The Texas Family Code allows the court to conduct an “interview of child in chambers.” The point of this statute section is “to determine the child’s wishes.” The Texas Legislature has made a policy choice for the child’s voice to be heard in cases where the child’s future is being determined. The legislature’s choice gives the judge great flexibility to learn what he or she wants to know from the child and to have the child’s views or desires heard in order to make a decision.
Anything learned from an interview of the child in chambers can support the judge’s decision regarding the child’s best interest. The fact that the judge may consider the child’s wishes in such a fashion does not require the judge to follow the child’s wishes, nor does it in any other way diminish the judge’s discretion to determine the best interest of the child.
Many mental health experts maintain that there are psychological considerations surrounding an in-chambers conference with a child. The experience may have a significant and long-term effect, which often last into the child’s adult life. Several experts believe there is a paradigm shift toward empowering children by allowing them to more actively participate in deciding their future. There are risks for manipulation and alienation, but nevertheless there may be a benefit towards including children in the process and legitimizing their views.
Research suggests there may be positive impacts of the in-chambers conference. In Judith Wallerstein’s book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she states “…children feel distress over visitation schedules that keep them from having input as to how they spend their free time…. Involving the child in the process of developing an access schedule and parenting plan may give the child a sense of empowerment over his or her life. Although involving the children in this way will not give them more control over their schedules on a day-to-day basis, it may make adherence to the schedule more palatable, since it gives them input in the decision-making process.”
While there is a positive impact of empowering children, in her article entitled, The Child’s Voice,
Justice Debra H. Lehrmann cautions that parents, attorneys and judges should not “take psycho- logical research indicating that children should be involved in the process of reorganizing the family to mean that children should be brought into the lawsuit without forethought. Attention must remain focused on reliable data that indicates that children must not become embroiled in their parent’s conflict.”
The most notable psychological consideration in an in-chambers conference is the risk of alienation. Alienation occurs when parents, advertently or inadvertently, speak negatively about the other parent and, as a result, the child favors one parent over another.
Past alienation can have an impact on what the child will say. When a child has consistently lived in an environment where one parent has negatively portrayed the other parent, then the child is likely going to adopt those unfavorable opinions. A knowledgeable and skilled professional can detect signs of alienation, such as using terms and vocabulary to describe a parent that are beyond the child’s knowledge base, having extensive knowledge of the litigation process, or even having an unjustifiable hatred or dislike for the other parent. If alienation has occurred, then the child’s statements to the judge are likely biased and will not accurately reflect the child’s preferences.
There is also a risk for manipulation of the child by one parent associated with in-chambers interviews. Jonathan Gould, Ph.D, ABPP explains: “A corollary is a parent who manipulates a child to express a preference to live with him or her when that parent may not have presented the child with all the available and necessary information to make a responsible decisions. There are two alternative concerns that may come from a parent’s manipulation through providing limited and biased information that the child uses as the basis for his or her decisions. One outcome is that the child learns later in life that s/he has been manipulated toward that parent. The second outcome is that the child feels a sense of guilt and remorse over rejecting the other parent based upon biased or incomplete in- formation provided by the custodial parent. A third outcome is that the child learns not to trust the previously trusted parent and reaches out to the other parent to and that the other parent is unwilling or unable to repair the damage done by the earlier decision.”
It is extremely important that the courthouse environment be conducive to making a child feel as welcome as possible in what is typically a stressful and intimidating process. Creating a welcoming environment in the courthouse can include:
• Bringing the child directly into the chambers instead of through the courtroom—typically judge’s chambers are less intimidating than a courtroom.
• Introducing the judge to the child and asking general, nonthreatening questions before the substantive portion of the interview.
• Ensure the child that he/she will be welcome and that no harm will come to him/her as a result of the testimony.
• A neutral third party or both parties should be involved in bringing the child to the courthouse as that may reduce outside influence on the child.
Many practical and psychological considerations must be considered before requesting that the Court interview a child in chambers. Parents should be mindful of the potential life-long implications of an in-chambers interview on the relation- ships between all parties and the children.1
1Many thanks to Sally L. Pretorius whose article “Kids Say the Darndest Things – An Academic and Demonstrative Look at the in Chambers Conference” was liberally reprinted herein.