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He's on the Front Line in Custody Battles

January 21, 2002|PHIL McCOMBS | WASHINGTON POST

Stanton Samenow snapped awake in the middle of the night, sweating and thinking about the case. It was 2 a.m. He turned to his wife. "I'm deep in the case, and I don't understand it at all," he moaned. "I don't know who should have custody. It's like being lost in the woods. I'm supposed to be the expert, and I haven't got a clue."

Dorothy comforted him, as she always has. "Just stick with it, Stanton. It will become clear."

In 1984, a Fairfax County, Va., judge asked Alexandria clinical psychologist Samenow (pronounced SAM-en-ow) to act as an independent evaluator in a custody fight. The parents were at war, the children in torment. The judge needed insight into what was actually going on.

Samenow, a nationally known expert on criminal behavior at the time, dove into the turmoil of that first case --allegations of sex abuse gave it a possibly criminal taint -- and eventually prepared detailed recommendations that worked to the benefit of the kids.

He began taking on similar cases -- the most difficult custody fights, the nightmare stuff of film and fable. Marriage counseling had failed, mediation had failed, even litigation had failed in some instances as the cases dragged on. Judges had thrown up their hands.

Samenow was entering a dark area of human nature, a maelstrom of emotional horror reminiscent of his work with criminals and juvenile delinquents. Divorcing parents often acted the same way -- lying, manipulating and even abusing each other and their offspring as they struggled for the prize--custody.

Invariably, they proclaimed "love" for their kids. Samenow, however, saw that the children were pawns, their lives being ripped apart. They needed help, and his heart went out to them.

"I just want to be a kid, like other kids," a tearful boy told him.

A girl was so upset she was tearing the flesh off her arm.

One child was abducted from Samenow's office by a parent.

Others were so fearful, they scarcely dared to speak. They ranged in age from infants to 16-year-olds.

Court-appointed independent evaluators--psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists--weren't a new tool in U.S. divorce courts, but Samenow made the job something more. He became a psycho-detective. He interviewed parents and children at length, administering psychological tests. He talked with relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, doctors, baby sitters, bosses, even other psychologists who had treated the parents. He made home visits, sometimes hiring helpers who spent weekends observing a family at home over half a year.

His goal was to learn the elusive "truth," sorting out charges and countercharges, in effect psychoanalyzing the parents, getting to know them so well that he could recommend exact details for realistic custody arrangements.

It was exhausting and frustrating work, but Samenow's persistence usually paid off. People could keep up a good front for a time, but eventually revealed their true natures as family events unfolded.

Of course, he wasn't popular--not with the kids, not even with the parent who appeared to "win." It was scary to be scrutinized, and--at $225 an hour--expensive. (Parents had agreed, urged by judges or lawyers, to share the cost.)

Yet in the end, these independent evaluations often led to out-of-court settlements, and were less expensive and more satisfactory than endless wrangling in court before judges who had only limited knowledge of the characters and circumstances of the drama.

"He always impressed me with his competence and integrity," says Richard Jamborsky, retired chief judge of the Fairfax County Circuit Court.

Sometimes parents hire their own psychological experts. "When you start having these hired guns," Jamborsky says, "as a judge it drives you crazy." Sometimes when this happened, it was a relief to have Samenow as "the court's expert."

"I'm promoting responsibility and personal integrity," he says. "I'm asking people to stop and look at what they're doing, what effect it's having on their children. I recognize that, despite the horrible things people do, in some form they do love their children. I'm not into demonizing any parent."

Samenow divides parents into three categories--problem solvers, controllers and the impaired. He explains what happens when one type is divorcing another, and emphasizes the importance of approaching divorce and its aftermath as a problem solver: "I have yet to meet a happy controller. Moreover, during divorce proceedings that controller will inflict additional misery, grinding down his or her spouse emotionally, capitalizing on the slightest sign of weakness. The child is victimized."

On the other hand, "if you succeed in setting aside personal vendettas and approach separation and divorce as a problem to solve, you in fact will be acting in the best interest of your child."

One of the worst things, he writes, is when one side conducts a "parentectomy"--freezing the other out of their children's lives.

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