Professional Perspectives on the Resource Center and its Preliminary Impact for Families

In this month's edition of The Colorado Lawyer, Natalie Knowlton and I provide an update to the Colorado legal community on the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families at the University of Denver. The Resource Center was developed by the IAALS Honoring Families Initiative (HFI), and I had the pleasure of serving as the Director of HFI during the development and implementation of this out-of-court alternative for families. I encourage readers to become familiar with our program and the impact we and our partner IAALS have had to-date—it is an incredible undertaking and has great potential for success.

I would like to share various professional perspectives from supervisors at the Resource Center, which illustrate our early successes and demonstrate the unique, interdisciplinary nature of the Resource Center's work.

From my vantage point as Executive Director, I am struck by how effective a strong and consistent focus on the children can be for facilitating a less adversarial and cooperative resolution. At the conclusion of our first permanent orders hearing—perhaps the first out-of-court hearing of its kind in the United States—the parties commented on the importance of placing the family and the children at the forefront of every conversation. By offering these parents an integrated set of legal, therapeutic, and financial services, under one roof and outside of the courtroom, they were able to focus on their children and their post-separation relationship as parents.

Beth Henson, the Resource Center's Supervising Attorney and a local family law mediator, sees a similar, positive impact by removing certain families from the adversarial process. In her two decades of family law practice, Beth experienced over and over that parties who participate in mediation early in the process have a much higher settlement rate than those that pursue mediation after having been in the court system for some time. Her experience also suggests that parties benefiting from early intervention are more open to seeking non-legal services. In her practice, parties had to look outside of her services to avail themselves of mental health or financial resources; however, the structure of the Resource Center is such that parents have concurrent access to a range of support services. This is vital, says Beth, because “a family is not one-dimensional and neither are their needs.”

One need common to many reorganizing families revolves around the inevitable emotions associated with divorce and separation. According to the Resource Center's Supervising Psychologist and private practitioner, Kirk Thoreson, one common experience for divorcing parents is a loss of control or influence over the other parent. “Without resources like those provided at the Center,” Kirk explains, “vulnerable families will remain at increased risk for being stuck in a cycle of stress.” There are toxic outcomes attached to ongoing conflict post-divorce, which should be viewed from a public health standpoint, as these are no less impactful than bullying, obesity, or prejudice. By placing a primary focus on the children throughout the process, while at the same time helping parents work through grief and loss, Kirk is optimistic that the Center will help inform a public health model of divorce that recognizes the situational vectors that make some families more vulnerable than others.

Our work at the Resource Center over the last six months has brought to light some of these different ways in which divorcing or separating families are vulnerable. For example, Denise Breinig-Glunz, the Resource Center's Supervising Social Worker and local practitioner, has encountered more than a few “mixed-agenda couples” at the Resource Center—those in which one parent is ready for divorce and the other is blindsided by the situation. For these parents and their children, clarifying agendas, dealing with grief and loss, and enhancing their understanding of the impact of the process can be essential precursors to an effective mediation session. Recently, Denise commented: “Some couples more than others need a strong therapeutic hand to achieve resolution. Creating a safe space for couples, to wrestle with their dilemma, engenders a sense of confidence and faith that they can handle the changes ahead.”

The academic, administrative, legal, and mental health professions are diverse and don't often operate in an interdisciplinary environment like the one we have created at the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families. We have built a holistic and interdisciplinary structure that truly maximizes the perspective and expertise of each discipline—to the benefit of families and children. While our professional perspectives are different, we are all finding preliminary agreement on what an incredible endeavor the Resource Center is shaping up to be, for all those involved.

For more information please contact me at 303-871-2499 or Melinda.Taylor@du.edu.