Feature

Bitter child custody battles can drain parents' nerves, wallets and time. In addition, research shows that parental conflict often takes a profound emotional toll on children caught in the middle, leading to increased school drop-out rates, behavior problems and mental health issues.

In February, with the help of APA, the Family Court of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia began piloting a new family-education program that teaches parents how to resolve disputes by focusing on the best interests of their children. The seminar aims to propel families into mediation to reach custody agreements without court intervention, said Darrell Hale, JD, the program's director, at an April panel introducing the Program for Agreement and Cooperation in Child Custody Cases (PAC) to Washington, D.C.-area family law attorneys and court personnel. So far, said Hale, the program seems to be working.

"PAC is helping parents take the focus off their dispute with each other and refocus their energy on figuring out what's best for their kids and how they can effectively co-parent," said Hale.

A natural fit

In December 2006, the court awarded a three-year contract to APA to design and implement a family educational program on the impact of parental conflict on children. Beginning Dec. 22, the court began requiring all caregivers and children involved in new contested custody cases under D.C. Family Court Judge Odessa F. Vincent, to attend PAC.

The project is APA's second with the D.C. Family Court on child custody issues. In 2004, APA partnered with the court to pilot a parenting coordinator program, in which court-appointed psychologists help parents in custody disputes resolve conflicts on day-to-day issues (see September 2004, January 2005 and May 2005 Monitor issues for more information). PAC seemed to be a natural follow-up to that program, said Shirley Ann Higuchi, JD, past-president of the D.C. Bar and assistant executive director of legal and regulatory affairs in APA's Practice Directorate.

"Parent education should be the first stop in the family law court as a precursor to other services like mediation or parent coordination, and we felt that APA was in a position to support this," said Higuchi.

The court offers PAC seminars every other Saturday for three and a half hours, and adults and children participate in separate simultaneous sessions. Course curriculum developed in partnership with Roberta Eisen MEd, LPC, an APA consultant, is based on Eisen's founding of a similar program for the Allegheny County Court System in Pennsylvania. Psychologists and other mental health professionals hired by APA co-facilitate the sessions, combining experience in forensic psychology and family, children and adolescent issues. Members of the court agree that parents involved in custody battles benefit from this service.

"It's really helpful for people in high-conflict cases to have this kind of interaction with mental health professionals to help take the edge off," said Family Court Presiding Judge Anita Josey-Herring.

Eisen, who co-leads the adult class and trained the co-facilitators on the children's curriculum, engages parental empathy by asking adults open-ended questions about their childhood and parental treatment. She also reviews stages of child development and points out specific age-related behaviors to heed during transitions in family structure, such as withdrawal, depression and anger.

The children's program, based on a play-based learning theory model, encourages children to see their family as their foundation, "regardless of whether parents spend 10 minutes together or 10 years," said Eisen. Most importantly, the class allows children to connect.

"Children have an opportunity to identify with other children who are not going to make any judgments on them because they're there for the same reason," Eisen said.

Next steps

PAC's pilot runs through year's end, and currently targets only Judge Vincent's new contested custody cases. Once the pilot is complete, Vincent said, the court will gather data on how many participants reached agreement during mediation, and how many still need their cases settled in court. The court will also evaluate feedback from parents, children and the seminar's facilitators to determine the program's effectiveness before broadening it to other family court judges' cases. For now, the court is optimistic about PAC's success.

"I've always thought we needed a way to take parents in the midst of a divorce and just shake them and say, 'Stop what you're doing and take a time out'," said Chief Judge Rufus G. King, III. "This is that program."

Further Reading

  • Pedro-Carroll, J. (2005). Fostering Resilience in the Aftermath of Divorce: The Role of Evidence-Based Programs for Children. Family Court Review, 43(1) 52-64.

  • Ellis, E.M. (2000). Divorce Wars: Interventions With Families in Conflict. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.