VOL. 113 | NO. 106 | Thursday, May 27, 1999
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
Looking before leaving
A bill in the state legislature would focus the attention
of divorcing parents on the needs of their children
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
The Daily News
In a divorce, children are generally the least to blame yet often suffer the harshest consequences from the break-up.
Although the number of children affected by divorce is not likely to decrease any time soon, a move within the Tennessee state legislature aims to swing the focus of divorcing couples from their needs to the needs of their children, who, in the wake of a break-up, sometimes become merely part of the debris.
"It used to be that people could only get divorces for reasons of fault," said Roger Abramson, policy and research analyst for the Tennessee Family Institute in Nashville.
"They moved on to no-fault, which means you can get divorced for irreconcilable differences and that kind of thing. That went on to create this sub-culture of people who are getting married and seem to think its sort of like glorified co-habitation. If its not going to work out, well, heck, well just get a divorce."
Abramson said when two adults end a marriage that didnt result in children, thats one thing. But, he thinks involving children in the break-up is a more delicate matter.
"When theres a child involved, a minor child, we are distinctly under the impression and of the belief that children have really been overlooked in this. Just 30 years ago, when they brought the no-fault thing in, people started saying, Well, gosh, people used to stay together for the child, but maybe its better for the child if they just get a divorce. They shouldnt live in an unhappy home."
In cases that involve abuse, Abramson believes this argument has merit. But, he said he thinks the trend has gone too far.
"People started to take unhappy to just mean, unhappy," he said.
"Children need stability. Children need to know that there are two parents. Now, its gotten to the point that, not only are (many childrens) parents not together, they have no earthly idea when they get to see any of them, or whats going to happen," he said.
The bill being debated at the state level would shift the focus for divorcing couples onto the way the split would affect their children, requiring pre-divorce counseling and parent planning sessions for all cases in which children are involved.
The law is based upon a pilot program that has been underway in seven counties across the state, including Shelby County, for nearly two years.
The program has two basic components: education and parenting.
"The first part is the education program. Parents sit down its sort of a class and it explains what the divorce means for the husband and wife, what statistically happens to people after they divorce.
"Generally, women get hit very hard economically and children go through certain psychological problems. The class tells them what statistics have shown for the past 30 years," Abramson said.
If the couple decides to proceed with the divorce, they move into the parenting phase of the program, which helps them create a plan for raising their child or children separately. If an agreement is difficult to reach, judges can refer the couple to a mediator.
"The husband and wife sit with a mediator and figure out every detail ahead of time of how theyre going to parent the child, knowing what theyve learned in the education program, as well as combined with their own knowledge of their child," he said.
The goal is to have a complete plan, including custody, visitation and parental support, mapped out before the couple even enters a courtroom, Abramson said.
He said studies conducted of the pilot program showed that haggling over custody, visitation and child support issues after divorces are final was greatly reduced when divorcees participated in the program.
"(The studies) found that in only one in 10 divorce cases that had gone through the program, the folks had to return to court to address problems regarding custody and other issues," Abramson said.
"Of those who did not, one in five had to (return to court)."
The Tennessee Bar Association played a large role in setting up the pilot program and funded a study that surveyed the effectiveness of the program.
He said its too early to see a lot of results, since many jurisdictions have had the program up and running only one year.
"But, one thing we did conclude from the study was, in the pilot program there was a provision that mandated that everything had to go to mediation if the issues couldnt be resolved through negotiation," said Allan F. Ramsaur, executive director of the TBA.
"That element didnt seem to be working and was the principle concern that we brought to the table this year. We felt that the judge ought to have the discretion to order or not order mediation, based on their experience of whether or not it was going to work."
The State House of Representatives passed a bill Monday that included this provision. The Senate has been haggling with the bill throughout the week, and the Senate Finance committee voted to approve the bill on Tuesday, which should push it to the Senate floor.
A major point of debate with the bill is how the statewide pre-divorce counseling program will be funded. The House bill included a provision that a $30 tax would be added to marriage licenses, but some believe the fee should rest on divorcing couples.
"Most everybody likes the idea of this, but many others think that it ought to be a fee added to divorce," Ramsaur said.
"The Senate (Finance Committee) decided to go ahead with the marriage tax, but with a lot of discussion back and forth about who ought to be paying for it."
Beth Chiles, administrative assistant to state Rep. Bob Patton (R-Johnson City), who sponsored the bill in the House, said the debate over funding is not as important as the end result the actual, statewide implementation of the program.
"One school of thought says we ought to put the fee on marriage licenses, and people should understand that what theyre getting is kind of an insurance program for their children.
"Others say to put the fee on divorcing people because theyre the ones actually using it. But, the important thing is just that the program is funded," Chiles said.
If the law passes in the state legislature on schedule, the program should take effect across the state on Jan. 1, she said. If the bill stipulates that a $30 fee be added to marriage licenses, that fee should be implemented beginning July 1.
Don Ash, a family law judge in Murfreesboro, Tenn.s, 16th Judicial District, conceived the idea behind the pilot program.
A graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Ash published a law review article on divorce and custody issues for the U of M.
He said the program is designed to ease some of the pain that divorce causes children.
"We want to try to refocus the parents, who are obviously angry or upset with each other in most cases, and make them focus on whats best for their children in the long run," Ash said.