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Subject: Dr. Albert Solnit, Advocate of Child's Needs

Dies at 82
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Date Posted: June 28, 2002 2:18:20 EDT

Doctor Albert J. Solnit, a psychiatrist who helped introduce the idea that family law and custody disputes should focus on a child's needs, died on Friday in a car accident in Bethlehem, Conn. He was 82.

Dr. Solnit was best known for writing a trilogy of books on family law with Anna Freud, the psychoanalyst and daughter of Sigmund Freud, and Joseph Goldstein, a Yale law professor and psychoanalyst. He also served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Sterling professor emeritus, Yale Child Study Center.

The books, "Beyond the Best Interests of the Child" (1973), "Before the Best Interests of the Child" (1979) and "In the Best Interests of the Child" (1986), were based on the idea that child custody laws more often served the emotional needs of parents or the convenience of the courts, rather than the interests of children.

Dr. Solnit and his co-authors argued that custody disputes should always be examined from the point of view of children, especially their perspective on time. A few months to a 40-year-old, for example, seems much longer to a very young child.

The authors also wrote that all child placement decisions should be treated by the courts as psychological emergencies, be given priority on court calendars and be decided as quickly as possible, to avoid injury to the child caused by a sense of loss and uncertainty.

"He believed that if there was a conflict as to whose needs should take priority, it should be the children," said Dr. John Schowalter, the Albert J. Solnit professor of child psychiatry at Yale. "At the time, this was highly controversial. He was really the first person to bring this approach to the fore in family courts."

The conclusions that Dr. Solnit and his co-authors reached on parents, children and the law also applied to adoption.

They stressed the importance of the "psychological parent" the person who provides day-to-day affection and stimulation over the biological parents who are not around daily while children are growing and learning. Those adults, the authors argued, are not real parents at all but strangers and should have no rights to reclaim the children because of birth or blood ties.

When it came to the care of foster children, Dr. Solnit encouraged rapid termination of parental rights. The recommendation led to changes in law, reducing the time some children are in foster care before courts can end parental rights and make the children eligible for adoption.

"He was the quintessential child advocate," said Barbara Nordhaus, a social worker and psychoanalyst at the Yale Child Study Center. "In the past, child custody conflicts focused on fairness to the adults. But their work heightened awareness in family matters that what promotes a child's welfare and development is what should be the guiding principle. Today, these ideas are always referred to."

The three books have been cited in more than 1,000 appeals cases involving child custody, serving as influential guides to attorneys and judges.

Before he died, Dr. Solnit was revising another one of his influential books, "Divorce and Your Child" (1984). He and his co-authors, Sonja Goldstein and Ms. Nordhaus, argue that most divorcing parents can solve their own custody conflicts. And unless the parents are involved in intractable conflict, they say, it is best for children to have rich relationships with each parent. (Ms. Goldstein is the widow of Joseph Goldstein, who died in 2000.)

Dr. Solnit established links between Yale's law school and the child center, allowing law students to train there.

Albert Jay Solnit was born Aug. 26, 1919, in Los Angeles. He earned his undergraduate, master's and medical degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. He joined the child study center in 1952 and went on to train many of today's leading child psychiatrists.

After medical school, Dr. Solnit served in World War II as a flight surgeon.

In the McCarthy era, he refused to sign a loyalty oath saying that he would not join the Communist Party.

Dr. Solnit is survived by his wife, Martha, of New Haven; three sons, Benjamin, of New Haven; David, of Berkeley, Calif., and Aaron, of Bath, N.H.; a daughter, Ruth Solnit of Seattle; a sister, June Solnit Sale of Los Angeles; and seven grandchildren.

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