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Pa. divorce classes now a must

February 02, 1997

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Starting this month, parents planning to divorce in Franklin or Fulton counties must take a class designed to help them understand how their breakup could hurt their children.

Divorce decrees won't be granted unless the class is completed, said President Judge John R. Walker of the 39th Judicial District Court of Common Pleas.

"Who can say that we shouldn't try something like this to make it easier for children in divorce?'' Walker said.

All couples whose children are under 18 must take the class within 60 days of filing for divorce.

Parents can attend the same or separate sessions.

Walker chose Chambersburg attorney Carol Van Horn to oversee the classes. She estimates there are about 300 divorces a year in both counties involving parents.

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Van Horn, who is married with three children, has been active on the court's domestic relations committee. She said the classes will teach parents how not to talk to their children during divorce.

"The emphasis will be on education, not counseling," Van Horn said. "You can't force people to go to counseling, but they will be forced to take these classes. If they want to sit there and take nothing out of them it's up to them, but I don't see how they won't get something out of it. There is no down side to this.

"I specialize in domestic relations cases. I hear terrible stories about how children are treated in divorce, how they are manipulated. It's commonplace.''

The classes, which run four hours, will be held on rotating schedules in the Franklin or Fulton County Courthouses. They will be self-supporting from the $40 fees charged to parents, Van Horn said.

The course includes "Listen to the children," a video showing children talking about their experiences during their parents' divorce. "It's excellent. It's kids talking," Walker said.

The classes will be taught by local teachers supervised by Jennifer A. Mastrofski, an assistant professor in the Institute for Continuing Justice Education and Research at Penn State. The first class will be held on Feb. 18 in Chambersburg.

In addition to not getting a divorce decree, parents who don't take the class may be found in contempt of court and subject to fines or jail time, Van Horn said.

The judge learned of the program at a judicial conference two years ago. He said 26 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties have similar programs in place.

"Parents talk badly about each other in front of their children,'' Walker said. "Children love both parents, but they end up in the middle of the fight between them. Parents use their children as weapons, as spies against each other.

"Parents can go easily or they can fight and go, but they will go.''

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