Putting the children first when a marriage fails Mediators offer courses for parents

February 21, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

TC Three mediators who call themselves "divorce information junkies" are teaching estranged couples to communicate, even if they can't stand each other, about what they still have in common -- their children.

Francene C. Sigai, Aza Howard Butler and Kathryn Rogers, who work for the Baltimore County Circuit Court's Custody and Mediation Division, confess to an addiction to learning about divorce, and sharing what they know.

With the help of a $12,000 state grant, they used books, studies and other resources to create a curriculum that gives divorcing couples strategies for working through their differences without hurting their children.

In June, they began offering help through a six-hour, two-session course, "The Divorce Education Program," that has been drawing estranged couples to the courthouse. They say it makes divorce-mediation sessions run more smoothly, and participants say it strikes a chord.

"I got a lot out of it, a whole lot out of it," said Wendy Linton, 31, of Middle River, who has attended one of the two sessions. She and her estranged husband have two children together.

"Through the class, we learned to become civil," she said, "not for each other -- strictly for the kids. It struck home so hard."

In a role-playing performance by the mediators, parents disagree over temporarily renegotiating a custody agreement because the father wants to take the child to a party and the mother is unwilling to compromise.

The child, forced to be the messenger, is visibly upset to be caught in the middle.

Mediators also present seminars on how to manage anger and how to make a child's transition from one parent's home to the other's less painful.

Mental health professionals, divorce lawyers, court masters and judges speak, and two videos produced by the Columbia-based Children of Separation or Divorce Center are shown in which children and adults discuss the impact divorce had on them.

Children often are hurt during a divorce, the mediators say -- losing touch with their neighborhood and members of their extended family, losing the companionship of a parent and familiar daily routines, losing a sense of innocence.

Ms. Rogers said a 10-year California-based study of 60 families has shown delinquency, promiscuity, drug abuse and poor school performance to be higher among children whose divorcing parents cannot get along or are unreasonable -- for example, one parent's not allowing a child to have a picture of the other parent in their home.

"The child's needs are not [put] first in a situation like that," said Ms. Rogers. "It's the child's needs that [should] be met, not the parents'.

The mediators also advise against parents' asking children to deliver messages or even child-support checks, making them keep secrets from one another or using them as bargaining chips.

Because the class helps couples in mediation sessions, the mediators would like to see this type of counseling become required. Last week, they testified in support of General Assembly legislation that would require such programs for divorcing couples.

They have also come up with a curriculum for a new series of classes designed for children whose parents are going through divorces. It will begin this spring.

For now, they are advocating good communication between the grown-ups. "Having a child observe parents having a positive interaction is probably one of the most positive things you can do for your children after separation and divorce," Ms. Rogers said.

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