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Easing divorce's sting

April 06, 1999

One of the most progressive measures in last month's revision of West Virginia's divorce laws may be its requirement that parents who plan to end their marriages take a class dealing with how divorce affects children. It's a program that every state in the region should be paying attention to.

The new requirement grew out of a pilot program that began in 1996 in Morgan, Jefferson and Berkeley counties. For more than two years, parents contemplating divorce there have been ordered to attend classes run by the Parent Education and Mediation Project. And "ordered" doesn't mean "suggested." Those who cut classes and try to head back to court can face temporary loss of visitation or custody rights.

So what do they learn?

They learn about the emotional penalty divorce inflicts on children, a penalty made worse by some parents' post-divorce behaviors, like asking children to pick up child-support checks or quizzing them about an ex-spouse's social life. They learn to get past the anger they may feel toward each other so they can work together on plans for visitation and on a system to make important decisions about their children's lives.

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Although each parent gets to express concerns to the mediator in these sessions, topics raised must relate to visitation and custody only.

Not every set of divorcing parents can benefit from the mediation program. Those who broke up because of substance abuse or domestic violence aren't eligible. And the family law masters rule some others out after meeting with them.

With all these counseling sessions, isn't this going to cost a lot more than the old system?

No, because court officials expect a drop in custody-related litigation and because the state's lawyers, who sponsors worried might oppose the plan, have embraced it instead.

One expert has described the new system as a "service center for families" as opposed to the old-style, adversarial court proceedings. To their credit, the family law masters and the legislature seem to have turned the system's focus away from a battle for control and toward negotiations for peace.

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