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Addiction, Divorce, and Child Custody
by Chris Meuse

Addiction is everywhere and nowhere, write Diane Rae Davis and Katherine Wormer (Addiction Treatment). It is everywhere because addiction is among rich and poor, in all regions, all ethnic and social groups, and certainly in divorce and child custody suits. But it is also nowhere, as so many continue to hide these issues from public view, due to shame and stigma.

In this article, we focus on consumptive addiction—the physiological and psychological dependence on substances, such as alcohol or drugs—which millions of Americans misuse. According to a 2018 U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, nearly eight percent of the U.S. population 18 and over have a substance use disorder (19.3 million people), with 14.4 million having an alcohol use disorder. Out of those identified with substance use disorders, about 9.2 million have both a substance abuse disorder and mental illness. These Americans suffer, but they also have families who suffer the often-serious consequences of living with these illnesses.

Severe substance-use disorder, generally called addiction, is a common cause for marital problems and dissolution. Excessive drinking and drug use adversely affect marital satisfaction and stability, especially in couples with differing views on or patterns of substance use. With alcohol use, specifically, there is also a dramatic increase in antisocial behavior and domestic violence. And a parents’ alcohol or drug problems not only predict higher marital conflict, but that higher marital conflict is associated with more ineffective parenting, which in turn is associated with higher child behavior problems.

Being able to identify characteristics of substance use disorder in clients and opposing parties can allow for a swifter response in addressing the family addiction. Substance use disorders have four main categories or identifiers: (1) impaired control: craving or strong urge to use the substance and a desire or failed attempts to cut down or control use; (2) social problems: substance use causes failure to complete tasks at work, school, or home, and social, work, or leisure activities are given up because of use; (3) risky use: substance use in risky settings and continued use despite known problems; and (4) effect/tolerance: need for larger amounts to get the same effect and withdrawal symptoms.

While treatment options have become more available, only a fraction of people with substance use disorders receive the help they need. Many suffering from addiction require early, focused treatment to detoxify and acquire skills to initiate their path to recovery. However, focused treatment is only a short-term solution. For many, long-term recovery requires ongoing work and peer support.

Knowing successful recovery requires long-term maintenance, family law practitioners should approach cases involving addiction with a mindset towards lifetime recovery, instead of punishment. Attorneys should encourage families to build court orders and parenting plans that address the immediate needs of the addict and safety concerns of the family, while looking prospectively at continuing recovery goals and expansions of family roles as recovery progresses.

Jurisdictions around the country have developed specialty courts to address these issues. The first of such was developed in Miami, Florida in the late 1980s. Due to its effectiveness in reducing recidivism and recovery success rate, these specialty courts caught on, with Texas instituting its first in 1993. In Dallas County, the Legacy Family Specialty Court, presided over by Judge Jean Lee, has been established to address, in a non-adversarial way, a parent’s addiction issues. The Court provides a voluntary 18-month program involving an intensive, collaborative effort to support families with their recovery process.

Outside of the specialty courts, practitioners have a myriad of tools to address a litigant’s substance use disorder. In cases involving children, attorneys should try to design parenting plans that maintain parental contact, while protecting the child against any potential negative effects of the addiction. Orders should be tailored to the specific disorder, length of time needed for recovery and include fail-safes to address relapses (e.g., reversion to supervised possession, if a failed drug test occurs). Such plans could include regular drug and alcohol testing and evaluations, utilization of a monitoring device, supervised or limited access to the child, counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous attendance, etc. While a child’s safety and best interests are always paramount, parenting plans should offer identifiable goals for the parent with a substance use disorder to progress toward more normalized contact with their child if the stated recovery goals are met.

Because addiction is a family disease, lawyers should also encourage those affected by the addict to seek recovery help too. Al-Anon Family Groups, Nar-Anon, Alateen or Adult Children of Alcoholics provide group support for those affected by a loved one’s addiction. These programs can and should be considered a part of any plan addressing substance use disorders in family law.

Recovery requires long-term work by the addict. Knowing this, family lawyers should be sure to address not just the immediate needs of the family disease of addiction but the lifelong recovery process.

Chris Meuse is Board Certified in Family Law and a Shareholder at KoonsFuller, P.C. He can be reached at