nadja Alexander
and the work of Bernard Mayer particularly in “Staying with Conflict” Chapter 4
[v] See the executive summary of “The Solutions Focus” by Jackson and McKergow at http://learningreflections.org/ExecSummaries-The-Solutions-Focus.pdf for a good description of this notion
[vii] Regulation 25(1)
[viii] This notion of capacity to participate in FDR is different to the legal notion of capacity, see http://cflsolutions.com.au/capacity-good-decision-making/
[ix] Regulation 25(2)
[x] Reg 29 (2)(a)
[xi] Reg 29 (2)(b)
[xii] Reg 29 (2)©
[xiii] Reg 29 (2)(d)
[xiv] Reg 29 (2)(e)
[xv] Reg 29 (2)(f)
What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: The importance of family violence screening tools for family law practitioners
[xvii] Reg 29 (9)
[xviii] Reg 29
[xix] See the work of Bill Eddy including
and the work of Bill Eddy such as
[xxi] See the work of Bernie Mayer particularly in his book “Staying with conflict”
[xxii] s63DA of the Family Law Act
for an example of how child focus can allow for a shift in narrative and the possibility of an alternate explanation