Forensic, General & Medical
Expert Witnesses

Attachment Bonding And Reciprocal Connectedness

By David E. Arredondo M.D.
Forensic Psychiatrist: Child, Adult and Family, Consultant, Public Speaker, Expert
Reciprocal Connectedness and the Limitations of Attachment Theory in the Family and Dependency Courts.

Juvenile and family court judges are daily asked to determine child custody and visitation issues. These are among the most difficult decisions that judges face. Numerous factors must be considered: parental competence to rear children, family dynamics, possibly the wishes of the child, and the overriding concern, “the best interest of the child.”

It is no wonder that many judges turn to mental health experts — psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and social workers — for guidance in making these decisions. The law permits mental health experts to give opinions on many aspects of a case involving child custody and visitation issues, including the mental status of family members, what living and visitation arrangements would be in the best interest of the child, and whether a parent-child relationship should be preserved or terminated.

Several mental health concepts have crept into the legal vocabulary. An informal survey of judges in California revealed that many judges rely on mental health experts to give opinions on whether a parent or other caretaker is “bonded” or “attached” to the child and, conversely, whether the child is “bonded” or “attached” to the parent/caretaker. Some courts regularly order bonding studies, and attorneys on occasion ask for them to help give the court guidance on what the future relationship between a child and a parent/caretaker should be.

Bonding studies are also used to assist courts in deciding issues regarding (1) permanency planning; (2) foster care; (3) a parent’s capacity to form a nurturing relationship; (4) the advisability of continued group-home care; (5) custody disputes between parents or between a parent and other potential caretakers; (6) whether parental rights should be terminated, and (7) other placement decisions.

The purpose of this article is threefold. First, the concept of reciprocal connectedness will be introduced along with its forensic and neuro-developmental rationale. Second, representative examples of different current legal applications of the concepts of bonding and attachment will be presented. The limitations and pitfalls of the uses of such bonding and attachment concepts will be concurrently discussed in the context of the reciprocal connectedness and the overall neuro-developmental and emotional needs of the child. Third, some suggestions will be offered for how judicial officers might best use mental health expertise in child custody cases. A major point will be that the term “attachment” (as it is usually conceived) is too narrow to be of much use to the court because it is primarily based on security-seeking on the part of the child.

Reciprocal connectedness (or “connectedness”) will be presented as a broader concept, which includes the processes of bonding and attachment, but addressing a wider spectrum of human-human interactions that are necessary for normal brain and social development. It will be proposed that under most circumstances reciprocal connectedness is a more useful construct than attachment or bonding alone in the juvenile and family court.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Arredondo, MD
David Arredondo, MD is a forensic psychiatrist, Director of the OCDMH, a forensic and technical assistance organization (affiliated with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges) and director of Applied Neuroscience. He was recently the principal expert witness for the ACLU in a major federal impact litigation requiring demonstration of subtle causal mechanisms. The case was recently written up in the New Yorker Magazine. He has published and lectured extensively on the causes of disordered behavior and including impaired impulse control, post traumatic reactions, personality disorders, malingering, learning impairments and impaired decision-making. Dr. Arredondo is an expert on brain system and psychological dysfunction that might causally account for abnormal behaviors. Dr. Arredondo is a former member of the clinical faculty of the Stanford University School of Medicine. He is a graduate of Harvard College (1975) and Medical School (1980).

Copyright David E. Arredondo M.D.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

Find an Expert Witness