A psychologist's exploration and assessment of a child's attachment to a caregiver can be extremely useful for Family Court Judges in making determinations in dependency, delinquency, and child custody matters. Unfortunately, this is an overlooked topic for many evaluators, even though the research is clear regarding the benefits of a secure attachment for a child and the risks for children when attachments are insecure, anxious, or disorganized.
Many researchers specify two elements of a secure attachment: 1) the notion of the safe haven and 2) the secure base. The safe haven emphasizes the importance of consistency, reliability, and responsiveness in the caregiver while the secure base refers to the foundation for a child's exploration, curiosity, and autonomy.
When caregivers are experienced as safe, reliable, and nurturing, children are able to generalize these experiences to other relationships and situations and there are better outcomes for children academically, socially, physically, and with regard to emotional regulation--children are able to move through the world with more confidence, interpersonal ease, and hope.
In my work as a psychologist specializing in forensic concerns, I often see children who lack this safe haven and secure base from which to exhibit autonomy. There can be a multitude of reasons influencing this, including families in extreme poverty, exposure to violence, abuse, parents who are overwhelmed, parents possessing significant mental health concerns and/or substance abuse issues, and placement are common examples.
Winnicott, the great psychoanalyst and theorist, talked of caregivers who respond to the spontaneous utterances or displays of an infant, as compared to an infant who must respond to the caregiver in order to receive attention. There is an enormous gulf between these positions, these dialectics, and these positions exemplify the essence of attachment. In the former, the child's spontaneous explorations are acknowledged and celebrated, while in the latter, the child must direct herself and respond instead of simply "being," to borrow the Polish filmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's expression in the film, Red.
If we invent an example of a child raised by an extremely depressed father, one can imagine how the child must struggle to be acknowledged and seen. The child must direct herself toward her father and respond to his needs. Most days, he stays asleep yet rages easily when drinking throughout the evenings. At a young age, the child learns to cook and clean for her father. She has learned that there is no use in crying or showing despair. Moreoever, she learns to be invisible, unless she is assisting him when he is suicidal and threatening. Any emotions experienced by her are submerged as they are not able to be shared, understood, or tolerated; any autonomy is truncated, as there is no figure to reassure and encourage.
In Jude Cassidy's substantial work in the attachment field, she discusses how transformations can occur for parents who are unable to be safe havens and secure bases for their children. A crucial element is an affective understanding and realization of one's emotional neglect of the child. This is a complex finding which is beyond the scope of this paper to unpack. However, this finding speaks to the limits of approaches like cognitive behavioral theapy in understanding and remedying complex dynamics such as attachment (CBT can be uselful in identifying distorted representations of the other, however). One must articulate and affirm the psychological defenses that arose from a developmental position of responding instead of being. Finally, articulating these dynamics is an example of how evaluators can be helpful to Judges in using attachment theory to potentially remedy confusing, complex, and problematic family issues.