Despite increasing recognition that combat veterans' mental health needs demand a specialized approach to sentencing and adjudication in criminal courts, this lesson has yet to reach family courts. In child custody disputes, evaluators and judges would greatly benefit from a differentiated approach to service-connected “invisible” wounds, which allows them to address the unique contextual factors surrounding each case, rather than applying a one-size-fits all approach to mental illness. Attributes of the proposed framework include: (1) avoidance of stereotypes and biases about military service and mental illness that often confuse custody appraisals and lead to error; (2) an expanded understanding of potential harm to the child posed by secondary trauma that need not be physical; (3) attributes of treatment programs oriented to trauma and tailored to gender differences; and (4) knowledge of comprehensive services available to veterans by virtue of earned entitlements that enable more responsive and effective interventions for all family members.

Key Points for Family Court Community:

  • Qualified veterans with mental health conditions like PTSD are eligible for counseling and treatment services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Increasingly, these programs include the full spectrum of counseling services for children and other family members.
  • Family courts can take advantage of the VA's programs to supplement custody arrangements and parenting plans in the same way civilian criminal courts are using the VA in sentencing arrangements.
  • It benefits all family law practitioners to evaluate themselves for common biases against military families and their children. When unchecked, these biases often lead to incorrect conclusions about negative consequences on such children and the cause of the consequences.
  • It is vital for family law practitioners to understand the consequences of the deployment cycle on all family members and the special considerations that arise when families must adjust to the return of a servicemember-parent who has been injured mentally or both mentally and physically.
  • A recovery perspective is helpful in assessing the parenting skills of combat veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder since most parents with this condition can, and do, recover in a relatively short period of time, if provided with the proper supports, including continued access to their children.
  • In conceptualizing potential harm to children from combat veteran parents with diagnosed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, aside from physical violence, custody courts and evaluators should also consider the possibility of Secondary Traumatic Stress and proven methods to guard against it.
  • In considering treatment for combat veterans within the context of child custody cases, courts, custody evaluators, and attorneys should account for gender differences in treatment programs as well as differences in programs intended specifically for trauma survivors. Generic counseling or counseling targeted at general problems of anger management, substance abuse, or Interpersonal Violence is not likely to address the underlying problems facing traumatized combat veterans.