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ON THE ROAD

Relying on Instinct to Keep Barbarians at Bay

October 20, 1994|LEONARD REED

CAMARILLO — Theresa McConville is discussing that special moment when parents, in the throes of divorce, abuse the kids.

Not hit them, mind you. Not even yell at them.

It's when the parents go barbarian on one another, and the kids get to watch.

"You know," McConville says, "it's when Dad swings by McDonald's to pick up his son on visitation rights--the restaurant having been determined to be a 'safe' place for the battling parents to briefly meet--and he manages to slam Mom's hand in the car door and start to drive away."

She pauses.

"This is not exactly what we want for our kids."

McConville is not a therapist, although on this occasion she is speaking to nearly 70 of them over lunch at Spanish Hills Country Club. Neither is she a divorce mediator, strictly speaking.

McConville's a lawyer. A lawyer with attitude.

"Lawyers?" she asks. "Did you ever call a lawyer? 'Oh, sorry, I can't talk about that--that's confidential. Oh, sorry, I don't have time right now. Oh, sorry sorry.'

"But lawyers have time to talk to the Canon photocopier man when he comes to the office. Did you know that?

"Most lawyers are busy thinking they're God."

The product of God's hourly labor, of course, can be a determination that McDonald's is an appropriate meeting venue for people known to behave like junkyard dogs.

"We need to change that," McConville says. "The issues in divorce and custody cases are often lost in the process, in the battling. And the kids are the ones caught in the middle. That's what we're talking about here, the kids. You can help us do better."

*

McConville approaches her audience with savvy. She knows that many members of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists are in their second careers. Therapy is like that: People often come to it and practice it after they have some real life experience under their belts.

McConville, who has a flourishing Ventura County law practice in contested custody cases, is on her third career--if you don't count the minute she spent trying to become a realtor. She's fourth-generation in this county, the daughter of a cop. Her first job after college was as a deputy for the Ventura County sheriff.

That lasted until an entrepreneurial itch got her and she went into the ambulance business. But that's a trade immersed in liability and lawyers.

So she picked up a law degree, has been in practice for 15 years. She's thea mother of four, she will tell you, although two of her children are stepchildren--the natural children of her second husband. She will also tell you that "kids can benefit from diverse environments as long as those environments are not hammering away at each other."

In lawyering, McConville found that she had "an instinct" for contested custody cases that made her an A-list choice "on the father underground" and obviated the need for a Yellow Pages ad. Most important, though, is her belief that "instinct is important" in all proceedings, legal or otherwise.

*

McConville focuses her argument. She is plain about what happens when a divorcing mom and dad show up at court in Ventura County, a venue in which mediators conduct their work in the presence of opposing lawyers--some of whom are so volatile as to "litigate whether this is (Thursday)."

"I can't tell you how many times I've wasted away in Mediationville," she quips. "But the good news on that is while I sit around court doing nothing, I get to know the kids.

"People always call me and ask: 'Will you fight for me? How often do you win?' And I tell them: 'This is about losing. It's a degree of losing.' And all the while, in the losing, the kids are on a chess board getting pushed around."

She tells the therapists, many of whom conduct assessments as part of mediation, that they can do two things to help. The first is to publish a brochure with their photos, biographies and special strengths for distribution to members of the Ventura County Bar.

"Lawyers need people who have something to give to them," she says. "In the case of kids and family dynamics, that's you. But lawyers don't know that. If it's right in front of them, with your pictures, they will. You might include information on how clients will pay--do you take Visa? Simply state what the client's options are. We need this information if we're going to make things better for everyone, especially the kids."

The second suggestion is that a supervised drop-off center be established so that Dad can deliver the kid and leave before Mom arrives and risks getting assaulted--a place to which any reasonable court might happily make assignment. (By the end of lunch, a knot of therapists is busy on this front.)

These are mere arrangements, however. What McConville is really selling operates at a level deeper than the law and is buried in the substrata of personality itself: instinct. The inherent nature to know what's needed and to do what's right. In crisis, when people sometimes go barbarian, the right instinct may be the first thing to go. While some bystanders can help in this circumstance, others get hurt. Dogs do bite.

"You know, kids don't instinctively screw themselves up," McConville says. "It takes us adults to do that to them."

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