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What is a Family Consultant in the Collaborative process and why use one?

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Jo O'Sullivan: Welcome to my guest blog with Leia Monsoon of Family Transitions and Sussex Family Solutions who is an experienced family consultant (FC). We I have worked together over many years as part of a successful multi-disciplinary team. Leia Could you explain a bit about your background and how you came to be a family consultant?

Leia: My background is working as a psychotherapist with children and families. I have been doing this for the last 15 years, but 8 years ago I decided to train as a Family Mediator.

Throughout my career I have developed skills in working with trauma, family systems and cognitive therapies. I practice what I call applied therapy, i.e. where clients learn about themselves and then take it out of the room and into their everyday lives.

When I trained as a mediator, I really enjoyed the active energy and progressiveness of the role and could really engage in solution focused approaches and hold a curiosity around the conflict that was sometimes present.

Shorty after my training I met 3 lawyers and mediators in Brighton, who were exploring alternative ways of working with families to help them through divorce and separation. That’s when I heard about the dynamic new role of a Family consultant and it really spoke to me, as it combined all my skills and my areas of interest. I joined Sussex Family Solutions and we set about working together to support families.

I think of the Family Consultant role as a hybrid of the therapeutic aspects of understanding and supporting the psychological and emotional processes people go through when separating, and mediation where there is a need to decide on a way forward.

I work a lot with other professionals and I also really enjoy this aspect as there is so much to learn from other disciplines which can be weaved into beneficial ways of working.

As a family consultant I spend a lot of time helping parents think about the effects their separation may have on their children and planning a way forward for the whole family.

I also spend time with people when they need a little extra support or space to come to terms with what has happened and get back on their feet.

I really enjoy the variety of my role and I can see people in many different settings, such as one on one, as couples, during collaborative or round table meetings, and sometimes I meet the children and occasionally dogs of the families I work with.

Jo: Could you explain in a bit more detail the work you do with clients to get them ready for the collaborative process?

Leia: When people separate, one person usually has taken the step to call an end to things, and even if the relationship hasn't been going well for a long time, the other person can be really scared, worried or sad about the relationship ending.

The person that has made the decision has had time to think about what the future could be, has probably gone through the sad, angry, anxious emotions already and is looking to the future. The person who didn't choose to end the relationship can feel they have had it thrust upon them, and their security stolen, which is frightening.

Working with couples individually around this can be really helpful when preparing for collaborative process. I can support both through the process at the different levels, and get them both to think about timing and pacing which can be an issue in separation. The person who has chosen to leave usually wants to get on with things and is driven to get things moving, whereas the other person can be in a state of shock or subconsciously want to delay as a means of control when everything around them is spiralling.

I also help parents think about their children as separate from themselves in the divorce. Sometimes parents can mistakenly project their own feelings onto that of their children and can get protective around the child's relationship with the other parent. When what children need is to be really free to love both parents, and to feel confident in each parent’s ability to take care of them.

For a parent who spent more time with a child than the other parent, it can be really hard to imagine not being with that child for days and nights in the week. It is a sadness that needs to be expressed and empathised with, but in such a way that they can find their own resilience and move forward with allowing their child to share time with both parents.

What do you think would be most helpful to your clients in terms of working with an FC? Or when have you experienced it to be most helpful?

Jo: Collaborative and mediation work is always easier, cheaper and quicker once the couple have worked with the family consultant. So, for me the involvement of an FC as early as possible is the ideal. For the couple to work with the FC to sort out their emotions and clear the decks so to speak. It helps them prepare for the process and encourages them to move forward positively, whilst fully acknowledging what they’ve been through.

Support throughout the legal process is crucial.  Couples need assistance to get through the collaborative process (or mediation or round table). A family consultant keeps them grounded and safe.  This has traditionally been the role of the family lawyer, but frankly at our hourly rate this is inappropriate – also we don’t have the training or experience to offer this kind of service.  It’s far better value for the clients’ money to go to a family consultant.

Furthermore, once the legal work is done the couple are usually abandoned by the legal process. The lawyer has finished her work, sends the final legal paperwork and that’s it.  This isn’t very realistic. People need ongoing support. They need to be able to turn to the family consultant on an ongoing basis for support.

The family consultant can be used on an ongoing basis as a ‘check in’ about arrangements for the children. What’s working and what is not working?  Rather than resort to the lawyer to write a letter (!) they can simply try things out, experiment with arrangements for the children and come back to the family consultant to see how things went. 

So, my recommendation to clients is to go to a family consultant early, often and keep going even when the legal process is over. 

Less well known is the family consultant’s role in helping the lawyers in the collaborative process. They help us prepare for meetings and help us debrief. Again, what went well and what didn’t go so well? Helping us evaluate the process, means we get better results for our clients.  It also helps the mental health of the lawyers if the case gets tough or seems to be coming off the rails or if we lawyers start to mirror our clients and become positional.  All unhelpful when collaborating.  The legal team needs to look after itself so that it can really help the clients, this family move forward. 

But the truth is that almost all collaborative cases are successful. The Family Consultant can really help maintain this success and add value to the process. 

So, my advice to clients and lawyers who collaborate is to use a family consultant!

Any final words for this blog Leia?

Leia: I do carpentry in my spare time and it’s obviously easier if you have the right tool for the right job, which is how I think in terms of support for people separating too! This is why I like to work in a multi-disciplinary team, it’s better for everyone.

For anyone interested, they can reach me Leia Monsoon on 07867 528085 or find out more at www.familytransitions.co.uk  or www.sussexfamilysolutions.co.uk