A General Assembly mandate aims to ease the strain of divorce on children and parents. 

"Doing The Wrong Thing Right"

There may not have been many headlines, but last spring the General Assembly of Virginia attempted to do divorcing parents a favor: It mandated that parents involved in custody and visitation cases attend education seminars on the effects of separation and divorce on children, effective July 1, 2001. That's right. If you have kids and want a divorce or to end a relationship involving a child, the state of Virginia has decreed you will attend a parenting seminar. Not leaving much up to interpretation, the courts have also mandated course standards and content. Utah, New Hampshire and Connecticut are the other states with statutes mandating seminars. "We're very lucky in this state," says Arnold Stolberg, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. "We have a number of devoted people to put us in the forefront of legislation nationally," and we're also "fortunate at the caliber of elected officials, professionals volunteering their time, and staff members who got this legislation through," he says. In the United States, 40 percent of all first marriages end in divorce, and more than 1 million children are involved in new divorces each year. This brought on what Stolberg calls "a sense of urgency" among parents and the court system that parents needed to find ways to work together. Judges with limited time per case were overwhelmed and frustrated, moms felt pressured, dads felt excluded, and lawyers and psychologists were often underprepared and poorly trained. This led, says Stolberg, "to a wholesale dissatisfaction with the process." Judges in the Richmond area have been sending divorcing parents to classes long before the mandate, especially in Chesterfield. In 1994, Pat Cullen, prevention services manager for the Chesterfield Mental Health Center, heard about the success the Families First Program in Atlanta was having with families in divorce situations. She met with the four juvenile, domestic relations judges, and finally with Head Judge Jerry Hendricks Jr. who observed a course and then made it mandatory for divorcing parents in Chesterfield County. "We were the forerunners," says Cullen, "and word spread. We started getting calls from lawyers and other mental health professionals around Virginia." The high satisfaction rates confirmed what she and her colleagues expected: People were in great need of some kind of guidance where divorce and children were concerned. It's suppertime on a Wednesday night at a Chesterfield library as people line up to attend the class Living Apart, Parenting Together, sponsored by the Chesterfield Mental Health Center and The Court Service Unit. All walks of life file into the room - mostly white, 18 to 45. One grandmother has come along for support. The class of 50 is about evenly divided between male and female. The smell of hot coffee wafts across from the breakroom, but instead of warmth in the classroom, there's strained anxiety. A Chesterfield County police officer sits outside the classroom. No one is there for happy reasons. All have children. Each is divorcing or separated or amid the breakup of a relationship. One woman's husband has moved in with his girlfriend and wants to marry her. Another's husband has taken off for New York, leaving her with three small children. Vincent (he asks that his real name not be used), a member of the National Guard, will have such trouble paying his child support, he's considering going to Bosnia for eight months so he can earn tax-free money, even though it will take him away from his two small children. For the next two hours, all of them will participate in the seminar with instructors Lee Archard and Patti Winterberger Brock. Brock promises the class will empower parents to make the best possible decisions for their children. She warns the amount of information can be overwhelming. Pay attention. Turn off the cell phones. The message is clear: Divorce is serious business. Listen up. The instructors flip on the overhead projectors, slap down the first of many pages of information and encourage class participation. How do you tell a child is depressed? Answers are politely called out - just like school days - and the instructors write them on the flip chart. "What losses do you experience in a divorce?" Some attendees call out answers: "Companionship." "Finances." "Security." "Trust." "Communication." During the evening, the instructors cover the divorce process, emotional reactions, involvement with the legal system, changes in personal finances, new relations with family and friends, and how to adjust to this new life. People start to relax. There's even an attempt at a joke or two about jealous spouses. While the class laughs, the instructors remain stony-faced, reinforcing the seriousness of their message. They know after several years' experience that everyone in the room has staggering obstacles in front of them as they hash out a working arrangement to raise their kids. Vincent is 41, affable, a recovering alcoholic, a carpenter, father of two little girls. The divorce is not his idea. He says he and his wife drifted apart, especially when they started working different schedules. Now she wants out. He was so devastated about the divorce he grew depressed and suicidal and immediately got counseling. Vincent has voluntarily attended other classes for divorced parents. He and his wife have been ordered to attend the class The Business of Co-Parenting, a more intensive class for smaller groups of parents. Vincent believes the class was a "good overall broad brush stroke" giving him perspective on how important it was to communicate with his ex-wife for the kids' sake. "I've learned a lot in four hours," he says. "It's what I've needed to know. I still see this as doing the wrong thing right. It's the wrong thing to parent in two different living situations, and there's no right way to do the wrong thing. … at least the program is teaching us how to do this. I have to try." Area Programs
Richmond and area counties already refer parents to a variety of programs in the area, and most are expanding to accommodate the mandate. Classes are offered at the Dispute Resolution Center (Henrico); Family and Children's Services; Memorial Child Guidance Clinic (Richmond); The Family Matters Program in Hanover; as well as the numerous programs in Chesterfield. Goochland has been mandating attendance through its services and community services board. Fees are no higher than $50, and some classes are free. A review of the mandate is scheduled for 2003 to ensure that judges understand the law, that there are acceptable, high quality seminars, and that the courts and parents are satisfied with the programs.

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