IAALS Resources Reflect Importance of Centering Children in Divorce Proceedings

January 18, 2024

"paper cutout of family on wood"January is Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month, highlighting the impact that divorce can have on children and emphasizing the need for a more child-centric approach to the separation process. This month serves as a reminder for lawyers, judges, other legal professionals, and parents alike to prioritize the well-being and emotional health of children during divorce proceedings. Divorce is a challenging experience for all involved, but its effects can be particularly profound on children, influencing their emotional and psychological development.

By encouraging parents to prioritize effective communication, collaboration, and cooperation, courts can do their best to ensure that the needs and feelings of their children are addressed throughout the process. Courts must also do their part by changing divorce procedures and proceedings to advance the same objectives, as must the lawyers representing parents. Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month serves as an opportunity for both parents and courts to educate themselves about child-centered divorce strategies and resources that can contribute to a more amicable separation.

In 2019, the Cady Initiative for Family Justice Reform—formerly the Family Justice Initiative—created 13 principles for family justice reform that push for  a paradigm shift in family courts, centered on a move toward a problem-solving mindset and a non-adversarial approach. The principles were adopted by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) as a blueprint for states to enact change across the country, which has already begun. The Cady Initiative is a collaboration between IAALS, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), CCJ, the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), with funding from the State Justice Institute.

One critical component of family justice reform and the principles is ensuring families know about and have access to alternative pathways to resolve their disputes. The adversarial nature of many divorce and separation cases today can create a range of negative emotions in children, including anxiety, anger, and confusion. Since parents going through divorce or separation often need ongoing contact, learning how to problem solve together can ease the co-parenting process and prevent further physical and mental health issues for their children. Research shows that mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can be helpful in managing emotions and improving parental communication.

Various ADR resources are available to courts seeking to make divorce as uncontentious as possible. IAALS’ Guidance on Developing Problem-Solving Approaches for Families in Court is one such resource, and is designed to help judges, lawyers, court administrators, and others understand different ADR processes and their benefits to families. One of those processes, mediation, is by far the most utilized approach, particularly in child custody and visitation or parenting time cases. It offers a structured and cooperative environment for parents to negotiate and reach agreements with the assistance of a neutral third party. The guide highlights a variety of other ADR approaches including early neutral evaluations, conciliation, and settlement conferences. 

The 13 principles also highlight the importance of parental education programs and the collaborative law process, both of which are designed to encourage problem-solving and promote greater cooperation between the parties. Parental education programs equip parents with the necessary skills to navigate co-parenting successfully and mitigate the potential negative consequences of divorce on their children. The collaborative law process is a non-adversarial approach that focuses on cooperation. The parties—and attorneys if they are represented—agree to not litigate and instead use mediation and other negotiation tactics to settle their divorce. This approach promotes open communication and problem-solving to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, which often results in benefiting the children as well.

By acknowledging Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month and making use of the resources available and recommendations by IAALS and others, both parents and courts can actively contribute to a divorce process that prioritizes the well-being of children, creating a more supportive and child-focused environment with lasting positive outcomes.

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