Orlando Sentinel

How to shelter kids from divorce fallout

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on April 21, 1999.

It's the system, stupid, after all.

Not feuding men and angry women, nor bad judges and evil lawyers. America's divorce system makes fools of all. The system says "fight," and like Pavlovian creatures missing a brain stem, we put up our dukes and head for the self-destruct door.

Such was the view from Circuit Judge James Hauser's bench in Orlando. Weary of watching families self-destruct, Hauser decided there had to be a better way. Thus, he banished revenge from his courtroom and won a $90,000 grant from the Florida Bar Foundation, which he used to begin a new family counseling program that suggests that sanity still has a pulse.

The goal of the program, called Focus on the Children, is simple: to stop parents from fighting so they can begin parenting. The current system, says Hauser, fails divorcing families by addressing only legal issues. People in the midst of divorce are in an emotional crisis, often with profound psychological issues; almost all are terrified of losing their children.

Hauser, who has been through a divorce of his own, decided that courts could help divorcing people most by helping them shift their focus from anger toward each other to love for their children.

"I think most moms and dads want to do what's best for their children, but they latch onto, 'I'll fight to the death for my child,' " he says. "What they don't realize is that in fighting to the death for their child, they may be emotionally killing their child in the process."

Hauser enlisted the help of several Orlando psychologists and social workers, whom he described as "extraordinary," to create a program based on a California psychologist's model. It works like this:

Families split into three groups. Group A is composed of Mom and seven other divorcing men and women; Group B is composed of Dad and seven others; Group C is composed of children of divorcing parents. Groups A and B meet weekly with psychologists and social workers for eight weeks.

For the first few sessions, adults in Groups A and B learn to negotiate with members of the opposite sex, though not with their spouses. Later the groups come together, and warring spouses begin negotiating with each other. Children meet only the first week to express to counselors how it affects them to witness fighting between the two people they love most.

Almost immediately, Hauser says, many parents make a startling discovery. Watching other couples fight, they realize what their children have been listening to and how bad it makes them feel. The children, meanwhile, all say the same thing: "It hurts."

Anyone who's been through a "marriage dissolution" quickly learns that divorce is the easy part. The hard part is living the rest of your life with the fallout. What many fail to realize until too late is that, if you have children, that man or that woman doesn't go away -- ever. He's still Dad, and she's still Mom, and kids have the annoying habit of loving both of them.

It's hard to sit down and negotiate civilly with someone who makes you wish for Dramamine. No one denies that. On the other hand, how well you divorce determines how well you -- and your children -- live forevermore.

Hauser's program has the potential not only to change the system but to save generations of children. For that he deserves garlands, gold coins and a date with Oprah. Meanwhile, states should make such programs mandatory for divorcing parents -- before rather than after the divorce. Who knows? People who learn to negotiate may figure out how to stay married.

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.