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Divorce education class empowers children to speak up, share emotions

SALT LAKE CITY — The drawing shows two stick figures standing close together under a inky blue sun, word bubbles coming from their smiling mouths.

"I want to gite back toghr," says the figure labeled dad.

"So do I," responds the figure labeled mom.

The words may be misspelled and the handwriting lopsided, but the message is clear. Divorce is painful.

The drawing represents the feelings of a young child who attended one of the Utah State Courts' "Divorce Education for Children" classes, a two-hour class designed to educate children about divorce and teach them how to communicate their feelings during the difficult transition.

Each year, roughly 1 million children are affected by divorce, including nearly 11,000 in Utah, according to national and state statistics. While some children express relief that an abusive relationship has ended, most children grieve the loss of their cohesive biological family, showing a depth of maturity that continues to surprise Utah Court Commissioner Michael Evans.

"I feel sad that you guys got a devorse because it's hard for me that I haft to go back and forth to two different houses without seeing the both of you at the same time," wrote one child in a tenderly misspelled, unsent letter to his or her parents. "I want you to stop fighting when you get the chance. Because it makes me fill vary sad inside."

Since 1990, divorcing parents in Utah have been required to attend a divorce education and orientation class, Evans explained. Yet there was nothing for their children until 2004, when he and licensed professional counselor Diane Passey began designing the children's course, which focuses on children from 9- to 12-years-old. (Too young and they can't sit still for the two hours and older than 14 they begin to resist and not participate).

"(Our) primary message is that 'You're not alone,'" Evans said, "And that it's not their fault. We've been aware of the kids, but we've left (education and counseling) to the private sector," Evans said. "That's been the attitude."

But since the free, optional classes began in 2005, nearly 275 children have attended. Yet with each class size capped at 10, there are still thousands more children in the state who could benefit.

"If every eligible child attended, we would need 10 times the classes we have now," Evans said. "240 classes versus 24 classes a year. That would be a very big project to get that underway."

The class

On a recent Saturday, the Deseret News watched the class on a television in an office near the courtroom in the Matheson Courthouse. Because of privacy concerns, only the children, Evans, Passey and program secretary Michelle Glaittli are allowed to participate.

Passey began by walking the seven children around the courtroom and explaining different features, then had one child rap the gavel and announce that "court is in session." With that, Commissioner Evans appeared in the doorway and welcomed the children to his courtroom.

"Judges almost never talk to kids," he told the kids. "It's important that kids not be asked to take sides." Instead, kids have attorneys called Guardians ad litems to make sure their stories get shared.

After the courtroom introduction, Passey assured the children that their comments were confidential and wouldn't be passed on to their parents.

Some of the children are new to divorce, having just learned about their parent's separation before Christmas. For others it's been years and they're already in new, blended families. Yet no matter the time frame, when Passey asked, "What do you think about divorce?" the children's answers were quick and powerful.

"It sucks." "Stupid." "We shouldn't have divorce."

"Why shouldn't there be divorce?" Passey asked.

"Because I love them too much to be divorced," the child responded.

Some children explained that their parents fought a lot, while others said they noticed other things. One young girl explained that her mom would "leave my dad out of family fun."

"We would always go skating and she would leave him out," she said, her timid little voice breaking as she began to cry.

Another girl explained she is glad her parents got divorced, having witnessed her dad hurting her mom.

"My house is a lot more peaceful," she said. "Now, my mom and sister and I have a lot more fun."

Though their situations may differ, Passey's goal for the children is the same as she has them individually recite No. 2 on their paper: "Divorce is NOT my fault."

Some read it quietly, timidly while others stated it strongly and confidently.

As they continued down the list Passey emphasized the fact that they don't have to choose sides, their parents will always love them and that it's OK to put mom and dad in "timeout" and tell them they don't want to talk about divorce stuff anymore.

She even gave them a model they can follow: "When you _____, I feel/felt_______ because _____," Passey told them. "I would like _______."

Within seconds, the children were filling in the blanks for the hypothetical situation.

"Remember, your parent may not like that you said this," she said, "but the important thing is that you said it."

Effects of divorce

"I think there is greater recognition of the possible harm the divorce will do, but there is still a prevailing, and I would say mistaken, view that divorce is a temporary upset," said Elizabeth Marquardt, author of "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce."

"Instead I would argue it impacts the life cycle from then on, as the child grows up, leaves home, and finds a partner, and as the divorced parents age and their child is confronted with unique care-giving and grieving challenges."

While educational classes for children are great, they're only the beginning, said Marquardt, who is also the editor of FamilyScholars.org and vice president for family studies and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

After the recent class, one child told Passey he hadn't wanted to come. His parents had split nearly eight years ago. But he said he was glad he had because he learned something new.

During his nearly 20 years in the judicial system, Evans has seen hundreds of children who, despite a variety of backgrounds, express the same concerns and confusion about the divorce process and their role in it. Yet even with their questions, children observe and understand far more about a contentious family situation than many parents realize.

Dr. Pat Fagan, senior fellow with and director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute based in Washington D.C., is a avid proponent of working vigorously to keep a marriage together, to entirely avoid the need for divorce education for children.

"That's an option that many therapists don't consider, but is very possible," he said. "It takes a therapist who is committed and (is willing) to explore in a way that rebuilds and re-knits, building bridges between the parents, rather than assuming they're splitting and setting up firm roads for the future."

If such counseling cannot save the marriage, both Passey and Fagan stress that the parents need to keep the conflict away from the children, and to not continue fighting through them. Conflict only makes the already tough divorce worse, he said, pointing to studies that compare children in single-parent-families to in-tact families, and data that show boys from single-parent homes are three times more likely to commit crimes, and girls with a step, not a biological father in the home, are six to seven times more likely to be sexually abused.

A few weeks after each class, parents have a chance to respond to a survey evaluating the class and its effects. Over the years, parents have responded overwhelmingly positively, Evans said.

"I think it helped to see other kids like him going through the same experience," wrote one parent. "He doesn't feel so alone."

"They both really liked being able to see what a courtroom really looks like. They're not as scared about the divorce," wrote another.

Whether support for children comes from classes, family members or friends, or all of the above, it's important that it remain constant, Marquardt said.

"Keep asking (the children) about both their worlds, their mother's and their father's," she encouraged friends and family members. "Don't just stop talking about one of their parents. Make a commitment inside yourself to the child for the long haul. They're going to need sensitive caring people in their lives for years to come, not just right after the divorce."

Though Evans', Passey's and Glaittli's direct roles are short, they hope their program starts a ripple effect for good in the lives of these children.

"This class is certainly not the only education we'd want them to have," Passey said. "But we're planting the seed. Letting kids know that they're empowered is a really powerful thing."

Divorce facts for kids

This is a list of facts that instructor Diane Passey shares with kids of divorced or divorcing parents when they come to the Divorce Education for Children class sponsored by the Utah State Courts.

1. There are a lot of kids whose parents are going through divorce

2. Divorce is NOT my fault

3. I do not have to decide who is right and who is wrong

4. It is OK for me to tell my parents that I don't want to talk about divorce stuff

5. My mom will always be my mom and my dad will always be my dad

6. It is OK to love my mom AND my dad, and they will always love me

7. There are many people who care about me

8. It is OK to share my feelings with my parents, or another trusted adult

For more information about the class visit: www.utcourts.gov/specproj/dived-child.html

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com