Program Helps Parents In High-Conflict Divorces Weigh Kids' Feelings

September 04, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Adults embroiled in a long, bitter divorce fight often put their kids in the middle. A program implemented eight years ago in Champaign County in Illinois, however, appears to be taking the sting out of cases with the highest levels of conflict among moms and dads, researchers say.

Finding that the program, Children First, helps defuse the more intense cases is good news for all involved - the children, parents, lawyers and judges - says Laurie Kramer, a professor of family studies in the University of Illinois department of human and community development.

Kramer presented her findings Aug. 20 at a conference of the Children First Foundation in Collinsville, Ill. A paper detailing the work will be published by Kramer and former U. of I. doctoral student Amanda Kowal in the October issue of Family and Conciliation Courts Review.

Children First is a court-based program developed by the foundation, based in Belleville, Ill., to help divorcing parents be more sensitive toward their children so they aren't unwilling pawns in the process. It involves two training sessions that help parents to consider what to do and what not to do.

Kramer initially studied the program's effectiveness two years after it was implemented in Champaign County. She has since followed up with many of the original participants, as well as reviewed all divorce-court records in the county during the last eight years.

While intensity was lessened in some cases, rates of relitigation - cases going back into court - continued to be high. The program's participants were just as likely as non-participants to relitigate their cases. Of the 159 parents who attended Children First, 42 percent returned to court at least once; 51 percent of the 43 non-participating families relitigated. Some families, according to court records, returned to court as many as 12 times, mostly over financial and child-support issues.

"Since Children First came to Champaign in 1989-90, the rates for relitigation actually increased over time," Kramer said. "At the same time, the number of people who were coming forward to get divorced was decreasing. This was not a welcome finding."

Both studies found that there wasn't much impact for parents who were not in high-conflict situations. For those reporting high levels of conflict, she said, there were positive effects. "They reported that their spouses performed better with the kids. There was a tendency to even view their former spouses' behavior toward the children in a more positive light. They were better equipped to take their spouse's perspective, or, perhaps, to see that each is struggling."

In some cases, she added, situations can get twisted so that children are brought into the fight. "They may be told negative things about the other parent. Kids often are not allowed to just be kids."The researchers also found that participants were more likely than non-participants to seek other resources to help them deal with problems. Of 42 participants who responded to a question about the program's effectiveness, 37 (92.5 percent) said it should be continued.

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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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