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Obituaries

Albert Solnit, 82; Yale Child Psychiatrist, Advocate

July 02, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Albert J. Solnit, a Yale child psychiatrist whose classic writings with the late Anna Freud focused custody disputes on the primary needs of the child, died June 21 in a car accident in Bethlehem, Conn. He was 82.

Solnit, along with Freud and Joseph Goldstein, a Yale law professor, wrote an influential series of books on family psychology and law.

The first was "Beyond the Best Interests of the Child," published in 1973. It was followed by "Before the Best Interests of the Child," in 1979, and "In the Best Interests of the Child," in 1986.

The books have shaped family law in many states and have been cited in more than 1,000 appeals cases involving custody issues.

Solnit's work with Freud and Goldstein put forth the idea that the state should not interfere in families except when evidence of neglect or abuse is presented, or if divorcing parents are unable to make their own decisions about who should care for a child.

Once a child protection agency or court has intervened, however, Solnit and his co-authors stressed that it should consider the "least detrimental" placement that would promote the child's development.

The idea of giving priority to the child's interests was controversial when Solnit and his colleagues first began to discuss it. Family courts tended to give greater weight to the needs of the parents or adults involved in the case.

"Those books set the standard and provided guiding principles for decision-making in child-placement issues," said Barbara Nordhaus, a social worker and psychoanalyst at the Yale Child Study Center, who called Solnit "a quintessential child advocate."

Nordhaus said that in many hotly contested custody cases the child's needs still are not treated as paramount, but that Solnit's ideas remain "a frame of reference. You can agree or disagree, but everyone says these are the things we think about."

During the controversy two years ago over Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban shipwreck survivor, Solnit was unwavering in his focus on determining what was best for the child.

He compared the protracted tug of war between Elian's father in Cuba and his anti-Castro Miami relatives with a contentious divorce.

"We see this all the time in divorcing parents who use the child as a way to keep fighting," Solnit told the online magazine Salon in 2000. "The parents stay tied to one another through aggression--and the child is just a medium to do this, gets treated like chattel."

He favored reuniting Elian with his father, noting:

"Look, I wouldn't like to live in Cuba. But for a young child, the parent is the country."

Solnit was one of three children of Eastern European immigrants who met in St. Louis. The family moved to Sierra Madre shortly after Solnit was born.

He attended Pasadena schools, then spent a year at UCLA before transferring to UC Berkeley. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1940, his master's in 1942 and his medical degree in 1943--all from Berkeley.

He initially wanted to be a pediatrician, but developed an interest in psychiatry after World War II, when he served in the Air Force.

"There were many people in the Air Force suffering from battle fatigue and having psychological and psychiatric problems," said his sister, June Solnit Sale, a child advocate in Los Angeles.

He attended a military school of neuropsychiatry, then was posted to Germany, where he was assigned to treat the families of servicemen.

Solnit joined the Yale Child Study Center in 1952, and was its director from 1966 to 1983. He became a full professor in 1964 and retired in 1990.

He also served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services for nine years, ending in 2000. During his tenure, he oversaw the deinstitutionalization of thousands of psychiatric patients and fostered a mental-health system that was oriented more toward the family and the community.

For 20 years, he was managing editor of "The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child," an annual compilation of leading papers in the field of child psychoanalysis.

In addition to his sister, Solnit is survived by his wife, Martha; a daughter, Ruth of Seattle; sons David of Berkeley, Ben of New Haven, and Aaron of Bath, N.H.; and seven grandchildren.

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