Kids & Divorce: For Better or Worse
Hosted by journalist Dave Iverson, Kids & Divorce examines the emotional and legal aftermath of divorce, seeking to answer: what’s best for the kids? In their own voices, parents and children tell their stories of facing divorce’s fallout. This special explores the pros and cons of joint custody, looks at efforts to reform how custody is decided in the judicial system, and examines how divorce education programs are helping both parents and kids.
Kids & Divorce is a production of Twin Cities Public Television; Kikim Media co-produced two of the mini-documentaries included in the program.
Gail Rosenblum, Minineapolis Star Tribune
“For 2½ years, I cried.”It was kind of like a nightmare.” A closeup of a crayon drawing of a stick child on bony knees, hands clasped, blue dashes for tears, looking up pleadingly at two stick parents.
Divorcing parents, or those considering it, might not want to watch tonight’s powerful new PBS special, “Kids & Divorce: For Better or Worse.” But they should.
The show does everything you’d expect it to do: Points out that divorce is a fact of life in America (1 million children a year are impacted) and that, for most families, it’s hell.
But by moving beyond the obvious and tapping into a sea change in the way divorce is starting to be perceived and processed nationwide, the special acknowledges something very fresh: A court system relied upon for decades to help families cope and move forward has largely torn families apart, sometimes irrevocably.
In fact, one of the biggest shifts is so subtle that it may be lost on viewers: Of all the experts interviewed, none works as a traditional litigator.
“There’s increasingly a feeling within the legal community that there needs to be a different approach,” said San Francisco-based Dave Iverson, who produced, wrote and hosts the special. Iverson said he jumped at the offer to take part “because it was a good opportunity to do something of usefulness without shying away from a topic that can be so contentious.”
What is most heartening throughout the one-hour special is its universal empathy for parents, who are trying to do their best when they probably have never felt more vulnerable, angry or afraid.
In one scene at a family support group in San Francisco called Kids’ Turn, parents sit in a circle, reading aloud a letter their children have collectively written to them. They hate it when their parents fight, the kids write. Or when they make children choose between two parents they love. They want their parents to act like grown-ups and get on with their lives. Many parents choke out the words; some cry.
“What becomes clear,” said Iverson, who is divorced with an adult daughter, “is that it’s really hard to [act like an adult]. It requires you to be at your best when you’re not at your best. What was striking was that the parents were really working to do that. You could see that it was a struggle to rise above their own emotional turmoil.”
He offers a heartening reason for doing so: Studies show that fully 75 percent of kids do well postdivorce. While help must be in place for the 25 percent of kids who struggle long-term, Iverson encourages parents to find ways to get their family into the first group, through, for example, mental health services, divorce education and the support of family members and friends. It also means never putting your child in the middle of a parental dispute, never making them spy. And if a child misses his or her other parent, it means finding ways to accommodate that very understandable desire.
“How adults co-parent, how they deal with their ex-spouse, whether they get the help they need to be at their best, all have a great deal of an impact on whether the kids are going to be in that 75 percent or that 25 percent,” Iverson said.
A public health issue?
Still, nobody denies that many issues remain heated and complex. In high-conflict cases of domestic abuse, a push for collaboration would seem appalling. And the program only touches on the hugely emotional debates around fathers’ rights, (“I’m NOT a visitor!” one father shouts), as well as “move-aways,” which are becoming more common as former spouses remarry or take jobs in other cities.
But one of the more provocative questions raised is whether divorce should even be dealt with in the court system. Andrew Schepard, a professor at Hofstra Law School and Editor of Family Court Review, believes that parenting issues arising from divorce are, in most cases, a public health issue, best dealt with by mental health professionals.
Others go further, supporting an increasingly popular alternative called “collaborative law,” in which clients structure an interdisciplinary team of mental health professionals in the role of coach or child specialist, educators and financial planners who sit down with the couple and, sometimes, their lawyers, to hammer out the best scenario for everyone. The process is far less expensive for the divorcing parties and, because collaborative lawyers sign a formal agreement that they will not go to court, there’s an even bigger payoff: a shift to teamwork instead of mutual torment.
Anne C. Towey loves to see it. After five years as a litigator, the Edina lawyer spent considerable time and energy studying collaboration. She shifted to a collaborative law practice in January. She saw a preview of the special last week. Her review? “Great. It said, ‘Look, there’s got to be a better way to do this.’ Litigation is win-lose. With alternative models, parents can ensure that they will both win, as will their children.”
Schepard, too, who served as an expert panelist, liked what he saw.
“It was balanced, responsible and from the kids’ perspective. What people notice about child-custody disputes is the horrible ones that go into the [news]papers. What has happened over the last 20 years is a grass-roots revolution in the way the process handles them. This special is the first coherent statement that expresses that revolution.”