Out-of-Court Model for Separating and Divorcing Families
The current family justice system often works against the capacity of parents to reach fair, amicable, and cooperative solutions. The adversarial nature of the court process can have a profound negative impact on parties’ emotions and finances—many times, it has an even greater and longer-lasting impact on children. IAALS is developing new approaches that better meet the needs of families and children who do not need to be at odds, but rather require access to comprehensive, problem-solving services.
- To encourage a family-centered approach for couples with children who want to end their partnership or marriage through compassionate, holistic divorce resolution.
Modeled in part after the highly successful Australian Family Relationship Centres, IAALS' out-of-court model for divorcing and separating families encourages families, particularly those with children, to consider less-adversarial means of ending their partnerships. The entire process, including the granting of the final divorce decree, happens outside of the courtroom. This innovative process leverages interdisciplinary services and an environment that empowers parents to work together towards positive outcomes for their children.
A full evaluation of the two implementations of the model, on campus and within the community, was released in 2019.
IAALS formerly housed this work under its Honoring Families Initiative until 2018.
IAALS first implemented the out-of-court model in the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families (RCSDF), which opened on the University of Denver campus on September 3, 2013. RCSDF was a partnership between IAALS, the Sturm College of Law, the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, and the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. Law students and graduate students in both social work and psychology ran the Center and provided multi-disciplinary legal dispute resolution services in addition to therapeutic and educational services to separating and divorcing families.
During the two years that the Center was in service on the University’s campus, 82 families (164 parents and 160 children) received services from the Center. Parents sought out the Center because they believed that their children would be better taken care of and that their concerns would not be dismissed, and their feedback shows this was the case. 81.7% of parents rated the Center’s impact on their children as “good"; 85.2% of parents rated the Center’s impact on themselves as “good"; and 86.7% of parents rated the Center’s impact on their families as “good.”
Families at the Center spent approximately five months overall on their divorce, and parents spent on average less than three hours working on their legal case and less than two hours in front of a judge.
Parents who used the Center’s services showed statistically significant:
- Decreases in parental depression, anxiety and stress;
- Decreases in levels of acrimony between the parents;
- Increases in co-parenting decision-making skills;
- Improvements in parental communication skills (increased collaborative style and decreased violent style);
- Increases in the degree of confidence in their ability to co-parent;
- Decreases in their levels of parenting stress (parental distress, parent–child dysfunctional relationships and perceptions of children as difficult);
- Increases in appropriate parental emotional expectations of children; and
- Decreases in their perceptions of their child's social isolation (no other child behaviors changed significantly).
The RCSDF was proof of concept; after seeing favorable evaluation results, IAALS and partners moved the on-campus center into the community, staffing it with licensed professionals rather than graduate students, but still utilizing student help. The new center was renamed the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce (COCD).
In September 2015, IAALS opened the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce (COCD), which was established as a free-standing, not-for-profit entity in the community, staffed by licensed, expert mental health professionals and lawyers.
COCD provided a multitude of services, including:
- Family counseling;
- Interviews with children about their concerns;
- Co-parent planning and preparation;
- Financial education and budget planning;
- Legal education;
- Legal document drafting;
- Mediation; and
- Divorce support groups for parents and children.
The Center also supported families experiencing challenges after divorce, with counseling, mediation, and co-parenting services. This community-based Center closed at the end of 2017, with results very similar to that from the on-campus model. The challenge was financial—developing a business and marketing model that would allow the Center to be self-sustaining.
We held Convening in September 2017, which resulted in several excellent recommendations and guiding principles for current and future iterations, including articulating the value of a therapeutic, non-adversarial model to families, communities, and the courts; incorporating courts and courts’ support for model programs; exploring variations on delivery models; identifying core, guiding principles; recognizing key partners/stakeholders; and continuing to explore effective ways to change the culture around divorce and separation in our country.
IAALS continues to encourage and support innovative models that allow parties to develop their own solutions for their families, with children as the focus.
- University of Denver Sturm College of Law
- University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology
- University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work
- Colorado Judicial Court
- Association of Family and Conciliation Courts
The members of the Family Justice Advisory Committee have been invaluable partners to IAALS since the launch of our Honoring Families Initiative in 2012. Comprised of leaders in family justice reform, the committee was integral to the founding of our on-campus Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families and the community-based Center for Out-of-Court Divorce, and advised us on many other family justice reform efforts.