For children, the scariest part of losing a parent through divorce or death may be the thought that it's their fault.
One Roman Catholic church is coming to the rescue of these frightened children by starting a support group for them.
When couples divorce or a spouse dies, adults usually can get emotional support from a close friend or professional counselor, said Sister Marlene Cunningham, a pastoral associate at the Church of the Crucifixion in Glen Burnie.
The children often aren't as lucky.
"Personally, I think children have just been neglected in this area ofdivorce or separations or death," Cunningham said.
The Maryland Center for Health Statistics reports that 16,807 couples in the state divorced in 1980. That, Cunningham said, is a lot of divorces, in addition to the many families in which parents separate or a spouse dies.
"People feel children can get over this. And sometimes they're not helped through that whole (grieving) process. The need is there, but people often don't recognize it," she said.
Family disruption "takes its toll on children, their school work and own social life andself-esteem. A lot of times, they feel they have caused this to happen," she added.
The group plans to begin meetings for children from five county Catholic parishes but would like to expand the program once it becomes established in the county, Cunningham said.
Groupsof five or six children will meet with "facilitator" adults one evening a week. The church plans to train facilitators in September and begin discussion groups in October.
"Maybe the children haven't hadan opportunity to talk about what's happening. This they could know was a safe place to talk," Cunningham said.
The group is part of an interdenominational program called Rainbows for All God's Children,which started in Chicago about nine years ago and expanded to 43 states and nine countries.
Suzy Yehl Marta, divorced with three youngsons, began the program after unsuccessfully looking for support groups for her children.
Sister Kate Birch, Maryland regional director for the Rainbows program, explained that the support groups simplicity.
"It is peer support. It is not counseling. It is not therapy," Birch said. "It gathers children into small groups with a trained adult and gives them a chance to talk about their feelings."
There often isn't anywhere to go to talk about how bad we feel, how guilty or worried, she said. This sense of isolation can be exacerbated for children of divorced or deceased parents because they usually won't talk about their feelings with the remaining parent, who is already upset.
"Children are great protectors. So they stash the feelings away somewhere," Birch said.
However, Rainbows isn't restricted to young children. "Spectrum" has support meetings for high school students, "Kaleidoscope" targets young adults from disrupted families, and "Prism" offers support for single parents and stepparents.
While the program is non-denominational, about 35 parochial schools in the Maryland area have started Rainbow groups, Birch said. Eight evening groups also meet.
One Catholic school in Anne Arundel County has sponsored the support groups for five years. Terry Amann, who coordinated a Rainbow program at the Arthur Slade Regional Catholic School on Dorsey Road, said the response from parents and children was overwhelmingly positive.
About 30 children attended, many for the five years the group has been offered at the school.
Amann said some parents were initially reluctant to encourage children to try the group, perhaps fearing their family life would be exposed.
But, Amann said, the program emphasizes confidentiality.
"We tell the children they can talk about what they said at group time (at home), but not what other children said," she explained.
Cunningham has tried to start a support group at her Glen Burnie church for some time, but interest in the 500-family church caught on only recently, she said.
Birch is hopeful more churches and public schools will also consider starting the support groups. "Wherever there are hurting children," shesaid, "we want to take the program."