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Friday, March 11, 2011

Testimony of Stevan Gressitt, M.D. On March 3rd 2005 Gives Disturbing Account Of Issues With The NH Family Court System

I came across Doctor Stevan Gressitt's testimony on the NH Commission On The Status Of Men website at http://www.nh.gov/csm/pas_gressit.html.  This was testimony given in support of a 2005 house bill.  If you read the testimony, you will see that Dr. Gressitt identifies lots of issues with the family court system in NH.  Dr. Gressitt outlines how the current court system encourages parental alienation.  This testimony was given six years ago and today the same problems exist with the NH family courts.  Nothing has changed. 
Testimony of Stevan Gressitt, M.D.

 (HB 529)

Concord, NH
March 3, 2005
My name is Stevan Gressitt, M.D. My relevant background includes serving as a Court Psychiatrist in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for about 6 years in the 5th busiest District Court, Lynn assisting in Civil and Criminal matters. Subsequently I was the psychiatrist to the New Hampshire Department of Corrections Maximum Security Unit for about 6 years, and the former Women’s prison at Goffstown for about 7 years. I have also worked in the general population and the Secure Psychiatric Unit. I later became the Chief of Psychiatry for the State of Maine Department of Corrections. Currently I am the Medical Director of a mental health clinic in Bangor, Maine, which received the Lela Rowland Award from the National Mental Health Association in 2002 for Violence and Substance Abuse Prevention. Our clinic is listed as one of the few national model programs with SAMHSA.  I am also the Acting Secretary of the Maine Benzodiazepine Study Group studying prescription use patterns and abuse patterns in Maine, and nationwide, and internationally. Finally I am a charter member of the Maine Guardian Ad Litem Institute and am a trained as but not registered or practicing as a Guardian ad Litem under Maine statute. I am also a member of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators.

I am here testifying on my own and do not represent the positions of any organizations to which I belong or of which I am a member. This is not a scientific paper, rather some personal observations.

I urge the following:  Pass HB 529, appending a sentiment of the committee regarding a need to likewise review the adherence to the law when passed on a regular basis with public hearings and regular report from the judiciary. In addition the committee could include that any hearing not conducted within these guidelines will be open to a review by the judiciary. There seems little other venue that is practical to address the damage to children already done.  HB 529 will require the Court to no longer pass judgments with no explanation. The children involved are at the very least entitled to that simple explanation. It is their lives that are affected so deeply by the finality of the divorce decree.

I believe that the present Family Court system in New Hampshire is directly causing mental health problems for children and non-custodial parents and is a direct cause of unreasonable and even violent acts by those who are placed in unreasonable situations and has become a major Public Health issue.

A specific concern I bring to you has to do with a situation that has resulted in New Hampshire having the highest rate of Schedule II amphetamine class medication prescribing in the entire United States. This class of medication is prescribed generally for ADHD. I refer you to an excellent map produced by Express Scripts.

What is increasingly apparent is the poor accuracy of diagnosis of ADHD in many cases that result in these prescriptions which when further evaluated show a remarkable association to conflicted divorces. Children left uprooted loose their bearings, become angry and oppositional and frequently are brought or referred to a clinic for “meds.” Not infrequently these children primarily want both parents together again, but initially many wish the parents to quit fighting, disagreeing, or just get along better. I suggest that the current focus on money has resulted in lack of focus on the children in New Hampshire. Ensuring that both parents remain involved in the support of their children emotionally following a divorce is an important social policy

Whether or not there is agreement on recognition of the Parental Alienation Syndrome, the children affected are quite real and are in treatment less often than should be while GAL’s and attorney’s attempt to minimize the reality. The children that are seen in clinics are very real whether GAL’s or attorneys or Magistrates care to believe it. Alienating parents are rarely referred for treatment. The vast majority of the children caught in this stress have been neglected or only minimally addressed by knowingly ineffective measures by courts in all jurisdictions that I am aware of.  Seemingly, once custody has been granted to one party, cooperation and collaboration is not deemed important by the Family Courts as they now operate. On the contrary they seem to foster “custodial over-control.”

The diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder is well known. And one of the prime causes of this is a failure to provide a child consistent and reliable messages with consequences and rewards and stability. This lies at the feet of the GAL system and the Family Courts in New Hampshire in those cases where there is a divorce, and a failure to recognize the significance of both parents.

For a 10 year old to say “My mother and I don’t have to obey any of the court orders because they don’t mean anything.” Is a profound statement by a child who already at age 10 is headed for potential trouble. Within 6 months that child met the criteria for ODD. In that case an utterly predictable development, and unfortunately not a rare case. The GAL in this case simply denied this was the case and the court took no action. This is a negligent approach. The state has a problem developing with no effort being made by the responsible parties to prevent this, ameliorate these developments, or repair them. Concern for the children is hollow, misleading, and not born out by the facts on the ground. The sole concern is money.  The focus must be brought back to engaging parents and if penalizing is to be done to penalize those who interfere with the continuity of a child’ upbringing.

What led to the transformation in that child I just mentioned above? I offer a mosaic of variables.

*Failure to penalize false allegations which led to continued false allegations.

*Failure on the part of a GAL to adequately or even minimally evaluate the family. The same GAL then told the non-custodial parent “It doesn’t matter what you do…go to court or not go to court you will be wrong.”            

*A naïve psychologist who cringed at the innuendo of a child abuse allegation and who crudely queried the child in such a way as to have negatively influenced the child’s perception of the accused parent.

*A Police Department that said that enforcement of visitation was not their jurisdiction, referred the parent to the Sheriff, who in turn would do nothing without a new order as the order issued wasn’t good enough.

*A court that though a contempt was found against the custodial parent failed to assess the legal fees that the legislature has passed as a way to encourage compliance with court orders…and thereby led to further and continued interference with visitation.
*Another variable was the awareness of the non-custodial parent that as the custodial parent would not be held accountable going to court was a waste of time.

The non-custodial parent is in an unreasonable situation and unreasonable acts generally follow from unreasonable situations. This has been known at least since Aristotle and is no new development and needs no newfangled research project to simply delay addressing this. When justice is delayed it is denied, but when it is denied, judicial credibility suffers and has now little to stand on in New Hampshire. The kids know it and say it. If the kids know it, act on it, why are adults acting like there is any credibility left? It appears the Emperor has no clothes. And worse the Judiciary has paid scant attention to the intent of past legislation specifically designed to maintain parental involvement.

The public school that failed to involve non-custodial parents particularly those with joint legal custody as a matter of course again distanced a non-custodial parent and reinforced the lack of need for the non-custodial parent regardless of what the court order said.

As these individual and concatenating processes progress the child has the inevitable message that only money counts, the orders regarding everything else are for naught and that they can grow up with no rules.

And then the schools complain about kids out of control. Police complain about drugs and teenagers, custodial parents who have oppositional children then want a “diagnosis” and medication, and non-custodial parents complain. And the jails and prisons are a growth industry with much hand wringing. And we are criminalizing more poor non-custodial parents unable in the current economy to meet child support payments. These parents are the ones least likely to stay engaged in outpatient mental health services for fear of further entrapment. These parents have no agency acting affirmatively for their inclusion in the state of New Hampshire.

I have just described the perfect system for creating ODD. I have no pill for that scenario however and Ritalin will not work. Nor will other medication.

I have also described the perfect scenario for increased suicides, both in non-custodial fathers and children.
I have also described the standard risk factors for adolescent pregnancy and drug abuse.

I have also described a situation where rights are predictably violated without penalty and will therefore only increase in frequency and brazenness.

I have also described a scenario that can help this legislature decide early on that there will be continued need for more jail and prison beds and plan accordingly; that there will be more need for detoxification centers, please plan accordingly; and that you will not see in the near future any diminution in mental health Medicaid costs to be born by this state, nor will pharmaceutical costs for health care be reduced any time in the near future. Perhaps the Family Court system budget could help with paying for these costs that they are in many ways creating.

This situation should be recognized not as a series of individual cases. Claiming that each case is different no longer holds water in the light of statewide statistics. There is no more validity to that than in arguing that each case of segregation was an individual matter of whether or not you could ride the bus. This situation rather is a systemic failure of the Judiciary to follow the intent of the law as passed. Not just the letter, but the intent. And as a corollary, any recommendation to encourage a non-custodial parent to approach the court is ill informed, misleading, bad advice, or an effort to provoke the situation further till credibility can be regained. For the judiciary to expect citizens to obey their orders when they themselves are not following the laws from the legislature is absurd and has led to social resentment as this hearing demonstrates.

In order for the Judiciary to understand the depth of the intent, when fines for contempt are to be non-discretionary in their imposition, and they are not levied, then the citizens ought to have recourse to come to the legislature for recompense. With some seriousness, I recommend that these fees be subtracted from the budget of the judiciary.

As only child support is serious enough in these cases to rise to criminal sanctions, Divorce Seminars are useless to those who by intent have no interest in complying. Arguments that they at least offer training or exposure to good ideas is the same argument used for Project DARE which has been shown not to work. These have become a drain on public resources and scarce taxpayer dollars. The training material for the Divorce seminar states that interfering with visitation or anger at the other parent is “harmful” to children. I agree, but the courts which order these very seminars clearly don’t believe this. And DCYS simply refers parents back to the court. These are absurd and unrealistic contradictions. Willful abuse of court process, interference with visitation, failure to affirmatively engage the non-custodial parent should result in immediate intervention. 

The goal of the court ostensibly is the maintenance of both parents unless deemed unfit by a hearing. This is the only way the child will see that both parents must obey the law and both are important. That has been the legislative intent in New Hampshire as I read the law, but there has not been judicial acceptance of that intent. Divorce is between two parents and there is a separate judicial process known as Termination of Parental Rights. Informal termination of parental rights is the current state of affairs and is something that is difficult for a clinician in the community. Frequently children choose to protect the psychologically weakest of the divorcing couple, and fantasize that they can fix things. It is this parentifying effect that is stealing their childhood and placing them in situations for which they are ill prepared.

There has been at times deliberate judicial waffling, asking for further clarification from the legislature or some other lame excuse. The correctional world has something to teach the Family court, as “corrections” are best undertaken at the time and immediately rather than as now occurs with delay, further delay, waffling, and equivocation. The children suffer with a lack of ability to see any semblance of stability in the locum parentis magistrate or judge who they don’t even see, meet, or talk to. And kids see that there is no accountability for child support even when paid regularly.

When the argument is raised that some parents will never see eye to eye or that one parent is so angry that no one can deal with them, and then if they are the custodial parent they should not be. That level of anger has led to too many children being separated from one parent or the other. And hence the issue here today is not one of parents complaining about what the courts do, but a social concern that the legislature has been disregarded by the Judiciary.

The issues I have raised, the damage that is being dealt these children is for the legislature to discuss with the judiciary. Passing more laws when those on the books are disregarded apparently is not going to work unless as with HB 529 there is an obligation placed specifically on the court to explain itself up front. It is time to place responsibility where it lies and that is squarely on a judiciary that is not trained as mental health professionals are, as school teachers are who have to deal with this disaster, or prison guards who see the disbelief in so many incoming inmates that anyone would have the temerity to hold the miscreant responsible.

New Hampshire has not seen a decrease in incarceration rates save from fiddling with sentencing, and is creating a number of new criminals, the Deadbeat Dads, and the I Don’t Have To Obey the Court Kids. Irregardless of the fact that debtor’s prison has been declared unconstitutional; this has reared its ugly head yet again in New Hampshire and across the US and will be to the shame at some point of those who engineered this. I for one do not think this is a conspiracy. Most conspiracies don’t work this awfully well.

I thank the Committee for it’s time and will leave now and head back toward work as I expect a number of new referrals next week that I will see and you will not. These will be the children of parents and a judiciary who are creating ODD. Please think of the unreasonable situation a parent finds themselves in facing a court that pays as little attention to them as it has to your legislation already passed. And please offer me some hope that efforts to limit the unreasonableness will take effect rapidly so there will not be the suicides in men that has become a major health problem in NH, and which seems to have an uncanny relationship to unreasonable court orders.  I do not believe it is the purpose, intent or desire of the Legislature to create mental illness or disturbance. Nonetheless this is occurring through mostly failure of the judiciary, the police, the schools and other social agencies to follow the intent.

I cannot create a treatment plan with all parties agreeing when in the next week with no input the court makes some decision about visitation or therapy that is totally disconnected to any input and contrary to best clinical practice. Arguments that the Judge has better information are ludicrous when at times it is known they have less information. The children continue to suffer and we are leaving a dreadful legacy behind us. Why should these oppositional children care about us in our older years when we become dependant on Medicare unless we do better by them now?

Thank you for your time.

Stevan Gressitt, M.D.

314 Clark Road
Unity, Maine, 04988

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