Court-ordered seminars focus on kids' needs during traumatic family times.
Even though it happened more than eight years ago, 15-year- old Mary remembers how hurt she was when she heard her parents were getting a divorce.
"We came home from my grandmother's _ my sister and I had been at my grandmother's visiting there _ and my sister had known about it before we went down there and then they told me when I got back," recalled Mary, who asked that her full name not be used.
"And I was really hurt about not knowing _ I mean, my sister knew and the whole family knew but I didn't know. . . . And then I was hurt because my dad wasn't here anymore _ I guess I kind of felt lost because my dad's a big part of my life. I didn't really realize it until he was gone."
Mary's situation is not unusual. According to Marion Superior Court officials, in 1990, nearly 7,000 divorces were filed in the county. Of those, 4,000 to 4,900 were divorces involving children.
On July 10, 1991, three judges in Marion Superior Court _ Judges Cynthia Ayres, Patrick McCarty and John Hanley _ mandated that divorcing parents enter the Children Cope With Divorce program to help dependent children like Mary. About 1,400 parents attended the program from July to December, according to Gayla Pitts, manager of Family Connection Center, a program of the Visiting Nurse Service, which operates the divorce program.
"(The judges) have found out that if they don't put pressure on the parents oftentimes to attend these type of things, it is not a priority with them," said Norma Stewart, an instructor in the program. "Because children are our future, we have to make it a priority for them. . . . It would not work if one parent came and one didn't. We want both parents to get the same information and try to use these skills."
The four-hour educational program focuses on the needs of the children affected by a divorce. An average seminar attendance is 40, but it has been as high as 70.
The seminars are led by professionals through Family Connection Center. There are three instructional teams, each containing a man and a woman, and substitutes. Children's Express attended a Saturday session to find out why the program is mandated.
"(We) look at the divorce through the eyes of their children," said Stewart.
Through role-playing and other techniques, the program addresses the many faces of divorce, such as the emotional, legal, economic and psychological effects it has on parents and children.
Children react differently to the news that their parents are divorcing, according to Ed Roark, another program instructor. "That depends on how old the children are and depends on the history of the family, whether there was a lot of fighting, whether there was verbal abuse," he said. "Sometimes the children are relieved. Other times they are sad. And even when they're relieved, there's still sadness because their world changes, and that's a real issue."
A child often rides an emotional roller coaster as he or she reacts to a divorce. While Mary was sad at the news, she also was angry with her sister for keeping the divorce secret, and she was mad at her mother for telling her such important family news without her father being there.
Roark explained that it was important to let the children know the family would carry on. "I think that is the biggest message we want to share is they will always be (their) parents," he said.
The seminars are conducted three times a week _ a weekday morning, a weekday evening and on Saturday mornings. "Saturday tends to be our larger class because of working parents," Stewart said. The fee is $20, but it is waived for parents who can't afford to pay.
Parents are required to attend the seminar within 30 days of filing for divorce in Marion Superior Court. The judge can find them in contempt of court if they do not attend.
Judge Ayres said that if a parent refuses to attend the class, the divorce will not be granted. But, she added, no case has gone that far.
At the end of the seminar, each parent receives a handbook and certificate, and the program administrator notifies the court that he or she has completed the course.
One couple attending the Saturday session told CE they found it helpful.
"This program helps you look at it from the child's point of view and think about things that you didn't normally think about when you first started the divorce," explained Jeannie McClung during a break.
The McClungs have a 9-year-old daughter, and they are determined to maintain a friendly family atmosphere. "Basically what I've heard so far regarding the child or the kid's attitude and our role with them, we've already expressed to her _ that we're still going to be both mom and dad and both going to love her and take care of her like we always have. It's not violent or a demanding type of divorce," Mark McClung said.