Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts

Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts

Family law discrimination against recovering alcoholics | addicts is pervasive, mostly because family law attorneys, judges and the clients themselves do not understand addiction (to alcohol or drugs) for what it is – a chronic, but TREATABLE, brain disease, nor do they understand addiction recovery. And so they see the person – the addict | alcoholic – as their active disease, rather than a person with a treatable disease, for which they are in active recovery. As such, they still associate that individual’s pre-recovery, pre-treatment behaviors as intentional, rather than an outcome of the chemical and structural brain changes associated with the brain disease of addiction.

This is totally understandable.

For until you understand the disease, you can only assume the person who is abusing drugs or alcohol does not have the willpower, the love for their family members, the integrity or the whatever else you consider to be their underlying reason for not changing, thus you have no reason to trust their recovery because it makes no sense the person didn’t do this “recovery thing” before the marriage fell apart.

And, here’s another wrinkle.

If you do not understand the disease of addiction, it’s unlikely you understand secondhand drinking and therefore the contribution of the non-addict | alcoholic spouse to the “muck of it all.” If the person on “that side” of this family disease treat the secondhand drinking impacts they’ve experienced, it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to appreciate that addiction recovery is real, it works and it can be trusted (or if not trusted, then addressed through stipulations for outcomes if relapse occurs).

Why I Am Writing About This

Lisa Frederiksen Shares What Family Law Attorneys & Judges Need to Know When Substance Misuse or Secondhand Drinking are present

Family Law Discrimination is pervasive – mostly because all concerned do not understand the disease of addiction nor the truth of addiction recovery.

Decades ago, I was the mother of two and divorcing an alcoholic who was not in recovery. I was desperate to keep my daughters safe but had no tools, and as you can imagine back then – neither I nor the family law process had any understanding of alcoholism as a brain disease. That’s because there was none. So how was I to agree to custody arrangements that put my daughters at risk? And what kind of damage to my daughters was this conflict causing because no matter what, he was their father, and there was no way they could wrap their little minds around what I’d failed to pound into submission (his drinking). Granted, I’m talking about someone not in recovery, but had he been, I’m sure I would have been just as fearful because I would have been stuck in the “what if _________” tapes I’d played for so long. I would have played those tapes over and over because I’d had no recovery for my secondhand drinking impacts.  Once I’ve learned what I now know, I had to share it in a way that could affect real change.

One way was to become an approved Substance Abuse | Mental Illness MCLE (continuing eduction) provider for the California Bar Association. In that capacity, I present to and work independently with family law attorneys, sharing with them the 21st century brain and addiction-related research to help them understand the complexities of addiction, secondhand drinking, treatment and recovery in order to better serve their clients.

I am passionate about this because it is critical to the ability to create effective custody arrangements for the children’s sake. It is one scenario when there is no recovery, but when there is, it’s an entirely different situation. But it’s a situation that gets clouded by our societal views and lack of understanding that this brain disease can successfully be treated. So we hang onto old experiences and assumptions and often punish the recovering alcoholic | addict in the process, which in turn hurts the children.

Let’s face it, we would not prevent a person in recovery from cancer from enjoying a respectful, meaningful, equally shared post-divorce relationship with their children, nor do we do that with a person who has is managing their HIV, heart disease or diabetes. This is because we understand those diseases; they are not shrouded in secrecy, shame and misinformation. Thus those involved in a family law proceeding with those individuals actually see the individual as separate from their disease and applaud their recovery as commendable and something to be honored and supported.

With addiction, however, we often misguidedly force the children to suffer as both parties thrash out the hurt they’ve experienced as a consequence of not understanding addiction, secondhand drinking, treatment and recovery. And often the tragic outcome is the children suffer what are now called Adverse Childhood Consequences (ACEs), which in turn sets them up to suffer a host of unhealthy outcomes – including the development of a substance abuse problem, themselves.

What Can Be Done to End Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts

Given there is no way to provide the depth of coverage an answer to this complex question deserves, I’ve chosen to highlight three key areas that if understood can go a long way towards raising awareness about, and from there hopefully making inroads to ending, family law discrimination against recovering alcoholics | addicts.

Understand the disease of addiction and the crippling stigma and shame that surrounds it

For this, I suggest the following:

The Addiction Project, a collaboration of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO. There is a GREAT deal on this website – how a person develops the disease, how drugs or alcohol hijack the brain, what effective treatment looks like, and more.

Shatter the Shame of Addiction, a blog post highlighting the critical information all must understand in order to get past the stigma and shame.

Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcoholism, a short video explaining the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism – they are not one in the same.

Executive Summary of The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and HealthThis was just issued November 17, 2016, and goes a long way to debunking common myths about addiction, treatment, and recovery.

NIDA’s “Principles of Effective Treatment” helps all concerned understand what is considered effective treatment, which can then be used as a benchmark for assessing a person’s treatment and recovery.

Understand Secondhand Drinking – What Happens to Family Members

For this, I suggest the following:

Secondhand Drinking | Secondhand Drugging, a blog post explaining these concepts – namely the impact of a person’s drinking or drugging behaviors on others.

Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three… , a blog post highlighting how far the impacts of addiction reach beyond the recovering addict | alcoholic.

“The Dance” of the Family Disease of Addiction, a blog post explaining the family disease of addiction.

Understand addiction recovery is real and it happens all the time

This brain disease can be successfully treated and people can live happy, healthy, productive lives in recovery.  To learn more about people who are doing this, today, check out:

Rehab – What More Could You Want?, a blog post explaining a bit about addiction treatment and recovery, and the following websites and post that put a face to recovery:

Faces and Voices of Recovery

The Anonymous People

Faces of Recovery

Do What You Can To Help Stop Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts

The Addiction Project shares five things we all need to know about “Fighting Discrimination Against People in Recovery from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.” While not specific to family law, it reminds us that people in recovery from addiction – a health issue – have rights and recourses if they feel they’ve experienced discrimination.

And lastly, please share this post with anyone you may know in the throws of a divorce where addiction recovery is an issue, as well as family law attorneys and family law judges you may know. Working together, we can do our part to end this sort of discrimination – not only for the sake of the recovering addict | alcoholic but for their children’s sake, as well.

©2013 Lisa Frederiksen. Rev. November 2016

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

62 Responses to Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts

  1. Kyczy Hawk says:

    This is a full bodies article outlining the issues and way to address and redress the problem. Lisa again you have thoroughly explained the issue and the challenges. Rather than leaving the reader overwhelmed you have given resources to further understand this and to guide healing. You are amazing.

  2. Anne Allen says:

    This was a really great read. Thank you for the insight and info-very helpful.

  3. MarVeena says:

    A deep subject. When I look at it from a spirit point of view I believe the kids came into the family knowing the possible alcoholic tendencies and potential problems. So I know there were Karmic contracts being worked out by all parties. I just pray that people in these situation can step up into the highest aspect of their soul possible.
    Thank you for sharing!

  4. Thank you so much Lisa for the detailed information. It is really well done and packed with value. God bless you for all the help you provide.

  5. Certainly a valid thing to be worried about. Putting our children’s safety is always a priority for sure. So many problems arise from the original… not easy solutions for sure. Great post.

    • It’s truly an interrelated, complicated, repeating cycle because, as you say, so many problems arise from the original. Thanks for reading and adding your comment, Norma!

  6. Hi Lisa,

    Wonderful post. There is generally so much misunderstanding about addiction and recovery and the misguided concepts spill over to every area of life. With children involved it creates much more of a challenge when the parent is the one with the disease. You do want to be fair to all concerned, but you also want to create a harm free environment for the children as well. Thanks for all that you are doing. It makes such a difference and enlightens people on their options.

  7. Lisa Knudson says:

    What a wealth of information! I am “saving” this post for future reference. Bravo…once again! Thank you Lisa. 🙂

  8. Shelley Webb says:

    I think that one of the biggest problems is the word “recovering”. People don’t assimilate THAT word; they hear alcoholic or addict. There must be a time when a person can be considered recovered.

    After all, if I make a mistake… and then make another one the following week, am I a recovering mistake maker? And yes, I’m aware that is not an addiction, but there are so many things being labeled as addictions lately, mistake-maker will probably be included soon enough.

    • I agree, Shelley, one of the biggest problems is that people do not understand what recovery from addiction “looks” like and so they continue to dismiss someone who calls themselves an alcoholic – even though they are an alcoholic in recovery! It’s complicated, to be sure. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Tom Holmberg says:

    Thanks for a great article Lisa. It was pretty interesting to read about this type of discrimination. Great work

  10. Hi Lisa, you so eloquently describe yet another way that our lack of understanding of addiction and recovery messes things up. So glad you are helping to educate through the California Bar Association. Now how do we reach the rest of the states? And while we are working with the family lawyers, let’s include the lawyers for schools too. It is pretty rough business for kids coming back out of treatment to get a far shot at getting back into school sometimes, depending upon the situation. Several times I have seen fear and lack of understanding drive school’s decisions that ultimately wind up hurting the child and family – who have been through enough already. Thank you Lisa again for another great post!

    • Oh my gosh, Leslie – I hadn’t thought of that, but of course that would happen to kids returning to school after treatment. Thank you SO MUCH for raising this awareness as I know you work with these kids and their families. Hopefully anyone reading your comment who is in a position to help or to be of influence will get in touch with you at for further information and guidance.

  11. I hadn’t realized that the family court did this. I have a friend who is going through rehab at the moment and hadn’t given his family situation a thought. There is some serious reading for me here. Thank you.

  12. A very informative post and one that got me thinking. The brain and its chemical reactions are not really understood by laypeople until they are faced with the problems that you have described. I am glad that you are sensitizing the California Bar Association. More power to your efforts. A journey of a thousand miles begins with 1 step.

    • You are so right, Vatsala – laypeople (and those is policy or enforcement positions) are generally not aware of this new brain research. Hopefully as this information becomes more mainstream, we can make some of the significant changes in prevention, intervention and socialization protocols. Thanks for your comment!

  13. Burton says:

    Great Article. I have had a lot of experience with this issue. I liked that you mentioned that people can change. When they decide to quit, what comes out of it can sometimes be someone who is a lot stronger than before. Thank you for all the helpful info.

    • You are so right, Burton – when an addict | alcoholic decides to quit, the person they are and that emerges from their struggle with addiction is absolutely amazing. It’s estimated there are 23 million people living in recovery – a figure we rarely hear about. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Marie Leslie says:

    Wow. I learn so much from all of your posts. And mostly, I think I re-learn every time how thankful I am that I do not have to go through these situations and how thankful I am to have made the decision, as a child, not to ever partake of a substance that could lead to an addiction.

    • Wow – that’s wonderful, Marie, that you knew as a child the decision that was right for you and that you stuck with it and didn’t give into peer pressure, etc. It’s stunning how many intertwined outcomes result from a person’s alcohol | drug misuse and the coping patterns another adopts to deal with the secondhand drinking | drugging that causes. I very much appreciate your comment.

  15. MamaRed says:

    What an amazing and in depth article about the discrimination inherent in not understanding the truth behind the addiction. My family has felt the effects of an alcoholic family member and the after effects of his subsequent suicide. Plus my former spouse has paid a big price (as have I to be honest) for the alcoholic behavior of his parents. This is an insidious and ever-so-painful disease and I’m so glad you’re using your own experiences and increased wisdom to make a difference for so many.

    • Thank you so much, MamaRed, and thank you for sharing your experiences with loved ones’ experiences with alcoholism. I know from the feedback I regularly receive that it’s knowing others have had experiences similar to theirs that gives people the hope to find their way out or through.

  16. Great information and slant on this problem. So sad that the courts and attorneys forget about the best interest of the child. Here’s another interesting fact. Attorneys are always at the top of the list for professions that have an unusually high rate of alcoholism. Maybe the turning of the head has become a natural reflex for them . . .

    • It seems to be a natural reflex for most people who not only have alcoholism but abuse alcohol, I’m afraid. Not only that, but it also seems to be a natural reflex for others in their sphere of influence – the old denial or justification that everyone does it once in a while, sort of thing. Thanks so much for your comment, Martha!

  17. Great insight about addiction in the eyes of the law. This is an important topic you bring up as this a very relevant issue in our current society and people need help with this mental illness called addiction, not to have less opportunities because of it.

  18. Thanks so much for this educational and thought provoking article Lisa. I am saddened by the idea of discrimination in any format but people who are working on recovery should be given support. In my hypnosis practice I often work through issues of abandonment and what you’ve written here really puts that into perspective.

    • I’m so glad to hear it resonates, Moria. It is such a interconnected, cyclical problem. Another commenter brought up the issue of discrimination against students who return to school following treatment. Hopefully as this all becomes more well-known, this sort of discrimination can end.

  19. Thank you Lisa, for a beautiful article. I just can’t see the shame in diseases. To me, they are lessons we signed up for and we are all working our pieces. I have witnessed children who have been abandoned by the alcoholic, frolicking parent, and they grew up to be productive, caring people. Sure, they have challenges, we all do.

    • I agree, Barbara – so very sad we shame diseases – and so many diseases have gone through that shame period (cancer, HIV, for example) before they’re finally accepted for what they are – treatable diseases. Let’s hope this new research will finally put this disease in perspective and end the shame that makes seeking help and recovery so difficult.

  20. Herby Bell says:


    Just yesterday, I was looking through some belongings of my Mom who died a few years ago and found a letter from her mother-in-law, my grandmother who was apologizing for her son–my Dad–and his irresponsible ways with drugs and alcohol that lead to his death by suicide. She felt profound shame that he had, “thrown his life away.” Growing up, I thought/felt the same things–talk about repercussions of Secondhand Drinking…but now know differently thanks to people like you who have made it your business to help people understand in a Big Way.

    For me, this most important article’s central implication is once again–addiction is a systemic disease with a systemic misunderstanding. Your impeccably organized, informative and oh-so appreciated personal touch post, will be an invaluable resource for countless, sorrily wanting and needing places. I’m on it.

    I give it a “10” (on a scale of “8”).

    Thank you!!

    • Thank you so very much, Herby, for the rating!! And thank YOU for sharing your own family experiences. You shed light on the very real happenings that are all too often experienced by everyone in a family as a result of this family disease – simply because the disease is not understood, let alone discussed and treated.

  21. Jody Lamb says:

    This is absolutely brilliant, Lisa.

    You’re so correct. People, due to lack of understanding, simply do not distinguish the people from the disease of addiction.

    Around the same time that my alcoholic loved ones hit rock bottom, and my life became completely unmanageable as a result, a friend’s mother was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It seemed like 100 people rushed to my friend’s side with offers to help. I was happy that she was so supported but I felt so alone. Many people in my life knew about what was happening but most of them simply didn’t know what to say or do so they just avoided the topic. The addicts in my life were causing destructive dominoes to crash in every direction and I could hardly breathe as I struggled to pick them up. Still stuck in shame about the situation, I just didn’t feel comfortable reaching out and asking for help or even just a listening ear. It would have gotten help for myself a lot earlier if there had been more people around me.

    I once heard a story from the mother of an addict. She said, “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I opened my door and 500 people were standing there with open arms. Then when my son became a drug addict, I opened my door and there wasn’t one person there.”

    Drug and alcohol addiction is the most common disease afflicting people. As a society, we have to stop pretending this isn’t true.

    Great post, Lisa!

    • Jody – your description of how the shame and stigma that surrounds this disease takes down those within the path of its destructive dominoes is so important for people to understand – especially as it relates to the children who have no self-defense mechanisms in place to protect themselves and as such develop a host of unhealthy self-doubts and coping skills – ones that often set them up to develop a substance misuse problem or marry someone who has one. And that’s of course, the family members – as you also write – the shame and stigma to the addict / alcoholic is equally devastating.

  22. Sharon O'Day says:

    Lisa, we hear the expression “make your mess your message.” You have done so in spades! Few people I know would take an issue they faced and create the expertise you have in this field. I continue to be fascinated by what you share, although I have been fortunate enough to only have been lightly touched in my life with others’ addictions.

    • I really appreciate your compliment, Sharon – thank you! And I’m very happy for you that you’re life has not been too affected by others’ addictions. I do appreciate your support and sharing of my work.

  23. Yvonne says:

    I have to say if someone wants to change and fight it…I am there. Though they will have to get to the point of realization, I have spend too much time trying to help people that did not want help.
    I know it’s not easy to get to the point, no matter what kind of addict, but once they can say “I need help” I’m there.

  24. Daniel D says:

    Lisa,I love this Post… I myself have over 16 years clean and sober. It is refreshing to see a Lawyer/Law Firm with such great insight and dedication on the Social Stigma of this disease. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to go to court with my different sponsees as they are trying to pick up the pieces of their ravaged lives, as well salvage what they could with their families that have been devastated and hurt by them in the throws of active addiction, only to be limited, ostracized, ridiculed, and given no chances to rectify the damage they have done because of the system. Thanks for sharing! Hopefully we can have more understanding professionals like you help here on the East coast someday!
    Dan D

    • Hi Daniel – I really appreciate you sharing your experiences with this issue. It has such tragic outcomes for the children, especially, and the parent who is unable to truly live a life of recovery. We never would do this to a cancer survivor nor a person in recovery from a heart attack. Let’s hope this new brain research can finally do for addiction what science and research findings have done for other diseases.

  25. Holly cline says:

    Thank you. This is so hopeful to me. I am the person you are writing about. I was a stay at home mom of 2. Was put on addictive meds for post partum then I turned into an alcoholic. My demise was fast got a DUI then went to treatment. My husband left me through it all. I had a seizure from coming off the Klonopin I was accustomed to taking daily. Put back on it. Relapsed to drinking again. Lost my 2 kids because I couldn’t afford as good of representation in my divorce. Got a guardian ad litem in recovery who made my alcoholism the basis of my divorce.
    By the grace of God and the 12 steps I’m drug and alcohol free 90 days now. I had no idea I would be treated so horribly for having a disease. I love my kids more than my life. I was sick and people need to understand that. I am already back to the amazing, caring, responsible women I was before this happened. I want to help raise awareness because this misinformation is ruining families as we speak.

  26. family law says:

    This is a really great examine. Appreciate it for that understanding as well as info-very beneficial.

  27. patsy kelly says:

    my adult daughter is in recovery and i am the only support that she has .She has been in a flat where i think is a place of bad memories and people that she will never stop coming round from the days of using because she is being bullied. The thing that makes me unable to sleep is that 2 weeks ago i arrived at the flat where she lives to drop my grand daughter home and she had a black eye and cuts and on her face and the door to the flat was busted .she said she fell and her keys must have fallen out so she had to break the lock.I she is at risk and not safe what can i do to give her a bit of hope to stay away from something that will put her in to relapse or god forbid worse.

  28. Lynn says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for being here. I see a lot of inclined dealing with the alcoholic and their
    Disease but I’m left with the same question you had when you were trying to keep your children safe during divorce. What were you able to do? What did you do? My husband an active. Alcoholic has our son every other weekend and it is written in our divorce that he will remain a .00 during not this time. He of course does not and lawyers tell me it’s unenforceable anyway! Until he gets a dui. He rarely leaves his home. I think that waiting until he gets a dui could mean years of him driving under the influence with our son. I’m 4 years sober and have my own difficulty dealing with second hand drinking! What can do DO??

    • Hi Lynn – thank you for writing – it will depend on the state you live in, but I do have suggestions. Can you give me a call, and we can talk them through? 650-362-3026. Congratulations on your sobriety!! Lisa

  29. Rebekah Pointek says:

    Hi Lisa I would love some advice on what your custody plan looked like. I’m dealing with a custody issue with my ex who has significant history of drug abuse now 6 months sober on vivitrol he wants to have unsupervised visitation and I am not ready for that actually petrified…my attorney is looking to strike an agreement before a hearing but not hopeful he’ll agree as he wants supervision lifted asap. Thanks so much!

  30. Gloria Rivera says:

    Hi Lisa
    I have many concerns and I will pas this info on to everyone I know struggling with this disease. My concern is my daughters in-laws want her children ( my grandchildren ; though they think they may be “protecting them” they are harming them . My daughters husband is relapsing from his disease ( crack) abuse and they shame him yell at him but doesn’t offer the help he needs. She is in treatment and ready for a house that will help her with staying clean and parenting and she is ready for that but what will the judge say when her husband goes to court for DUI and driving without a license . I pray the judge will not make her sign over temporary custody to her husbands parents. They have lived with them for apx 6 mo. To date 5-15-17.

    • Hi Gloria – I will send you a private email. It is difficult to answer this question without getting a more complete picture, and typically each answer leads to more questions. We can talk further, then. Lisa

  31. Ronda says:

    I sincerely thank you for your well informed article on addiction and recovery. I wish more people would be educated on it for the sake of the children who are being separated from a recovering parent. Recovering alcoholics are miracles of mental health and I have the privilege of witnessing this miracle every day. We love our children as much as any ” normal” parent. We are willing to go to any lengths necessary to recover, repair and create safe, healthy and loving environments for our children. Removing all our parental rights to parents actively involved in recovery is an injustice to our children. We are willing to be held accountable through measures of accountability. The problem is that most of us simply ” give up” fighting the custodial parent because of the shame and societal stigma. This has to stop. Please help us advocate for our children . There is a solution.

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