After Marriage Ends, Children First
Columbia Resilience Project Aims to Help Make Divorce Less Traumatic and Painful for Families
Risa Garon, executive director of Children of Separation and Divorce, makes a point during a staff meeting as clinical director Susan Bilchik listens. (Michael DiBari Jr. - for The Washington Post)
By Maureen O'Hagan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2001; Page HO12
When Edward Cushman left his wife in the late '80s, he was, he said, self-centered, unyielding and utterly without a clue.
"You're supposed to talk to the children and say all the right things," the 58-year-old engineer said recently. "But I didn't know what the right things were. There were no guidelines for me when I walked out the door. I just packed the bag and walked."
Cushman's approach -- one that's said to be far too common among divorcing couples -- not only hurt his wife but also ended his relationship with his two teenage daughters. At the time, he simply didn't have the insight to understand what his behavior would do to his kids. It took him three or four years to win back their trust, he said.
These days, what divorce does to kids is well known: According to nationally known expert Judith Wallerstein, children of divorce often feel the aftershock for decades, performing poorly in school, suffering from depression and failing to find healthy relationships of their own.
At the same time, splitting up has become an even more entrenched fact of American life. About 38,000 people were married last year in Maryland, and about 17,000 were divorced. In Howard County Circuit Court, there are more divorce cases filed than any other type of case.
The frequency of divorce and its effect on kids have spurred a local nonprofit called Children of Separation and Divorce (COSD) to launch a program known as the Family Resiliency Project. Its goal is to reach parents, like Cushman, before they walk out the door, and let them know about less traumatic ways to part with their spouses.
According to Risa Garon, executive director of the Columbia-based group, the Family Resiliency Project will involve lawyers, therapists, pediatricians, mediators, school guidance counselors and even couples, such as Susan and David Hindle of Ellicott City, who have become peer counselors.
As a child of divorced parents, David Hindle is well aware of the painful and long-lasting effect of a split-up. "It's a constant struggle," said Hindle, who has been attending regular counseling sessions at COSD with his wife since they were married in 1993.
"We both roll up our sleeves no matter how hard it gets," said Susan Hindle, adding that Garon hopes to use them as an example for other couples struggling to overcome problems.
The mantra everyone at the center will repeat: Put aside the anger. Forget about the house, the cars, the property. Instead, put kids' needs first.
"To begin with, most of us as parents have not had formal parent education," Garon said. "Then, when you're in a crisis and you have so many changes going on at one time, it's natural that parenting will be diminished. So in this most stressful time, you might see the worst parenting."
COSD began as a small department in the county's Family Life Center in 1983, then spun off as a nonprofit in 1992. According to several local divorce lawyers, COSD has been an innovator in bringing to Howard County the child-focused approach that is increasingly gaining currency around the nation.
Although the Family Resiliency Project is new, the program's philosophy of children first has always been at the heart of COSD's work.
For example, COSD pioneered parenting-education programs for divorcing couples in Maryland, which bring in professionals to teach child-rearing skills, coping techniques and also include question-and-answer sessions with kids who have experienced divorce of their parents. Howard County couples now routinely refer other couples to the program.
Elaine Cushman, who said her ex-husband had "sort of divorced the whole family," found the center in the telephone book and persuaded her husband and teenage daughter to go. Others come to COSD after being referred by the courts or, in some cases, by their own lawyers.
Edward Cushman said that in attending a parenting seminar, he really heard, for the first time, what his daughter, now grown, had to say.
"The parents couldn't talk; that was the rule," he said. "We sat there and took it. That was the first time I really heard Lora say things that were on her mind that I affected. If it weren't for that group, we'd probably still be wallowing out there trying to figure each other out."
The Family Resiliency Project will continue those seminars and will add some new ingredients and further hone its child-centered focus, Garon said.
Here's how it will work: Families will go through a multistep process -- from orientation, to parenting seminar, to individual or group therapy, if necessary -- that culminates in the development of a detailed plan addressing the children's needs.
Those plans, Garon said, will be far more specific than ones devised in the typical, courtroom-style divorce -- the kind that simply says the kids will stay with mom on the weekdays and dad on the weekends and be handed off every other holiday.
Instead, the plans will discuss issues such as the stages in the children's development, what their emotional needs may be over time, how much emphasis will be placed on extracurricular activities, what each parent envisions for the child's education.
"Sometimes if parents are very angry at each other, they want to show us suitcases full of legal documents," Garon explained. "We say we don't want to see them. We wonder if perhaps they have pictures of their children to show us. Then we start zooming in on the needs of their children. You know what happens? Pretty soon the anger dissipates. And parents begin to see they're not so far apart on parenting."
As part of the Family Resiliency Program, COSD has a list of mediators and lawyers to help parents turn the plan into a fair divorce agreement. After both parents have signed on, a brief court hearing is scheduled in front of a judge or special master who will make the divorce final.
The process may seem elaborate and time-consuming. Garon acknowledged the average couple may take six months or more to get through all the steps. But that's quicker than divorces that rely solely on the courts, said Howard County Court Administrator John Shatto. He said divorce cases linger in the system longer than almost any other kind.
The added benefit, advocates say, is the process keeps the power in the parents' hands.
"We want to come up with the best solution for a particular family," said Howard County Circuit Judge Diane Leasure, a supporter of COSD. "It's really hard for a total stranger to know what's going on and be able to make the call. And it's really a final decision. Sometimes parents don't really think about that."
Besides, said Migsie Richlin, a lawyer who has been practicing family law for more than 20 years, "going through a court case creates antagonism, hostility and mistrust. If you go through the Family Resiliency Program, hopefully you'll go in another direction."
According to Peter Salem, director of the National Association of Family Court and Community Professionals, the concept increasingly is being used across the nation. "Divorce is a legal and an emotional issue," he said. Deciding the details of divorce in a courtroom, he said, "tends to leave out a lot of really important things, things especially important to families."
There are, however, downsides to the collaborative approach. For example, in cases of domestic abuse, a wife might still be afraid, or unable, to negotiate with her husband, according to Richlin.
In addition, some people will want "their day in court or their pound of flesh," said Jolie Weinberg, another Columbia divorce lawyer and a supporter of COSD. "The only way it's going to work is if both parents make the commitment to making it work."
Joel Marc Abramson, a lawyer who has been handling divorces for nearly 30 years, argued, though, that the picture of a divorcing couple sitting down to calmly negotiate is a mirage.
"Ugly divorces are not created by lawyers. They're created by the clients," he said. "If people are on speaking terms and able to communicate and respect one another, it's more than likely they would still be married."
But if COSD isn't for everyone, Shatto said, there are still far more options than ever before for people going through a divorce.
For example, a weekly clinic at the courthouse offers help on a sliding scale, and retired judges can be brought in to hear cases long before a regular court date is available.
In addition, Leasure has arranged for judges to conduct special seminars on child-focused divorce procedures and is planning a session for lawyers in March.
The help is all there, Edward Cushman said.
"I want people to know there's life after divorce. It doesn't have to be man hates woman, woman hates man, kids suffer."
Children of Separation and Divorce is at 2000 Century Plaza, Suite 121, Columbia, Md. 21044; the phone number is 410-740-9553. In Montgomery County, it's at 966 Hungerford Dr., Suite 11-A, Rockville, Md. 20850; that number is 301-610-5666. For those not covered by insurance, fees are determined on a sliding scale starting at $40 for individual counseling and $20 for group sessions. Families with more than two children may be eligible for reduced rates.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company