Family Law

Protecting Children of Divorce Through Parent Education

by Richard S. Victor

Children entering the 21st Century are finding themselves facing social concerns that their parents never had to face as children. When the baby boomers were in school in the 1950s and early ’60s, the top disciplinary problems school teachers had to deal with were talking, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, not putting waste paper in the waste paper baskets, and chewing gum in class.

In contrast, the 1990s brought us a completely different set of social concerns that children are exposed to when they pursue their education in schools. Safety can no longer be taken for granted. The disciplinary problems facing modern-day teachers and their students (our children) include drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, arson, bombings, murder, vandalism, extortion, and gang warfare.

These concerns must be looked at by all parents, those who raise their children in intact families, as well as those who raise children in separate households because of divorce, legal separation, or children born out-of-wedlock. These children, however, have additional concerns that parents need to address. Through parent education programs, we can begin making a difference in helping parents help their children and, in the process, help themselves through a very difficult period of their life.

SMILE, an acronym for Start Making It Liveable For Everyone, was a joint venture created by co-founders Hon. Edward Sosnick, former chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit Court (Oakland County) and Bloomfield Hills attorney Richard S. Victor. SMILE first came to be when Judge Sosnick and Richard Victor met at a Family Law Section seminar and began discussing concerns regarding family law and how the practitioner and judge viewed the problem. It was agreed that education was essential to assist parents in learning the ‘‘rules to live by’’ once a divorce involving minor children was granted.

After preliminary discussions between Judge Sosnick and Mr. Victor, they brought in psychological and educational experts from around the community, as well as representatives of the Oakland County Friend of the Court. Following that meeting, the idea of SMILE became a distinct possibility and, through the joint efforts of its coordinating committee, a reality.

SMILE is an educational program for separating/divorced parents with children under the age of 18. It provides information to help parents better understand the effects of divorce and it assists them in understanding the needs of their children. It helps parents learn what they can do to create a nurturing and safe environment so that their children can recover from the divorce and feel good about themselves. It provides information to prevent the destructive game playing that is so common among divorcing couples and their children. It helps parents gain problem-solving skills and lets them know they are not alone.

SMILE, and other parent education programs of this type, are presently being conducted in all but three Michigan counties. A statewide parent education directory was prepared by the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan and is available at no cost to anyone by sending a self-addressed, stamped (77 cents return postage) 7x10" envelope to Richard S. Victor, 100 W. Long Lake Road, Suite 250, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304. This booklet will assist family law practitioners around the state in making referrals for clients who have cases or parents/children living in different counties. The booklet also contains information regarding each county’s SMILE Program and contact individuals (address and phone numbers) for more information in each county.

Through parent education programs, parents learn that children feel as if they’ve been subject to a ‘‘drive by shooting’’ when they first learn that their parents are separating and/or divorcing. They become victims of decisions made by others, without any input from them, despite the significant impact those decisions have on the children’s own lives.

Adults who receive this parent education learn what children go through during the separation and/or divorce process. The effects are broken down into different developmental ages of children, such as: babies and toddlers; ages three to five years; ages six to eight years; ages nine to 12 years; and teenagers. In addition, the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are discussed with an understanding of how children will respond while they are going through the different stages. The adults are often going through this grief process at the same time. Through the education they receive from SMILE, adults learn to cope with their own lives, as well as how to help their children.

As a result of the success of the SMILE program, the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan produced a video entitled ‘‘Listen to the Children,’’ which encompasses all of the information provided through SMILE in a 47-minute documentary. Utilizing interviews of children who have gone through the divorce and separation process, as well as input from noted behavioral science specialists, the SMILE video is an excellent resource for attorneys to show clients who are going through divorce with minor children. It is recommended that every lawyer have at least one copy in their office to loan to a client to help the divorce and separation process involving minor children be more understandable.

The SMILE video, ‘‘Listen to the Children,’’ can be purchased through the State Bar of Michigan by sending a check in the amount of $29.95 (which includes postage and handling), made payable to the State Bar of Michigan, to Richard S. Victor, 100 W. Long Lake Road, Suite 250, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304. A video will then be sent to you immediately for use within your practice.

In addition to SMILE, the Oakland County Family Division Court, through Chief Judge Sosnick, attorneys Richard S. Victor and Scott G. Bassett, Friend of the Court representatives, and several noted behavioral science specialists, has created a new program called COPE (CO-Parenting Effectively). This new program will use community mental health professionals to assist families with custody or parenting problems in resolving their conflicts as a form of alternative dispute resolution. Following the Early Intervention Conference, now held in Oakland County approximately two months following the filing of a divorce with minor children, the parents will be provided a notice to attend a SMILE Program, where they will receive the parent education necessary to assist them while they go through divorce and legal separation.

In the event that parents still have a conflict regarding questions of custody and/or parenting time, they will have an opportunity to meet with a caseworker from the Friend of the Court. If the caseworker feels that the family needs to meet with a behavioral science specialist to assist in resolution, an order of reference to the COPE Program will be entered by the court. A COPE coordinator will then be selected from a list of pre-trained/pre-screened mental health professionals who will provide intervention for a set fee to assist in resolution of issues. The COPE coordinator’s goals will be to:

•discourage passivity and dependence on the court and court staff

•help the parties deal more effectively with problems

•assist the parties in focusing on their parental roles

•emphasize for the parties that agreements they make have greater duration and strength than a decision by an external authority (judge)

•minimize the adversarial process that tends to separate parents into conflicting roles

For families unable to pay the set fee ($500 total for one half-day session), COPE coordinators have agreed to handle a limited number of pro bono cases. In addition, the Oakland County Psychological Clinic will be available to handle some of the pro bono COPE referrals.

As a result of the COPE session, either a written custody/parenting time agreement or a recommendation to the court for the next level of intervention (Friend of the Court investigation, full or partial psychological/psychiatric evaluation, substance abuse evaluation, etc.) will be provided. Attorneys or unrepresented parties will then have 14 days to file written objections to an agreement reached during a COPE session. Because of the urgency to maintain COPE as a nonadversarial program, attorneys will not be allowed to attend the COPE session.

It is intended that the COPE Program may, over time, be a valuable tool in reducing parental conflict and helping children better adjust to divorce by allowing parents to reach an agreement without damaging litigation. COPE coordinators have been specially trained to assist in this role and recognize that some parents may be dominated by the other parent, or may be intimidated because of past family history. They have also been trained in Michigan’s child custody laws, as well as having received training in serving as parent facilitators.

A selected COPE coordinator will be either licensed or certified by the state of Michigan in psychology, psychiatry, or social work. They will have a minimum of five years post-degree experience, including: family treatment, marital treatment, individual adult treatment, or child/adolescent assessment/treatment. They must also be a member of an appropriate state organization such as the Michigan Psychological Association, the Michigan Psychiatric Society, or NASW. Membership in these organizations guarantees the mandate of that organization’s ethics code, which the COPE facilitators will be bound to follow. Presently, Oakland County has over 40 such coordinators who have been trained and are in place to begin the COPE Program.

The Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan will be monitoring this pilot COPE project in Oakland County to determine whether or not it should be expanded statewide like the SMILE Program, which is now celebrating its 10th year of helping parents and children.

Divorce and legal separation can be devastating to a family. Child custody and parenting time disputes can lead to destructive behavior designed to punish the other parent. Children who are caught in the middle of these disputes are surely the victims of the illogical behavior of their parents. Through parent education and forms of alternative dispute resolution, we can hope to make a deeply difficult and emotional time a little easier for families in our state.

Our children have enough to worry about just growing up in our society as it exists today. Programs such as SMILE and COPE will hopefully assist in protecting our children, as well as their parents, through understanding and education.

Richard S. Victor
Richard S. Victor, founding partner of the Bloomfield Hills firm of Victor and Robbins, concentrates solely on the area of family law. He is a past chairperson of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan, the founder and executive director of the National Nonprofit Grandparents Rights Organization, and the co-founder of the parent education program known as SMILE (Start Making It Liveable For Everyone). He was the 1999 recipient of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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