Edgar Wiggins counsels families going through the painful experience of divorce and describes the process as "rapid-fire changes when you're emotionally off-balance."
He should know. His family endured the excruciating event about five years ago.
When he and his ex-wife saw the hazard for their children, they turned to the Children of Separation and Divorce Center, now called the National Family Resiliency Center Inc.
Spurning conventional, trial-based divorce battles, the Howard- and Montgomery County-based center promotes a philosophy that families can divorce in a peaceful way and parents need not become opponents.
"Separation and divorce was the most painful thing I have ever gone through," Wiggins said. "They just made it a much more manageable process for me."
Risa Garon, NFRC's executive director, believes 85 percent of families in transition can avoid courtrooms and divorce through the cooperative approach taught at the center.
Armed with a "children first" mantra, Garon combines disciplines in an effort to cover every aspect of children's needs as they face the failure of their parents' marriage. Attorneys and judges, the school system, pediatricians, mental health professionals, the faith community - all have a part in a child's development during the difficult time of divorce, said Garon.
"One-stop shopping for families," she called the center, which is tucked in a pocket of a large, nondescript office building near The Mall in Columbia. "And we all share the same philosophy of helping parents to meet the needs of their children and to remain nonadversarial."
Garon founded the group with fellow therapist Barbara Mandell as the Children of Separation and Divorce Center in 1983. It started as a branch of the Family Life Center, a private Howard County nonprofit group. The project then grew to become its own nonprofit organization in July 1991. The name recently changed to the National Family Resiliency Center to reflect a wider reach and effort.
Parents and children are not the center's only clients. Garon also works with the court system, training judges locally and nationally - and in Canada - to help them understand the developmental needs of children.
The hope is that when judges issue rulings for divorcing families, they can go back to the lessons from training and make informed decisions based on a child's needs.
Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney praised the center's strategy and commended it as an alternative to the courts. "There's no magic here at the courthouse," he said. "I don't have a magic solution. I can't find money to make the two households work."
Garon said judges are surprisingly receptive. "I think sometimes judges would think, `Who are you to teach us?' " she said. "It's really refreshing to hear their responses."
The center provides support through a team of about 30 administrative, educational and clinical staff members and about 40 peer counselors, who are not typical therapists. They are volunteers, ranging from age 6 to older than 70, many of whom started as clients and now share the expertise they have gained.
On the first Monday of every other month at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Steve Bascietto, 17, speaks to a room full of parents in transition. He went to the center four years ago for counseling - two years after his parents' divorce rather than at the start of their separation.
"I think it would have helped my own parents, in dealing with issues that I had," he said.
Bascietto was not thrilled about his initial involvement at the center. His mother wanted him to do it, so he obliged - reluctantly. He said he was skeptical about the other teens-agers he would meet in the high school group, but it ended up being helpful.
"The kids are different than what I thought," he said, adding that it was nice to know they were experiencing the same things.
Children are not the only ones who have initial aversions. Peer counselor Teresa Johnston, a client who is an adult child of divorced parents, said parents are not always willing.
"I've seen panels with some very angry parents. But I'm glad they're forced to be there," she said of the people required to attend. "They often use children as weapons. Maybe they can take away a small piece and actually act like adults."
Attendance at parent education seminars is mandatory for those who receive court orders. Garon said 21 Maryland court jurisdictions adopted the program to use as their official parents' seminar.
Other parents go because they are strongly persuaded by attorneys who believe their clients can avoid court, said Kathy Helt, the center's assistant director.
"Usually clients will follow their attorney's recommendations," she said. "A lot of times [child-raising education] opens their eyes and they can see and work it out through a mediation session."
Judges, too, prefer that parents use the National Family Resiliency Center for its peaceful resolution abilities.
"Quite frankly, the court system doesn't do that," Sweeney said. "What we offer you is an adversarial trial. An adversarial system puts people at opposite poles. ... People with kids are going to have to go on with their lives, long after their file is shut here at the court."
Sweeney, who sometimes speaks to panels of parents for the center, said he tells them not to waste their money on court battles: "I say, `Think long and hard about what you're doing. You're either going to send your kids - or your lawyers' kids - to college.' "