Divorce can be a messy, painful process, especially for parents. When childless couples split, they may never speak to each other again. But no matter how acrimonious their break-ups, most parents still have to communicate at some point about their kids.
Navigating those relationships can be challenging for everyone. In Vermont, parents get help from the Coping with Separation and Divorce Seminars, aka COPE. Vermont's family court judges require the four-hour workshop for all parents of minor children who file for separation, divorce, civil-union dissolution, establishment of parentage, and changes in parental rights and responsibilities — formerly referred to as custody. COPE teaches parents strategies for communicating with kids and each other, and reassures them that they can guide their families through the transition.
Heather Twombley Ruggles of St. Johnsbury took the class in 2011. She remembers sobbing through much of it, but says it was helpful.
"I knew what I didn't want to happen," she says of the aftermath of her divorce, "but I couldn't exactly say what I wanted to happen." She knew she had to shield her daughter, Molly, then 12, from the impact of the break-up, but she didn't know how. COPE provided some strategies.
"I don't think any two parents think they're going to end up in our class," says Susan Fay, a mediator who's been an instructor for the program since its inception 20 years ago. She helped write the handbook. "When they start having children their intention is to be together ... But if both parents focus on the needs of the children, the children can come out of this really just fine." That's a welcome message for divorcing parents.
Approximately 200 participants a month attend COPE seminars, which take place at 12 locations around the state. The workshop costs $50, though courts offer a sliding-scale fee based on financial need. Although the class is required for individuals going through a divorce, it's open to anyone. Parents who are considering separation, or caregivers who want advice on co-parenting after a break-up, can also attend.
Each seminar is led by a male and female instructor, many of whom have backgrounds in social work. They help participants see separation and divorce from a child's perspective and explain the grieving process everyone experiences during a reorganization of the family unit.
On a recent September afternoon, 17 participants gathered in Barre's family court for their COPE class, led by Judy Cyprian and Rob Chickering. The participants ranged from young men and women to middle-aged moms and dads, representing a variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds — a true cross-section of Vermont. The only thing they seemed to have in common was their role as parents or caregivers; as a group, they were responsible for 33 children, ages 7 months to 31 years.
The class began with an anonymous written survey asking participants how they felt about being there, and inviting them to name one thing they wanted for their kids.
Fay, who has led this exercise many times, says answers to the first question typically range from tortured to optimistic. Responses to the second question, however, tend to be universally consistent.
"We've asked that of thousands of parents, and the answers are always that they want their children to have a happy life; to love and know both parents; to come out with the least possible harm — for them to feel safe and loved," she says.
After the survey, the Barre instructors attempted to help parents see separation and divorce from the point of view of a child. One of their tools: video interviews with kids.
In role-playing exercises, instructors played both child and adult in various conversations, illustrating where communication breakdowns happen and how to avoid them. The exercises offered parents various strategies for helping children express their emotions. Kids might feel they're to blame for their parents' split; getting them to talk about their feelings helps parents dispel that notion. Some kids need to be told repeatedly the divorce is not their fault.
The instructors also emphasized the damage to children when parents fight in front of them, or within earshot, and covered ways to communicate with an ex without harming the kids. They advised parents not to pressure kids to take sides or use them to deliver messages to the other parent.
The participants weren't just learning from the instructors; they also had opportunities to share with and support each other. They commiserated about the confusion that can arise when different households have different expectations, and they talked frankly about how to respond when the other parent is mired in sadness.
Not surprisingly, the conversations in these classes aren't always so positive. Some parents resent having to be there, as the four-hour session may necessitate missing work — and wages — and potentially paying for childcare. Defenses are up; emotions are raw. Ruggles says the angrier parents dominated the discussions in her class.
But without talking to others who understand the experience, she says, "there's no one to guide you or give you advice. You're just trying to feel your way in the dark."
Vermont started providing that guidance about 20 years ago. In 1990, a state law created a separate family court system to handle parental disputes. Soon after, University of Vermont professor Larry Shelton, a trained clinical child psychologist, developed a course for graduate students called Parenting Through Separation and Divorce, which is still offered today. It was based on his decade of experience working with courts on behalf of children in parental-rights cases.
At that time a UVM Extension agent, Judy Brook was a student in his first class. She researched an Atlanta workshop for parents that then became the basis for COPE. By 1992, with the backing of prominent judge Shireen Avis Fisher and the support of UVM Extension Services, Shelton and Brook were piloting the first COPE program in Orange County.
"It turned out to be very helpful to the parents and to the court," says Shelton. "We began to get requests to extend it to other counties." Although they were skeptical at first, within three years the presiding judges in every Vermont county had adopted the program.
It was a harder sell to attorneys. Shelton says they were initially wary of the kind of advice their clients might hear at the seminars.
"What we brought to them was a different model that was focused on parenting the kids," Shelton says. But they eventually came around, too.
Since then, a variety of programs similar to COPE have sprung up all over the country, though most are voluntary.
Meanwhile, Shelton points out the COPE curriculum has been rewritten and revised from the original Atlanta model to incorporate current research and the experiences of its instructors, who meet once a year to compare notes and evaluate the materials. "Everyone who has taught it is transformed by it," Shelton says. "We try to get together, share new experiences and new solutions, and tweak the curriculum."
That includes incorporating new technologies.
Marcia Bedig, COPE program manager, offers an example of an anecdote a parent once shared that has now become part of the workshop. The parent described taking a child to the beach and building a sandcastle, then texting a photo of the sandcastle to the other parent, so he or she could share in the experience. This kind of non-face-to-face communication is particularly useful, Bedig says, "if things are difficult, or if there's been domestic violence." It's an easy way for parents to honor the other parent's relationship with the child, without actually having to communicate much with each other.
COPE also connects participants with online resources, such as sharekids.com, a tool that enables parents to share scheduling information and photos with each other and with other relatives.
Of course, the internet can also make things harder. Bedig says the class now talks about Facebook, and sharing on email and social media — how it's sometimes better to write an email, then sleep on it before sending it, for example. "We do a lot of talking about how these tools can be helpful and not helpful," she says.
COPE can't fix everything, Shelton points out. He notes that many divorces involve people with significant problems, such as alcohol and drug abuse, anger issues, or mental health challenges — problems the workshop touches on, but can't possibly solve in four hours.
"Half of the families in Vermont walk through ... family court at a time when everybody's hurting, and it would be the perfect time as a society to put them in touch with every kind of therapeutic, counseling and educational service available," he says. "Family court gave us a way to find out how many problems there really were, but we still haven't done much to tackle those problems."
COPE is a good start, though. At the very heart of the program, Shelton notes, is a lesson in interpersonal skills — actively listening to children, keeping grown-up communications respectful and businesslike, and practicing empathy for all involved.
Those are skills Ruggles, who teaches 3- to 5-year-olds at a Head Start preschool, has made a concerted effort to adopt.
She says the class helped her deal with her own situation, but it's also helped her relate better to the families with whom she works. "For people that are going through this, this is a main focus for them, and other parts of their life take a backseat," she says. "I get it now. I didn't before."
Another thing she got: the importance of putting her child's needs first. "If you act in their best interest," she says, "they're going to be okay."